Publisher: HarperCollinsPublishers, New York, NY
Location: 10 East 53rd St
reviewed by: Lynard Barnes 1/2/2009
Summary: The rise of Rene Enrriquez in La Eme, the Mexican Mafia, and the gang’s influence and control of the California prision system.
After answering the question of why societies lockup those deemed to have exhibited criminal behavior, the next question to answer is what rights these criminals have while imprisoned. In reading Chris Blatchord’s THE BLACK HAND, the two questions crystallize into a wall. Very little of what Blatchord says gets beyond that wall. The inexhaustible list of names, the “politics”, the stabbings, even a person, Rene “Boxer” Enriquez, whose exploits Blatchord is chronicling-none of it penetrates the wall of two questions.
Blatchord sticks to his subject with unyielding tenacity while at the same time tossing bricks onto the wall of two questions like a self-feeding wood chipper spewing out flakes of wood. Rene “Boxer” Enriquez, tired of the gang life, leaves the gang. Given the venue Blatchord has detailed in telling the story of Enriquez, the outcome of Enriquez’s life seems of trivial import. Is that part of the problem here? That a man who has murdered, maimed, peddled illicit drugs changes his perception of life is seen as an act of triviality highlights the intellectual and spiritual chasm we have between looking at people and crime. Perhaps the real wall to understanding the redeemed prisoner experience as chronicled in books such as THE BLACK HAND is not questions of crime definitions and bureaucratic prescripts, but of how we value a human life-any human life.
The title of the book comes from the “life size Black Hand tattooed” on the chest with a small unpainted “M” for Mafia in the middle of the tattooed hand-palm. This tattoo tags a member of the “Mexican Mafia”. Unlike the “Italian Mafia”, with a convoluted and murky history that may or may not stretch back to political corruption in 19th century Sicily, the “Mexican Mafia” is a product of the American penal system. Blatchord’s exploration into the origins of the Mexican Mafia, or La Eme (Spanish pronunciation of the letter “M”), is about as complete as it can get. He starts chapter 2 of the book with, “It all began in 1957 at the Deuel Vocational Institution (DVI) in Tracy, California . . .”
Prison gangs are institutions within institutions. Though California seems to have the most entrenched prison gangs, followed by Texas, the fact is that what the Federal Bureau of Prisons calls a security threat group (STG) are found in all prisons. If you take into consideration that nearly all prisons have rules against the existence of a gang “institution” within the prison, the fact that the gangs exist and operate according to a subset of gang-rules, pretty much makes prison gangs institutions unto themselves. Blatchord’s THE BLACK HAND offers plenty to bolster this assessment.
Rene Enriquez, who grew up in East Los Angeles, was eighteen years old when he was sentenced to a total of nine years and two months to the California State prison system. At the age of twenty-two he was voted into the Mexican Mafia by gang members in Folsom Prison. Essentially what “made” membership meant was that instead of merely maiming, killing, and stealing at the behest of and for the enrichment of a “higher” level member of the organization, Enriquez could now get others to do the same for him. He was at the top of a food chain in which he was still prey, but the food label was tattooed over with the mark of the Mexican Mafia. It is an Alice-in-wonderland version of corporate organization in which power and privilege is an illusion stemming from symbols of power and privilege. As Enriquez, believed to be one of the top five La Eme members at the time, eventually learned, the symbols were hollow.
In January 1993, Enriquez plea-bargained for a life-sentence in prison for ordering the killing of Cynthia Gavaldon, one of his street dealers and the girlfriend of another La Eme member. At the time he was charged with the Gavaldon murder, he was being held in jail for a string of robberies for which he was also charged. His conversion from gang-life came in 2002 while at Pelican Bay prison. Among the reasons cited was that he had tired of the politics of gang life. He also saw the violence and carnage as a waste. From the facts presented by Blatchord, it is apparent that the mercurial tick of time while locked away in prison caused Enriquez to change. It is ironic that Enriqueze quit his life of gang membership the same year that the body of a 15 year old girl, Brenda Sierra, was found in San Bernardino National Forest, some fifty miles from her home in East Los Angeles. The police believe that her killers, still at large, were members of a gang trying to intimidate Sierra’s mother and brother who witnessed a gang-related murder. Cynthia Gavaldon and Brenda Sierra could not be more different as people, yet each were apparently forced into a vehicle, driven a long distance from home to an isolated road and killed. The superficial similarities, the utter senselessness of it, are like cobwebs brushing against the face as you contemplate the redemption of Rene Enriquez.
Because of Enriquez’s change of heart, the criminal justice system has been able to send more people like the old Enriques to prison. He has testified against other gang members. He has provided details of gang operations. Enriquez has recommendations for destroying the power of La Eme in particular and prison gangs in general. It is a list spelling out what you think prison officials and the judicial system would be doing automatically-isolating criminals from the society upon which they prey and basically holding criminals accountable for criminal acts while confined to prison. Item 2 on his list for instance calls for shutting off “Mafia” communications. This is recognition that the power of prison gangs comes not so much from what they do in prison but the control and influence they have “on the streets”. The conduits for that control and influence stems from communicating with family, friends and even their lawyers. Another item on his list, number 3, is to totally isolate gang members confined to prison.
There are hints in THE BLACK HAND that “bleeding heart liberals” and the socially conscious but gullible are responsible for the abysmal inhumanity of the prison system. People are locked away and maintain all the rights of freedom except freedom of movement. The result is a closed society in which “security threat groups” become the arbiters of life. In short, the very behavior that resulted in confinement away from the larger society is allowed to exist within prison because everyone is endowed with certain individual rights. No mention is made of the opposite camp: those who believe prisons should be a nether world where the predatory are confined until they experience the epiphany of social enlightenment. Without that enlightenment, there can be no individual rights. Between the two extremes are fundamental issues of human rights. Fundamental human rights, not individual rights. Perhaps the two are distinct and separate. Or, more likely, the former the foundation of the latter.
Nowhere in the book does the author come out and discuss the revolving door the American prison system has institutionalized, but he does quote prisoners who at least give a nod to the door’s existence. It is only fitting. Any discussion of the penal system eventually comes down to the wall of two questions. Blatchord avoids the wall. It is only fitting. He attempts an objective look at a static California gang culture and accomplishes his goal. THE BLACK HAND is definitely worth reading. Beware however that it is extremely irritating if you are annoyed by unanswered questions and the cobwebs of yesterday’s news.