The arrest today of a white supremacist gang member in connection with the murder of Colorado's prisons chief has highlighted the emerging threat of these prison gangs as they spill out onto the streets.
The arrest of James Franklin Lohr, 47, comes weeks after police in Colorado said they believe Evan Ebel, 28, was involved in the murder of Tom Clements. Ebel was killed in a shootout with cops in Texas two days after the murder.
Lohr and a second man, Thomas James Guolee, 31, were wanted for questioning because they were believed to be in contact with Ebel in the days before Clements was killed, authorities said. It's not clear if Lohr has been charged with a crime. Guolee is still at large. All three are members of the white supremacist gang known as the 211 Crew, authorities said.
Police in Texas have focused on another white prison gang, the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, as one possible culprit in the murders of two prosecutors in Kaufman County. The murders of Michael McLelland and Mark Hasse came after authorities issued a warning that the gang was planning "mass casualties" against law enforcement personnel who had help indict more than 30 gang members.
Both gangs represent a shift for white supremacist prison gangs who once operated solely behind bars to gangs that are now spilling out onto streets, running criminal enterprises outside of prison, ordering hits on individuals out in the "free world," and recruiting members who are not inmates, according to experts.
"Many of these gangs have evolved to have a substantial street presence," said Mark Pitcavage, director of investigative research for the Anti-Defamation League. "Most Americans don't realized they could be their neighbors."
Almost all prison gangs, Pitcavage said, have grown in numbers, profits, and influence by producing and trafficking meth across their regions.
The Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, which is not a part of the more widely-known Aryan Brotherhood based in California, controls meth in much of Texas, according to Pitcavage and Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups.
"Their big thing, the ABT, is that they have been running a multimillion dollar drug racket, mainly methamphetamines and heroin, and to a lesser extent cocaine and marijuana. But there's also a lot of extortion on other inmates, armed robbery, murders, attempted robberies, and so on," said Potok.
Both the ABT and the 211 Crew operate inside state prisons and on the streets, with incarcerated leaders often calling the shots from behind bars.
"What's astounding is these people are able to run criminal empires from their prison cells, even in many cases when they're being held in segregation, in solitary confinement. It's remarkable," Potok said.
"The vast majority of these leaders are in prison, serving life sentences, yet able to run criminal empires, up to and including ordering hits on people on the outside from their cells," he said.
The structure of the gang is often copied from military or law enforcement, with ranking generals at the top all the way down to soldiers and prospects at the bottom.
"Every gang has its own system," Pitcavage said. "The ABT has a paramilitary system, with generals, then majors, captains, lieutenants, and sergeants. Captains are the key lower rank, in charge of a particular prison unit or particular city or county, the local boss."