Even though they are relatively few in number, the California-based Sureno gang is the most powerful group operating in Oklahoma prisons today, a state Corrections Department intelligence officer told The Oklahoman.
Melissa Townsend, an intelligence officer with the Corrections Department, said the Hispanic gang has a firm grip on the flow of contraband into the state's prisons.
“It doesn't have anything to do with numbers,” Townsend said. “Power comes from control of contraband and whoever's in control at that moment. And right now, it's the Hispanics.”
Typical contraband items are drugs and cellphones, but can include anything not allowed on the inside by prison officials.
Townsend said another reason the Surenos have become as powerful as they have — at least in Oklahoma — is continuity and organization.
“They have a very strong connection to their members on the street,” she said, “which is another thing that makes them as powerful as they are.
“Some prison gangs are just prison gangs ... they don't have any connection, really, to the streets.”
And the Sureno prison gang has become powerful in Oklahoma, despite the fact that Hispanics make up only 7.5 percent of the prison system population, according to the department's latest annual report.
Whites (53.6 percent) make up the largest segment of the population, followed by blacks (29.3 percent) and American Indians (9 percent).
Townsend said the Surenos are associated with the Mexican Mafia — which is an extremely exclusive criminal enterprise with very few actual members — and that the gang is essentially an umbrella organization with smaller factions operating underneath it.
“Surenos are basically foot soldiers,” she said. “And they belong to all kinds of different sets ... and some Sureno sets don't get along.”
Rise to power
The Surenos' rise to power in Oklahoma has been evident in recent years as Hispanic gang members have been involved in some highly publicized jailhouse brawls over the past three years.
In November 2009, fights between the Surenos and American Indians broke out at three prisons after prosecutors announced that murder charges would be filed against David Allen Tyner, an American Indian who pleaded guilty in May to killing a Hispanic man and five others in southwest Oklahoma City.
The fights at prisons in Granite, Hominy and Cushing, which authorities believe were coordinated, sent six inmates to the hospital with stab wounds.
Shortly after those fights, two American Indian gang members reportedly attacked two Hispanic gang members at a private prison in Lawton. Both of the attack victims were hospitalized with hatchet wounds.
In September 2010, a large fight involving the Surenos and the Indian Brotherhood, an American Indian gang, broke out in Hominy, sending another two inmates to the hospital for treatment.
Authorities said the brawls started in different housing units at the same time, leading them to believe the fights were coordinated as well.
Last year, Sureno gang members were involved in a brawl with white inmates at prisons in Lawton, Hominy and Granite.
Prison officials said the Aug. 22, 2011, fights started first in Granite, just before noon.
A few hours later, similar brawls erupted in Lawton and Hominy, sending more than a dozen inmates to the hospital with stab wounds.
Right now, however, there is a kind of peace inside Oklahoma's prisons.
“We don't really have a war right now, fortunately,” Townsend said. “But there's probably something brewing that we don't know about.”
Jerry Massie, spokesman for the Corrections Department, acknowledged that the Sureno gang is among the most powerful in the state's prison system, but said bestowing a “most powerful” title is not as simple as it seems.
“Most powerful ... is going to change by facility to facility,” Massie said. “It's going to depend on the numbers at each facility. It's going to go back and forth. It's a fluid situation.”
Massie said prison gangs fighting for power often battle themselves in addition to their enemies.
“A lot depends on whether they are getting along within their own group ... that will change from time to time,” he said. “And it also depends on leadership ... whether they have a strong leadership in place can be a big factor.”