When the Crip gang member nicknamed Salahudin celebrated his birthday in state prison, his homeboys marked the occasion with a ritual straight out of a suburban office park.
They passed around and signed a birthday card.
But this was no Hallmark. On the front of the homemade greeting was a cartoon of a gangster holding a MAC-10 automatic pistol. The card was bordered in blue, the Crips' signature color. And because Crips avoid the letter "B" at all costs -- due to its association with their rival gang, the Bloods -- the card happily announced "Happy C-Day."
The card may have warmed the convict's heart. But it also proved to be a rich vein of intelligence for investigators at the state prison in Lancaster. Many well-wishers signed with their nicknames and gang affiliations, offering a detailed registry of the active Crips on Salahudin's cellblock.
"That's where you get a lot of your information, from these birthday cards," said Officer Steve Preciado, a Lancaster gang investigator. "A lot of times their family members won't send them nothing. But the gangsters will put their nicknames on these cards, and where they're from, like 'Shorty from Pacoima.' So your job is to find out who Shorty is."
On birthdays, the California Department of Corrections doesn't spoil its 161,000 inmates with cake and ice cream. Yet, like anybody else, most incarcerated felons have an irrepressible urge to mark the occasion.
"Well cellie what can I say," says an entry inside a card to a member of a central L.A. street gang. "Happy Birthday homie. I got nothing but love for you.... Homies will celebrate later, I promise you. All right then fool. Your cellie, Drifter."
With their mix of heartfelt camaraderie and chilling criminal allusions, homemade gangster greeting cards are among the stranger staples of California's prison folkways. Lt. Bruce Jones of the Corrections Department said the cards could be found in nearly every lockup in the state -- even though the cards, like all gang-related items, are considered contraband in state prisons and are usually confiscated in cell searches.
Officer Randy Clemons, another gang investigator at the Lancaster prison, 75 miles north of downtown Los Angeles, figures that many of the prisoners know the cards ultimately might be useful to authorities, but simply can't help themselves.
In the gang-unit office at Lancaster, an exhibit of confiscated cards presents visitors with a weird parallel to a typical drugstore greeting-card aisle. Not that the display is meant for public consumption: The office is located deep within the high-security prison complex, whose electric fence dissuades its 4,200 inmates from escaping into the surrounding Mojave Desert.
The art on the cards offers a familiar mix of bathos and broad humor, party jokes and soft porn, borrowing liberally from the superhero mythology of Stan Lee, the pinup fantasies of Alberto Vargas and the kinds of wacky cartoon creatures employed in junk-food advertisements.
Not surprisingly, there is usually an outlaw twist. The sillier cards are full of cars and girls and stylized homeboys smoking pot or drinking "pruno," the noxious homemade prison wine. The serious ones are more likely to feature buxom pre-Columbian princesses, fantasy-themed collages or the laughing and crying clowns that symbolize the highs and lows of the gangster lifestyle.
Inside the cards, messages from well-wishers offer a rare glimpse into the closed society of the convict. To an outsider, it is a world that seems both exotic and mundane: While even the color of ink can be a coded gang symbol, the messages themselves are usually quite ordinary.
"You have been respersenting the LBC [Long Beach Crips] for a long time," wrote a friend of Salahudin's, an inmate named Fred Tidmore, who was found to be a member of the Black Guerrilla Family prison gang, and eventually transferred out of Lancaster. "In fact you was representing when knowbody was. And you are still pushing strong. So I give you my love and respect. And it is my pleasure to say happy 'C' day homie."
Investigators say the sometimes-cryptic information on the cards helps with a crucial peacekeeping task: determining which inmates have moved on from membership in street gangs, like the Crips and the Bloods, to more troublesome prison-based gangs, which are responsible for the bulk of the system's organized violence and drug trafficking.
In state prison, claiming membership in a street gang does not bring censure from prison officials. But if investigators can verify that inmates are members of a prison gang -- such as the Mexican Mafia or Aryan Brotherhood -- the inmates can be sent to highly restrictive special housing units at the maximum-security Corcoran or Pelican Bay state prisons.