STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Investigators have identified a suspect in the murder of the state prison's director. The suspect is member of a whites-only prison gang. Now, the probe is not over but it is raising new questions about extremist organizations inside the prison system.
Here's Colorado Public Radio's Megan Verlee.
MEGAN VERLEE, BYLINE: Colorado's Corrections Chief Tom Clements was shot answering his front door last month. The main suspect in the killing, Evan Ebel, died in a shootout with Texas authorities days later. Ebel had just emerged from eight years behind bars, where he'd reportedly joined the 211 Crew, a violent gang that's flourished in Colorado correctional facilities for more than a decade.
Viewers of prison documentaries might have encountered some of its members on the show "Lockdown."
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Sterling Correctional Facility, it's a fortress built to be escape-proof...
VERLEE: Two eleven members have been convicted of violent attacks and racketeering inside Colorado prisons. Mark Pitcavage researches extremist prison gangs for the Anti-Defamation League, and says such an audacious assassination would be a whole new level of crime for any American prison gang.
MARK PITCAVAGE: The incident that happened in Colorado is unprecedented.
VERLEE: Pitcavage and other experts say it's highly unlikely 211 Crew leaders ordered Ebel to kill Clements.
PITCAVAGE: It would not be typical of racist prison gangs. On the other hand, racist prison gangs are capable of doing that sort of thing, even if they're not necessarily inclined to do it.
DAVID LANE: They are not known for beyond-the-walls kinds of violence that some prison gangs are known for.
VERLEE: Denver defense attorney David Lane has represented 211 members and believes they're mainly a danger to other inmates.
LANE: Two eleven is interested in making their lives in prison as comfortable as they possibly can, through running rackets in the prison walls.
VERLEE: The 211 Crew was started in 1995 by a couple of white inmates who reportedly made up the gang, trying to convince other offenders to leave them alone. But their fantasy quickly became reality. While it's been called a white supremacist organization, those familiar with the 211 Crew say ideology is an afterthought.
Defense attorney Lane thinks assassinating a public official would run counter to the gang's mission.
LANE: Because the amount of wrath that will pour down on their heads within the walls is so extreme. And for a bunch of guys who simply want to run their rackets and be left alone, this is prodding the tiger.
VERLEE: That tiger - the Colorado corrections system - is facing a lot of scrutiny right now about how it manages the 211 Crew and other prison gangs. Corrections spokesperson Alison Morgan won't talk specifically about the 211 Crew, but says being a gang member isn't in itself a violation for inmates.
ALISON MORGAN: It is unrealistic, with 20,000 offenders, with 20 facilities, to try to look at a zero tolerance to affiliation. So what we have to look at and to enforce, a zero tolerance to safety and security.
VERLEE: Those who research gangs are scratching their heads at how such a relatively unknown group has jumped so suddenly to such prominence. Among them is George Knox, a gang researcher who surveys prison officials frequently.
GEORGE KNOX: We probably had them in a file somewhere, but they were a cornfield gang - located only in the cornfields of the Colorado prison system.
VERLEE: Until investigators reveal more about whether there's any real link between the 211 Crew and Clements' killing, that cornfield gang is likely to stay very much in the spotlight.
For NPR News, I'm Megan Verlee in Denver.
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