VANGUARD INCARCERATED PRESS: A Note on Leadership

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by Christopher DeHuff

At my first Parole Board hearing in August 2017, the subject of my involvement in gang activity was one of the central issues. The discussion centered on the nature of my involvement in the gang: Was I a shot caller or simply a soldier? What roles did I play as a member of the gang?

I acknowledged having been a gang member and having participated in illicit activity on behalf of the gang—things like making and holding weapons and committing assaults—and I identified my role in the gang primarily as a soldier, except on occasions when I was placed in charge of a section or a building as a white representative for a short time. I also explained my perspective on prison politics, which I despise, noting said politics are not only counter-productive, but their focus on drugs, profits, and power makes them self-destructive as well. The commissioners accepted I had, in fact, primarily played the role of soldier rather than shot caller, but Commissioner Pounds suggested I consider the ways in which leadership can be exercised informally and the role I may have played in influencing others despite the lack of a formal leadership position. So the purpose of this essay is to examine leadership from that perspective and, more specifically, to examine the role I played as an informal leader.

Gang membership was a big part of my life for a lot of years, most especially when I was younger, and that membership was the last issue I addressed in my pursuit of rehabilitation. There were two reasons for this: 1) Like many skinheads I convinced myself being a skinhead was not the same as being a gang member; I was convinced that “skinhead” was a lifestyle motivated primarily by politics and socio-cultural concerns rather than criminality, and so not a gang in the traditional sense. Of course, this is a delusion. While it is true skinheads are motivated by such concerns, it is also true skinheads form gangs and I was in fact a gang member; and 2) My gang membership was the last issue to be addressed because being a gang member brought a certain level of respect and consideration, which aided my survival in an environment dominated by gangs. In effect, I was not ready to address the issue of gang membership until I was ready to move beyond prison politics. The two are intimately entwined, and within that paradigm membership in a gang brought too many benefits.

Despite how I felt about prison politics, I nevertheless actively participated in them to the extent I felt obligated while housed on the mainline. As I explained to the commissioners at my first Board hearing, I was principally a soldier willing to do the things I was called upon to do when I was called upon to do them, so long as the task and the doing did not conflict with my own values. As my moral sense matured over the years, the things I was willing to do consequently decreased, and I found myself progressively more in conflict with the politics that dominate the system. In fact, the main reason I was stabbed in 2009 was because of my association with the USAS, a skinhead gang that is essentially at war with the prison gangs and the politics they created. The chief reason I was unwilling to be a shot caller while involved in the politics is because, as a man, I am unwilling to ask others to do things I am not willing to do myself. As my animosity toward prison politics increased, the things I was not willing to do, likewise increased. Because of my feelings about the politics themselves, I would not have made a very good leader; for an effective leader must believe wholeheartedly in that which he espouses. Moreover, the obligations defined by that system would have weighed more heavily upon me. As a soldier I was free to speak my mind, within limits, and agree or disagree with tasks that came before me, so long as I did not openly reject the politics outright. As a shot caller I would not have been allowed to do that.

It’s not that I have an issue with leadership—I don’t. When it comes to things I am passionate about, I have no problem taking the lead and setting an example to be followed. And this, I think, is where Commissioner Pounds’ insight becomes relevant. Despite the fact I eschewed the role of shot caller, I nevertheless exercised a certain amount of influence over others simply in the opinions I expressed—and I never hesitated to express my opinion when I felt strongly about an issue. This is especially true in a hyper-political environment like prison.

Over the years I developed a reputation for being blunt and opinionated, and for tempering my opinions with rational thought. I can think back on numerous instances in which expressing my opinion in a public forum may have swayed the decision-making. I also maintained cordial relationships with a number of influential people, and I did not hesitate to pull them over to the side and express my opinions to them if I felt strongly enough about a particular issue. Of course, whether I influenced the choices and actions of others in these instances is really a subjective question; however, thinking back on the last 21 years, the one place I definitely exercised influence over others was in the personal realm. I was a skinhead for more than half my life, and that kind of history and experience does not go unnoticed by others. In other words, people observe and emulate the behavior of the people they respect. People also seek advice from the people they respect, and such advice can shape the way they perceive the world around them. I know this because I have followed the example and sought the advice of people I respect. Furthermore, I have consciously strived to set a good example for others, and I have never hesitated to give advice when it was sought, and sometimes when it was not. Prior to the admonition of Commissioner Pounds, I never really considered the impact my influence was potentially having on others, but I am cognizant of it today and strive to serve as a good and positive example.

Another area in which I probably exerted influence was in the power of the pen. I am a writer, and at one time I was what some call an ideologue. As an intellectual, I would seek to clarify issues I felt were important for people to understand. I would research an issue from multiple perspectives and write articles for publication in various periodicals. There is no way to know how much influence was exerted in this way, but it is definitely something I am cognizant of. I am still a writer, but today I focus my energies on setting an example for change, writing articles that attempt to influence my peers in a more positive direction. In late 2014, I co-founded a newsletter, The Pioneer, at Kern Valley State Prison. This publication was dedicated to rehabilitation and positive programming. I am proud of the role played in that endeavor, and I hope the example set influenced people in a positive direction.

Today, I strive to use the power of influence responsibly, encouraging the pursuit of positive and rehabilitative programs and goals, especially in education and self-help. I do this for myself, and for those receptive to the philosophy of self-examination and self-correction.

Republished from “Perspectives from the Cell Block: An Anthology of Prisoner Writings” – edited by Joan Parkin in collaboration with incarcerated people from Mule Creek State Prison.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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