SACRAMENTO — A reputed leader in the notorious Aryan Brotherhood gang, who helped organize the largest-ever statewide prison hunger strike, claims in a new op-ed he is being retaliated against for his work to end racial violence in prison.
In the late 1990s, Richmond native Ronald Dean Yandell, 56, was named as an uncharged co-conspirator in a nationwide plot to start a gang war between the white-only Aryan Brotherhood and an African-American gang called the DC Blacks. But now Yandell, serving a life sentence for murder and manslaughter, has become an unlikely advocate for racial unity.
“Prior to the hunger strikes in Pelican Bay in 2011, the Blacks did a hunger strike. It didn’t work. The Whites did one, and it didn’t work. But when we all came together, all the races, by the power of that unity, we were able to change laws,” Yandell wrote in an April 27 op-ed published by the SF Bay View newspaper. “The people on the street can do the same out there.”
In 2011, Yandell and a handful of other inmates confined to the segregated housing unit (or SHU) at Crescent City’s Pelican Bay State Prison started a hunger strike to oppose solitary confinement, which limited inmates to about an hour of free time per day. By 2013, nearly 30,000 prison and jail inmates across California were also refusing meals in protest, and in 2015 the state prison system agreed to end indeterminate SHU terms and drastically cut back on the number of inmates in solitary.
Yandell is also known to authorities as one of the most feared inmates in the prison system. He was convicted of murder and manslaughter in a 2001 double homicide in El Sobrante and allegedly ordered two other Aryan Brotherhood members to murder witnesses against in, but the plot failed. He admitted that in recent months he has gotten in trouble for “kites” — illegal notes passed between inmates — as well as for possessing cell phones.
In his opinion piece, Yandell claims that in January, prison officials “rushed” him in his prison cell and assaulted him with batons and caustic chemicals after he refused to be transferred to back Pelican Bay State Prison, where Yandell has spent decades of his life.
“I truly felt I would be killed on the way up to Pelican Bay – ‘We stopped for gas, and somehow Yandell got out of the SUV, and we had to shoot him in the back,’” Yandell wrote. “So I told everyone that this smelled like a set-up, and I was going to defend myself. Of course, the puppets told me I was going willingly or by force.”
He wrote he was forcibly removed, taken into a van, but that during the trip prison officials turned around and brought him back to his cell in California State Prison, Sacramento, a prison commonly known as “New Folsom.”
“I won’t take any settlement out of court to keep my assault and kidnapping quiet. I am taking this to trial – not for personal gain, but to take a stand and have laws changed to stop this from happening to anyone else,” Yandell wrote.
Yandell possessed cell phones, he wrote, in order to film and produce a documentary about life on the inside, which he said will come out by this summer.
Yandell’s history in the criminal justice system goes back more than 30 years. In 1988, prosecutors came close to filing a murder charge against him in the killing of a Richmond man who’d stolen meth from the Hells Angels.
“The only reason we never prosecuted Yandell on that case was because the witness refused to ID him out of fear,” Solano County prosecutor Bruce Flynn said in an interview last year.
In 1997, Yandell was allegedly sponsored for membership in the Aryan Brotherhood by the gang’s notorious leader, the late Barry Byron Mills, who spent most of his life in Colorado’s Super Max prison, considered the most secure penitentiary in the continental United States. Yandell served an 18-month sentence for attempted murders there in the late 1990s, then returned to Contra Costa at Mills’ direction, kicking off a bloody chain of events.
After he returned to California, Yandell almost immediately caught a life case. In May 2001 he was charged with shooting to death William Bedwell, 38, and Dino Gutierrez, 38, inside an El Sobrante home. Others in the house reportedly beat Yandell with an axe handle, subduing him until police arrived.
While Yandell was being taken by helicopter to a hospital, he reportedly came to and struggled to jump from the helicopter and escape, according to authorities familiar with his case. He was brought to trial and convicted of murder and manslaughter. He was sentenced to 50 years to life, but wrote “I am innocent” in a failed 2007 legal petition for a new trial.
Nowadays, Yandell says he is focused on improving relations between race groups that have fought for decades in prison. That includes organizing a peace treaty between white and African-American groups, and even an interracial baseball game that turned out to be a success, he wrote.
“Until they set me up with bogus charges this past January, I was teaching the impact classes, which brought many of us closer, talking about things we never thought we would repeat to another person,” Yandell wrote. “Many of our stories are the same; different skin color is all.”