Before conducting my research on gangs, I hadn't given much thought as to
whether it was easy or difficult to get out of a gang. From what I've
learned, it depends upon the situation. There are gangs which are nearly
impossible to leave alive and others one may leave with less serious
Note: A juvenile officer who
works with juvenile gang members told me a story about a local gang
member who wanted to get out of his gang. "I got a call from a
client named Fernando," she said, "who told me he needed
help. He was frightened ... he didn't want to be in the gang
anymore." As far as the officer was concerned, "He was in
too far. I didn't think he could get out. He actually wanted me to
lock him up so that he'd stay out of trouble."
The officer told her client she couldn't do that, so he broke into a
car, stole some things, assaulted his parents and another youth then
fled. "He wanted to get locked up, and since I wouldn't do
that, he tried doing some things he could get locked up
for." Another of her gang clients
told her "I'm going to kill him," referring to the young
man who wanted to leave the gang. "He can't leave."
Chaiken studied gangs in three neighborhoods in inner-city Washington,
D.C. "Consistent with
findings in other cities, [her] study showed that gang membership in the
three neighborhoods examined lasted a relatively short time (between 1 and 2
Huizinga, and Thornberry, 1996). Regardless of Chaiken's findings, getting out may not always be an easy
thing to do.
Interviews with current and ex-gang members describe
different situations under which members left the gang. Some ex-members
were jumped-out, or beaten-up in order to receive the gang's permission to
exit. More often, various ex-members reported that they gradually stopped hanging
out with the gang and found new friends or pursued new interests.
However, for some members, leaving the gang may be
more difficult, due perhaps at least in part to the perceptions of police
or court officials and rival gangs. A member may attempt to leave the gang
but be unable to do so when threatened by rival gangs, who may not know or
care about the youth's attempt to end his gang involvement. That youth may
be forced to continue gang associations to protect himself from rival
gangs. If a youth is viewed by police or court officials as a gang member,
that label may make changes in behavior that indicate the youth has left
the gang. Such a label may also limit a youth's educational or employment
opportunities, encouraging him to remain in the gang when he is actually
looking for a way out. (Baba,
2001, p. 23)
I interviewed several gang members who felt they had to leave their
hometown to escape from the gangs they had joined. The transition has
not been easy for them due to the mobility of the other gang members
and their contacts in other cities. They fear a member of their gang will
find them. They also find it difficult to live with the fact that they can never go home again or, if they do, that they will always be
looking over their shoulders to make sure they don't get caught or hurt by a
former gang member or rival.
Field Note: A gang unit officer told me a story about a young boy whose father was killed by
several members of a gang. The young boy joined a rival gang in order to get back at the gang
that murdered his father. The officer said "He's lived the gang life
for several years and now he wants to get married and have a real life."
The young boy, now a young man,
spoke with the gang unit officer and told him the gang he joined has
doubts about his loyalty and have asked him to perform a hit on a rival
gang member to prove his loyalty. He expressed a fear that, "If I
don't do the killing, the gang will attack my family."
Several of the gang members I interviewed left their gangs
through a process of growing older, getting married, becoming a parent, and/or
finding legitimate employment. "Aging out" of a gang (Horowitz,
1971), getting a job (Sanchez-Jankowski,
1991, p. 61), and "fading away" (Skolnick,
1988), have been suggested by other researchers as reasons why gang members may leave
Factors motivating youth to leave the gang
included: growing up and "getting smarter," fear of injury for
oneself and for others, a prison experience, a girl friend or marriage, a
job, drug dealing, concern for youth and community welfare, interest in
politics, religious experience, assistance and interest of a helping adult
and others. (Spergel,
Some gang members leave their gangs due to the
witness or experience themselves.
A considerable volume
of past gang research has underscored the role of violence in enhancing
gang solidarity. Despite this, the majority of the ex-gang members
in [our] sample said that violence had played a role in their decision to
leave the gang. Seizing opportunities when gang members have
been victimized by violence or have witnessed a close friend's
victimization may offer promising avenues for intervention. (Decker
and Lauritsen, 1996)
It has also been reported that "'peripheral' or
'fringe' members found it easier to leave the gang than did 'core'
members. It was more difficult for core members to leave the gang
because of their increased involvement in gang activities and subsequent
dependence on the gang for social support and other benefits." (Horowitz,
I encountered several gang members who got out of their gang
through faith. Among the kinds of people who assisted them were local faith
leaders, police, probation and parole officers, and community activists. Robbie's story is a good example of this.
He was a Caucasian member of the Gangster Disciples and was 30 years of age
when I interviewed him. He first involvement in a gang took
place when he was fourteen.
("Robbie" is a fictitious name
and the names of the cities in the story have been changed to protect his
identity. He was, in fact, a Gangster Disciple gang member.)
Robbie originally moved to San Antonio from Denver to get away
from drugs and his gang, the Gangster Disciples. He told me he had "a difficult time
adjusting to life" in San Antonio. He had left home, friends, school,
and a physical environment he knew well. Now he felt lost. After a brief
period of time, he moved back to Denver.
Once there he tried to stay in high school but got involved with his old
gang associates, began drinking and using other drugs, dropped out of school, began
selling drugs again and, as he told me, "hit rock bottom." He was eventually
arrested and the police impounded his car. In his car were all of his clothes, cash, and all the drugs he was using and selling.
In other words, he was broke.
His parents had moved from Denver to San Antonio to be near
him. Desperate, he asked his parents if he could live with them. He had to ask several different times since, each
time he called and asked, they said "No." They had had
enough of his gang activity and involvement with the police.
Finally, his parents agreed to take him back because he promised he
would change. He came back and, in only two months, was
caught by undercover police when he sold them some crack cocaine. He also
had one and one-half pounds of marijuana in his
possession. He told me that his "life had reached a new low, and it didn't seem like I was ever going to get out of this cycle I was
For the next several years he was in and out of jail and
prison. During one of those stays he met
an inmate who was reading a bible. After observing the inmate for a
few days, he said, "I was simply drawn to him one day. I
don't know what it was, but I had to talk with him about what he was doing.
That inmate gave me a bible and told me to spend some
quiet time in my cell and to start reading it. I eventually gave myself to God and
my life has been different since that day.
"I prayed for things, for the help of others, for God's help. And I
was amazed how things began to turn around in my life. In
court, so many people came to speak on my behalf. Police
officers and my probation officer knew that I was working hard to change,
and they told that to the court.
"I was shocked when the judge reduced my
$100,000 bail to O.R. [release on his own recognizance - he was to watch
himself and return to court when called to do so]. Then, when I
returned to court and pled guilty, the judge, after reading about fifteen
letters of character reference about me written by people who were
standing behind me, gave me a prison sentence. Then he
suspended the sentence and, in its place, gave me probation. I was
"While I was on probation a county sheriff took me under his wing and helped
me understand my relationship with God and other people. Without his
support, I don't know if I would have made it to where I am today. I'm married
now and, after my daughter was born, it
was easier to get out of 'the life.' And I can't let down the people
who supported me in court. And I can't let my wife and daughter
Robbie has been under some pressure since that time due by death threats
made by his old gang members who think, because he has left the life, he
has been informing on them to the police. He sees some of them from time
to time, but hasn't been attacked. He now is a regular on
the talk circuit in San Antonio, sharing with middle- and high-school kids the
perils of getting involved with gangs and drugs.
Field Note: A
gang enforcement officer and national trainer told me that if "... a Hispanic gang member wishes to get out of his gang, some gangs will allow this to occur.
Others will not. Some of them require membership for life. When getting out is
allowed, it might be by being jumped out - they beat him up, cut out - they stab him and if he
survives he's out and if he dies he's out, or he might be boxed out.
"Being boxed out means he's placed in an
old refrigerator that's
been laid on
the ground. The door is shut and the other gang members gather around the
refrigerator and usually fire five rounds into it with a twenty-two caliber pistol.
If the gang member in the box survives, he's out and if he dies, he's
During a training session on Hispanic gangs I was shown a video of a gang member being interviewed and, when asked if
he would like to get out of his gang, he said "I don't want to get out of the
gang." "Why not," he was asked. His reply was
"It's all I got!"
Some gang members end up in prison. And there are prisoners
who join gangs in prisons having never been involved as a gang member prior
to incarceration. Our next topic is Gangs and Prisons.
Resources: Read about an ex-gang member's
life. An East Side Los Angeles gang member talks about
his life as a gang member. You can learn about Lawrence Wu - an
Asian gang member who has turned his life around and Sally Henderson -
a Chicago delinquent who is now
in television broadcasting,
Some of the best
research on girls in gangs was conducted by Moore and Hagedorn.
If you're interested, you can learn more about getting out of a gang.
At the website of GangStyle you'll be able to
listen to the
testimony of one prior gang member as he used faith to change his life.
You can also get answers to your questions about getting out of a gang
at that website. You can get out!
Michael K. Carlie
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be
reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without permission in
writing from the author and copyright holder - Michael K. Carlie.