Into The Abyss:
A Personal Journey into the World of Street Gangs

by Mike Carlie, Ph.D.        
Michael K. Carlie
Continually updated.

~ Table of Contents ~
Home | Foreword | Preface | Orientation

What I Learned | Conclusions
End Note |
| Appendix
Site Map / Contents
| New Research

Up-To-Date Gang-Related News

Part 3:
What Reformed Gang Members Could Do

The other day I was looking at an old picture from back when I used to play Pop Warner football. And, like, of twenty-eight homies on the team, twelve are dead, seven are in the penitentiary, three are smoked out, and only me and Warren G. are successful. I love my homies, but damn, I don't want to stay down there with y'all.  (Snoop Doggy Dogg, page, gangsta rapper)

Midway through my field research I encountered a South Los Angeles gang member who wanted to get out of the gang life. His name was Jose and you read about him previously. About six months later I was in another community talking with juvenile officers whose community was experiencing an increase in gang activity. The juvenile detention center was filled with young gang members and the officers weren't sure how to proceed.

Field Note: The juvenile officer said "I think they should talk with someone who is experienced in gangs. Someone who was in the life and out of it now. Someone who really knows what it's like. That's what it takes to reach little ones."

At one of the juvenile officer's suggestions, I invited Jose to visit with the youth in the detention center and brought him to town for that purpose. He spoke with the juvenile gang bangers for about an hour. The impact of his words were palpable. They had never met a sophisticated and dangerous gangster and they were actually frightened.

I don't know what will become of those juvenile gang members in the long-term, but, a few months later, the juvenile officers told me some of them were offending less often or had gotten out of the gang life all together. Will this work every time? I don't know. Does it have the potential of being a valuable tool in the tool chest of solutions? I have no doubt about that.

Former gang members are an asset as part of a prevention and intervention strategy when they speak with gang- and non-gang youth (i.e., in a faith institution youth group, in school auditorium presentations, at camp, a the detention center and jail). In the Netherlands, Werdmolder (1997) found ex-drug users and ex-gang-members valuable as instructors.

Deploying ex drug users as "instructors" in working with substance abusers is a very effective treatment strategy. The same logic applies in working with gang members. (Werdmolder, 1997, p. 91)

In addition to speaking with other youth, former gang members can participate in special television broadcasts (your local public television station may be interested in doing this), or radio program. In order to maximize their contribution, you could videotape a former gang member's presentation and use it with probationers, school children, and youths under the supervision of juvenile services. Be sure to get a signed release from the former gang member allowing you to make, distribute, and show the video at your discretion.

Former gang members may be found by contacting local probation and parole officers. They know who their successful gang clients are and may be willing to attend presentations with them. The presentations are, in effect, part of the treatment program for the officers' clients. The following is an account of a former gang member's work with at-risk youth and active gang members in Springfield, Illinois, as published by the News Bureau, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. (1996)

Former Gang Member Works with 
Violence-Prevention Program in Springfield
(Reprinted here with permission)

Springfield, Ill. - Former Chicago gang member Efrain Marquez still is involved in the lifestyle he once left. However, instead of living life fast on the streets, he now actively helps young people in Springfield escape the dangers of gang activity.

Through his voluntary involvement in violence-prevention programs of the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service (CES), Marquez talks with gang members about how they can get involved in their community and get help from various agencies and organizations. 

With initial support of CES, he also established "Faith, Hope and Love," a youth-resource group that provides outreach and group activities to at-risk youths in gang-prone areas. Such projects are examples of Public Engagement, the university's program of service to the state.

Marquez, a 41-year-old truck driver for the city of Springfield, is an example of someone becoming involved in an important activity to help his community, said Dan Dawson, prevention educator for CES in Springfield.

Living in Chicago, where the FBI estimates there are as many as 125 different street gangs with up to 75,000 members, Marquez recalled, "Gang life was a lifestyle you just kind of grew up into. As I was growing up, I was seeing how easy it is to fall into it, but it really doesn't lead anywhere but to drugs, alcohol and a fast life of pursuing money."

Outside help lured Marquez into a safer lifestyle in Chicago, where he began working with gang members to clean up graffiti. "Through the Cooperative Extension people, we all began to see that there was a need to bring down graffiti around Springfield," Marquez said. "So I got involved with the CES Paint the Town program [chaired by Dawson]. That led to more direct contact with teen-agers, especially with gang members."

"Having direct contact with gangs is not for everybody," Marquez said. "I think that you have to know something of gangs, to be or have been a part of them, to be able to reach them. Through the Paint the Town program, we were able to get gang members to work anonymously to paint over the graffiti. It gave us a chance to show them a program that can work with them, and teach them how to not put up graffiti."

Graffiti is a very visible part of a gang, with specific meaning for each gang, Dawson said. "Most importantly, it defines the area a gang claims as its turf, but it also is used to show opposition -- even contempt -- for a rival gang," he said.

During three "Paint the Town" days since 1994, more than 700 volunteers have painted more than 200 gang graffiti sites with some $10,000 in donated painting products. A follow-up survey found that only 15 percent of 45 randomly selected sites had been repainted by a gang.

Outside of his CES connection, Marquez and his wife, Zan, run "Faith, Hope and Love" with a group of other volunteers to provide activities such as basketball, volleyball, fishing, camping trips and gardening for 8- to 12-year-old boys and girls. Forty children participate now. They meet twice a week at the St. Patrick's School in Springfield.

"What I do now feels good," Marquez said. "And because it feels good, I want to do good for gang members who are here in Springfield. That's why we have 'Faith, Hope and Love' for the people here. There is faith, there is hope, and there is plenty of love here."
(University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1996. Reprinted here with permission. Italics added for emphasis.)

Mike Knox (real name) was a police officer. He was a co-founder and member of the police gang unit. In that capacity he met many gang members, but one in particular caught his attention. In time, the two struck up a relationship and the gang member, now working his way away from gang activity, made presentations in local schools and other settings with Mike by his side. "Mike changed my life," the former gang member said, "He kept telling me if I didn't stop, I'd end up dead or in prison. I wish there were more guys out there like Mike." Sonic Drive-Ins sponsors their presentations. A caring officer, an interested gang member (now former gang member), and a corporate sponsor - a very profitable and worthwhile partnership. (page)

Seattle Street Connections, a group of reformed gang members in Seattle, now works with local youth in hopes of reducing the level of violence on the streets of that city. You can read about their efforts and conduct an on-line search of the Seattle newspaper for additional information.

Tookie and Raymond were allegedly the two Los Angeles youths who started the gang called the Crips. Not only has Tookie become a reformed gang member, he was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in turning youths away from gangs.

In 1987, Tookie began what became a 6 1/2-year stay in solitary confinement. After two years there, Tookie began to look at himself. He focused on the choices he had made in his life and then committed himself to make a drastic change. The long, difficult process he undertook to rebuild his character put him in touch with his true spirit, his own humanity. Only then could Tookie finally begin to care about the many children, mothers, fathers and other family members of this country hurt by the Crips legacy and by its explosive growth. (Tookie's Corner, page)

Tookie is not alone. is a site developed, maintained, and continually expanded by former and not-so-former gang members. It is a resource for discouraging youths from joining gangs. The message it transmits is from those who know the life and have a genuine desire to turn youths away from gangs.

Our attention turns now to neighborhood and community solutions.


Additional Resources: The California Youth Authority has a program entitled Gang Violence Reduction Project (GVRP) which uses reformed gang members to reduce local gang activity. In addition to conflict mediation, the program also provides services in the areas of community-based education and alternative activities for at-risk youth.

Look in the upper right-hand corner of the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) home page for a place to type in your local zip code. Then click "Go" and you will be given the information needed to contact your local PBS affiliate.

2002 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.