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

by Mike Carlie, Ph.D.        
© 2002
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

Topic 6:
Solutions in Confinement

Little treatment programming has been developed for gang members in juvenile detention and correctional facilities. (Howell, 2000, page) 

When I think about what could be done in the field of corrections to reduce gang activity and youth violence my mind goes back to an interview with Jose, a former Hispanic gang member from Santa Anna, California. He said "We need some anti-gang programs in the detention centers where these kids are first exposed to gang stuff. After that, it's too late. Any change is going to have to come from inside the person after that. But if you can get to them before they get into the life, that's better. You have a better chance of keeping them from getting in in the first place."

Jose's comments highlight the importance of offering anti-gang and anti-youth-violence programs in detention centers to juveniles at the earliest age possible. Available data indicate there are many children in detention who claim to be involved in a gang. (Howell, 2000

[The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention sponsored a] survey [which] covers gang problems and interventions in detention centers. Nearly 9 in 10 detention centers reported gang members among their residents. Almost half of the detention centers said that one-third or more of their inmates belonged to a gang. Slightly more than half of the detention centers reported gang-related assaults, almost half reported problems with gangs recruiting members, nearly one-third reported threats or intimidation of staff, and one-fourth reported threats or intimidation of nongang members. (Howell, 2000, page) 

I also remember sitting in an interview room inside a Federal Penitentiary interviewing a gang member inmate whose life was, for all intents and purposes, a complete loss. He dropped out of elementary school and never returned, started running with a gang, was arrested more times than he could remember, served several prison terms, and had absolutely no plans for the future. 

Those two encounters, and dozens of others like them, have kept me focused on the need to offer gang members in confinement an alternative to gangs. They are captive audiences and may, under the right circumstances, gain something of value from positive programmatic and one-on-one encounters. We need to pay attention to gang members in confinement due to the disturbing relationship between gangs in prison and gangs on the street. According to Howell (2000)

Confinement in a juvenile correctional facility is a strong predictor of adult prison gang membership. (Ralph et al., 1996) Prison gang members, in turn, contribute to the growth of youth gangs. In Chicago, prison gangs were said to exert considerable control over and have influence on street gangs. (Decker, Bynum, and Weisel, 1998) "Prison gangs such as the Aryan Brotherhood, Mexican Mafia, and Texas Syndicate originated in prison and now have members on the street.

Conversely, most street gangs now have members in prison." (Fleisher, 1995, p. 131) In some cities, local gang activity is being orchestrated from the prisons. (National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, 1999) This development makes intervention in the resulting stronger "new breed of gangs" all the more difficult. Older gang members from juvenile correctional facilities and prisons who return to the street "align with neighborhood teenage gang members who are on the street, and form a larger, potentially more dangerous street gang."

Involvement of ex-convicts in youth gangs increases the life of the gangs and their level of violent crime, in part because of ex-convicts' increased proclivity to violence following imprisonment and the visibility and history they contribute to youth gangs (Moore, 1978) . (Howell, 2000,  page) 

Fleisher and Decker (2001) , in their research on how correctional administrators have responded to gangs, found that:

Prisons have tried a variety of overt and covert strategies, including the use of inmate informants, the use of segregation units for prison gang members, the isolation of prison gang leaders, the lockdown of entire institutions, the vigorous prosecution of criminal acts committed by prison gang members, the interruption of prison gang members’ internal and external communications, and the case-by-case examination of prison gang offenses. There are, however, no published research evaluations testing the efficacy of these suppression strategies on curbing prison gang violence and/or other criminal conduct inside correctional institutions.

Fleisher and Decker (2001) , while noting the lack of evaluation studies showing their effectiveness, provide the following outline and overview of corrections-related responses to gangs.

Isolating gang leaders has become a popular control strategy. With a prison gang leader locked down, vertical communication within the gang ideally would weaken and the prison gang group’s solidarity eventually would deteriorate. One version of isolating prison gang leaders is to transfer them among institutions or keep them circulating between prisons.  There are no published evaluations of isolation and/or “bus therapy.”

Another attempt to reduce gang membership is “jacketing.” This involves putting an official note in an inmate’s file if he is suspected of being involved with a gang. This note follows him in prison and allows authorities to transfer him to a high-security facility.  Many find this process inappropriate because it may involve suspected but unconfirmed gang activity, often reported by a snitch, which leads to incorrectly labeling an inmate as a prison gang member or associate. When so labeled, an inmate can be controlled with threats of segregation and transfer. There are no published evaluations of this approach either.

Correctional agencies now use databases to track prison gang members and gang activities.  This allows for effective communication between a correctional agency and a state police agency and improves data accuracy because data can be entered as soon as they are gathered.  The New York City Department of Correction uses a system that allows for digitized photos that document gang members’ marks and/or tattoos.  Database searches can be done by a tattoo, scar, or other identifying marks.  The speed and capacity to update intelligence information make the use of a shared database an effective tool in prison gang management.

Providing alternative programming could become part of prison gang management strategy; however, prison gang members have not embraced such programming. The Hampden County Correctional Center in Ludlow, Massachusetts, developed a graduated program for prison gang members wanting to leave segregation.  The program uses movies; discussion sessions, and homework. At the program’s end, participants must write a statement certifying they will no longer participate in gang activities. Two years into the program, 190 inmates were enrolled and 17 were returned to segregation for gang activities.  Details of the program’s evaluation are not available.

Another control strategy is the use of out-of-state transfers, which send key prison gang members out of state in the hope of stopping or slowing a prison gang’s activities.  If a gang already has been established, it is hoped that such a transfer would disrupt a gang to the point of its demise; however, there are no data showing the effectiveness of this type of control strategy.  In fact, transferring a high-ranking prison gang member could be the impetus to transfer his prison gang to yet another institution.

Correctional agencies have tried to weaken prison gangs by assigning members of different prison gangs to the same work assignment and living quarters in anticipation of limiting the power of one prison gang over another at a specific place.  The Texas Department of Corrections, for instance, assigned prison gang members to two or three high-security lockdown institutions. Illinois tried this approach to no avail because the inmate prison gang population was too large to control effectively within a few locations.  Illinois developed a “gang-free” institution near Springfield, but as yet there are no published evaluations of its effectiveness on reducing gang-related/motivated crime within the Illinois Department of Corrections. (Citations omitted to save space. You may view the original work which includes the omitted citations.)

What follows are solutions which may be implemented in detention centers (which hold juveniles awaiting court appearances), jails (which typically hold adults awaiting trial or persons convicted of misdemeanors and serving less than one year in confinement), and prisons (which are for adult felons serving terms of one year or more or awaiting execution).

More program development is needed to prevent gang formation, help separate offenders from gangs, diminish the effectiveness of their recruitment efforts in detention centers, and prevent and reduce victimization of staff and fellow inmates. Progress in these areas should help break the cycle of gang members moving from detention centers and correctional facilities to prisons to communities. (Howell, 2000, page) 

Among the solutions which may be implemented are:

bulletThe Reintegration Initiative
Reintegration programs are efforts to provide job training and eventual job placement for persons in confinement in jails and prisons. You can read about the Reintegration Initiative in New Zealand, the jail-based reintegration initiative in Norfolk County (VA), and the reentry (reintegration) program in South Carolina.

One of my past students now works in a Reintegration Initiative program and shared her thoughts with me in a recent email. Although her experience in such a program is not typical, but here's what she wrote:

This job is definitely practice in running into brick walls.  It makes me understand (although to a lesser degree) the frustration these youth and their families have with "the system."

I believe that the Reintegration Initiative is a great idea. However, I believe there are inherent flaws. We are supposed to encourage our clients to be an active role in their community and refer them to community-based programs.  The majority of our clients reside in communities with no community programs (if there had been more available to them, crime might not have been an option for them). 

At most of my meetings with parents, they ask that their child be put in programs outside of their neighborhood. When I meet with my clients, I sometimes walk around with them in their neighborhoods.  Most are neighborhoods that (this city) has long since forgotten.

I don't believe in succumbing to this obstacle. I encourage youth to utilize the public transit system. I make referrals outside of the five block radius that they are accustomed. However, (this city's) transit workers went on strike last week.  Youth couldn't attend school, go to jobs (if they have them), or make appointments with their Probation Officers (which is a requirement and it upset me to know how many P.O.'s wouldn't make allowances for the strike).  outh who were spending time outside (because last week was BEAUTIFUL) were picked up for being truant. Another way the system perpetuates itself. 

I also see now that there is a reason that there are virtually no dollars placed in preventative efforts. I know this sounds like a rant session. I'm sorry. I do see a lot of hope in my individual experiences. I realize I'm learning so much and I enjoy working with my clients. However, I believe the initiative as a whole will fail. 

I remember in class you said that you would rather students declare a business major than criminal justice in the hope that they would start a business and employ former prisoners. That's the underlying problem with this initiative ... we are trying to employ, empower, and encourage youth with meager means to do so. 

I've had two clients successfully get a job and keep it. I have a handful that are currently looking and a few that openly express that they make more money than I do on the streets without education. I still see hope in those few because they are talking to me, maybe I can plant a seed that will encourage some type of change.

As far as working with gangs .. I've had one client (out of the 53 I've worked with) admit that he was participating in gang-related activities. I have a few that sport matching tattoos and colors consistent with gang involvement, but deny that they are part of anything. I've had real eye-opening experiences on my home visits with these clients and in my experience these youth are most resistant to job training and employment services. 

bulletCreate a Gang Renouncement and Disassociation Program
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) created this program to help inmates who wanted to break away from the gang way of life. The program began in 2000 at the Ramsey 1 unit in Rosharon, Texas. It targets offenders who belong to one of the eight security threat groups that TDCJ has identified. It's a nine-month program that channels confirmed gang members out of administrative segregation and back into the general population. In order to do so, the gang members must renounce their gang affiliation. For more information, please contact Kenneth Lee at (936) 437-8924 or email him at
bulletDeveloping a clearly articulated policy for handling gangs and their members: 
Clearly articulated and written policies for dealing with violent and/or gang youth and personnel should be developed. All steps necessary should be taken to reduce gang activity and violence within the facility, regardless of its source. A minimal policy would prohibit inmates and staff from wearing gang colors or gang-affiliated clothing, throwing signs, exhibiting gang-related pictures and art, creating graffiti, or exhibiting other identifiers of gang affiliation. The policy should be known to all staff and inmates so that everyone knows what the ground rules are.

bulletCreating a screening process:
Identify violent- and gang-affiliated individuals as soon as possible upon entering the facility and put the policy (see the item immediately above) into effect immediately.

bullet Conducting risk/needs assessments:  
"To deal more effectively with gang problems in facilities, juvenile detention and correctional facilities need to use risk assessments at intake, identify gang members, and properly classify offenders for security purposes. To achieve the best match between their treatment needs and available interventions, needs assessments should be made for all inmates."
(Howell, 2000, page) 

bulletClassifying and isolating inmates according to gang affiliation:  
An effective anti-gang policy would classify, identify, and isolate known gang members from non-members in all activities (i.e., dining, recreation, treatment, education, visitation) and in housing.

"Better screening and risk classification of gang members would help protect staff and fellow inmates by giving correctional staff reliable information to classify gang members." (Howell, 2000, page)  There are problems associated with the identification of inmates who are gang members (i.e., turning inmates into snitches, false accusations).  

Violent and gang youth may need to be isolated from non-violent and non-gang youth and violent/gang offenders isolated from non-violent/gang offenders. The core of a gang may need to carved out and offered treatment or confinement in special facilities which do not allow association. Treatment and diversion may then be offered remaining gang members.

Gang activity is one of the most serious threats to prison safety and security. Gang members who assault other inmates and prison staff are the most violent and predatory in California prisons. These predators are removed from general population and placed in Security Housing Units at Pelican Bay State Prison and Corcoran State Prison or in Administrative Segregation units at each of California's 32 prisons. "Isolating these 4,000 inmates who cannot behave within the prison system protects the remaining 137,000 inmates who want to do their prison sentences peacefully," said James H. Gomez, Director of the California Department of Corrections. "The difference is 60 to 70 inmates a year who aren't being killed because these predators are isolated from the rest of the prison population." (California Department of Corrections, News Release, August 22, 1996, page)

bulletProviding heightened security:
Greater security in gang-populated areas of the prison is needed (i.e., cameras, additional correctional officers, increased cell checks and searches) in order to protect staff, inmates, and property.

bulletOffering specialized training:
All staff members (i.e., administrators, correctional officers, caseworkers, teachers, counselors, volunteers, interns) should be educated about gangs (i.e., their nature, structure, types and names, activities, relationships with each other, initiation rites) and be trained to recognize signs of gang involvement and gang activity inside the facility. Training should be on-going throughout one's career in the facility.

Fifteen percent of the detention centers that were surveyed reported that they used no assessment procedures to identify gang members. Less than 2 percent performed a formal risk assessment, screened for classification, or used formal procedures for determination and management of security risk groups. Just 1 in 10 detention centers reported gearing certain programs toward gang members. Slightly more than 2 in 10 centers provided aftercare monitoring and support services for gang members. Aftercare is very important because of the high likelihood that these youth will return to active gang involvement in their communities, perhaps with their reputations enhanced by having served time in confinement. (Howell, 2000, page) 


Expanding upon known gang renunciation programs:
"In Connecticut, the Department of Corrections, which had been tolerant of gang membership within the prison population, instituted a policy of requiring renunciation of gang membership, and controlling communication between members inside and outside, and the results were startling - of 195 men who have been through the in-prison gang renunciation program, only 4 have resumed their prior gang membership, and, as the New York Times reported, the corrections system has gone through its 'longest period of tranquility in quite a while.'"
(Jeremy Travis, Director of the National Institute of Justice, April 10, 1997, page)

Testimonials such as this are evidence of the potential value of deganging or gang renunciation programs being implemented in several states in the United States (i.e. Connecticut, Texas, California, New Mexico) and in the United States Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Field Note: Salvador Buentello is affiliated with the Security Threat Group Management Office of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. He is also a Board Member of the National Major Gang Task Force.  According to Buentello, sixty inmates of the Texas prison system have graduated from their "gang renunciation program, 250 more inmates are awaiting participation, and another 828 have indicated they want to disassociate from a gang. Last year (2000), out of about 6,000 gang-affiliated inmates in the system, we had only 150 who indicated they wanted to disassociate.

"As time goes by and gang-affiliated inmates see there is an established program for getting away from the gang life, it is becoming more acceptable to participate in the program. They don't feel as threatened by other gang-affiliated inmates who don't want to disassociate.

"The gang renunciation program takes nine months to complete and includes substance abuse intervention, anger management classes, cognitive skills development, and some faith-based introspection and treatment. Inmates who satisfactorily complete the program are then moved from gang-related housing in the prison to a gang-free environment. At least it's as gang-free as possible.

"We simply had to develop some kind of program. In 1985 we had two Security Threat Groups (gangs) at war and fifty-two inmates were killed in one year. One correctional officer was also killed in a gang-related incident that year. The situation is much better now that we have the gang renunciation program in place." (Salvador Buentello, telephone interview, 28 November, 2001)


Involving the faith community:  
Innerchange is a faith-based prison pre-release program sponsored by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice [Corrections]. The mission of Innerchange "is to create and maintain a prison environment that fosters respect for God’s law, the rights of others, and to encourage the spiritual and moral regeneration of offenders to the end that they develop responsible and productive relationships with their Creator, families and communities."
(Innerchange, page)


Incorporating Positive Solutions:
Positive Solutions offers a quality field- generated and research- supported Therapeutic Cognitive Response Model, designed to teach left brain decision making and cognition skills to criminal offenders through the use of a right brained, student- centered delivery model. 

"Programs are presently being used nationwide in the following settings, for male and female, juvenile and adult offenders: State Correctional systems, large and small county probation and parole systems, short and long term residential treatment facilities, day reporting centers, jails and detention facilities." (Positive Solutions, page

bulletProviding a therapeutic community setting for substance abusers:
The therapeutic community (TC) model makes the entire period of one's confinement treatment oriented. Rather than brief periods of treatment-oriented activity spread out over several months or years, involvement is intense and daily. Since many incarcerated gang members are also substance abusers, a therapeutic community setting may be of particular value, particularly when it is bundled with a work release program.

"Part of the TC philosophy is that counselors serve as role models for the residents because they have often gone through a TC experience, themselves. In addition to counseling sessions, residents were required to participate in AA meetings, educational activities, and job assignments. They were taught the value of thinking in terms of community and continually moved upward to positions of higher prestige within the community with both more responsibilities and privileges." (Correctional Education Connections, 2001, page - this site was broken as of October 2002).

Field Note: One of the prisons I visit regularly is a therapeutic community for substance abusing felony offenders. According to the latest assessment, the recidivism of inmates passing through the multi-phased program is 47%. That's considerably lower than the sixty- to eighty-percent recidivism rate of non-therapeutic-community prisons.
bulletInvolving positive role models:
Involve positive youth and adult volunteers in detention center programs in an effort to exhibit a variety of role models for the violent/gang youth held in the facility. Volunteers can be brought into a facility for a variety of activities (i.e., participate in group recreation activities, sing, read a book, carry on a discussion with the detainees, celebrate holidays and the birthdays of those who are confined).

bulletImplementing anger management and conflict resolution programs:
"Interpersonal skills training appears promising for improving social skills and reducing anger and, possibly, violence among street gang youth in institutionalized populations
(Goldstein, 1993). The Aggression Replacement Training (ART) model teaches gang members anger control and other skills and has produced promising results with gangs in Brooklyn, NY, communities (Goldstein and Glick, 1994; Goldstein, Glick, and Gibbs, 1998)

"The ART model is being implemented in probation departments and detention centers in 28 counties throughout the State of Washington, in a number of juvenile institutions in the State of New York, and in the Texas Department of Youth (corrections). ART also has been used in community-based programs, such as the Mesa Gang Intervention Project." (Howell, 2000, page) 

bulletOffering opportunities for meaningful community service:
Offer selected detention youth and adults in jails an opportunity to participate in community service activities. Some activities may not require leaving the facility for their completion (i.e., repairing broken toys, doing assembly work, cleaning/polishing). Community service projects partially reimburse the community for the cost of confinement and, in some cases, give offenders a sense of satisfaction by being able to give something back to the community.

bulletCreating opportunities for throughcare:
Foster a collaborative relationship with probation and parole offices so the transition from prisoner to parolee is as smooth and uneventful as possible. Materials pertaining to the inmates' period of incarceration (i.e., institutional conduct reports, grievance reports) should be copied and duplicates sent to the inmates' parole officers.

bulletImplementing the Gang Awareness Necessary for Growth in Society curriculum:
"A variety of gang awareness curriculums are used to help youth avoid gang involvement while they are incarcerated. One of these, Gang Awareness Necessary for Growth in Society, is used in California Youth Authority facilities.
(Duxbury, 1993) This curriculum has several elements: orientation; program overview; parole and the gang-active person; effects of gang violence; legal aspects of gang involvement; coping, responsibility, and accountability; and family, community, peer, cultural, and individual expectations." (Howell, 2000, page) 

bulletOffering mentoring services:
Mentoring behind the walls may be conducted by volunteers and should expose those in confinement to positive role models. Mentoring activities include simple conversation and extend to skills training, literacy training, or any other activity permitted by the institution and of interest to those involved.

bulletCreating a resource library:
Create a library of information on self-improvement for use by all inmates while they are confined (i.e., books, videos, audio-cassettes). Materials may be provided by the government agency/office administrating the facility or though other social institutions (i.e., purchased through contributions from the faith or business community, by private donors, or a student-led book acquisition project). Maintaining the collection and checking materials in and out may be an inmate responsibility and part of the inmate's treatment program.

bulletUsing inmates who want to get out of the gang life as role models and teachers:
Either bring gang members (wannabes, associates, or hard core) to the facility or transport carefully selected inmates to a detention center or other locale for the purpose of allowing active gang members (or those who have been identified as heading down that path) to meet and listen to ex-gang members share their experiences and desire to get out of the life and why.

bulletProviding access to job education:
Before some inmates can meaningfully partake in job training, they need to know what kinds of legitimate jobs there are. A job education program offers inmates an opportunity to learn about the various kinds of work which are possible and may motivate some to pursue job-specific training. Job information in print, on video, and presented by invited speakers from the business community, may stimulate inmates to pursue legitimate employment upon discharge or granting of parole. A legitimate job provides a means  rationale for staying out of a gang.

bulletAdopt Project Pooch
"Project Pooch pairs juvenile offenders from MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility in Woodburn, Oregon, with dogs from local shelters and rescue groups. MacLaren students are selected to obedience train, groom, and prepare dogs for placement in permanent homes in the community."

According to Howell (Howell, 2000), "In an earlier review of correctional programs for gang members, Duxbury (1993) made the following recommendations:

bullet"Correctional policies and programs directed toward youth gangs and gang members should be coordinated with those of organizations engaged in prevention and suppression within a community or governmental jurisdiction.

bullet"More systematic research should be conducted on correctional interventions with youth gang members.

bullet"Institutional policies should create a climate in which youth feel sufficient safe to relinquish or refuse gang membership.

bullet"Institutional programs should offer youth opportunities to develop their skills and knowledge so that, upon release, they will have the tools and self-esteem to choose activities other than illegal gang activities.

bullet"Field supervision programs (parole/aftercare) should provide transitional services and, when appropriate, adequate surveillance to increase the likelihood that the released youth will make socially responsible choices." (Howell, 2000, page)

More and more juveniles are being sent to court and to detention. 

The increase in the number of delinquency cases handled by the courts has driven the growth in the number of juveniles in the detention system. In 1987, 1.2 million delinquency cases were disposed in juvenile courts. By 1996, this number had risen 49%, to almost 1.8 million. This increase in the volume of juveniles in the justice system resulted in a 38% increase in the number of delinquency cases that involved the use of detention. (MacKenzie, no date, page)

Sadly, in a survey of juvenile detention centers, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention found 

Few of the programs geared toward gang members were deemed effective. On average, only 14 percent of respondents rated their programs 'very effective' and less than half rated them 'somewhat effective.' The most promising programs emphasized correction of educational deficiencies, vocational skills development (apprenticeships), drug abuse/use values and behavior change and treatment, and interpersonal and social skills development. (Howell, 2000, page) 

There is one form of incarceration which I did not yet discuss - boot camps. Structured like a military boot camp (requiring strict regimentation, compliance to all orders, and tolerance for punitive reprimands for disobedience), the creators of correctional boot camps believed errant youths needed structure and discipline.

Although there have been repeated attempts to measure whether a boot camp experience alters the behavior of its residents over the long-term, few studies have been conclusive. The best evidence we have supports the notion that boot camp, alone, is not effective. When coupled with education programs and vocational training/experience, however, there is a glimmer of hope.

Field Note: My interview subject today was a probation and parole officer who has been involved as a court liaison officer for the past six years. She coordinates activities between the state office of probation and parole and city Drug Court. The conversation shifted to the subject of boot camp - one of the sentences used by the judge of Drug Court. 

I asked the liaison officer if boot camps were effective. "No," was her immediate reply. "The way boot camps in this state are being operated at the present time is not suitable. They lack the educational and vocational programming needed and have no follow-up services after release. I think a mentoring program must be installed in the follow-up or post-release stage or all of our efforts are wasted."

That brings us to the end of our review of justice system solutions. As you've probably noticed, much of what the justice system does to reduce gang activity and youth violence relies upon a network of community-based social service agencies - many of which serve youth. Our attention now shifts to those agencies and what they could do to reduce gang activity and youth violence.


Additional Resources: The National Mental Health Association provides a nice introduction to boot camps. The OJJDP supported three experimental boot camps which all had similar results. Do boot camps for delinquent youth actually work

An excellent and critical appraisal of therapeutic community programs in prison may be found in the University of York's (England) publication A systematic international review of therapeutic community treatment for people with personality disorders and mentally disordered offenders 1999. The National Institute on Drug Abuse found that therapeutic community programs with a work release component were more beneficial than those without such a component.

You can visit the site of the National Major Gang Task Force or explore.

The OJJDP Statistical Briefing Book provides a great deal of useful information on juvenile reentry and aftercare.

© 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.