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 15:
Getting Out of a Gang

Field Note: The director of a community-based treatment program for gang members and violent youth said "Getting into a gang is easy today. It's not so much being 'sexed in,' 'beat in,' or having to commit a crime as it used to be. Today, among the gangs, it's the number of members that counts, so getting in is relatively easy. Getting out, on the other hand, is difficult."

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 consequences.

Field 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 years)" (Loeber, 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, 1983; Klein, 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 their gang. 

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, 1990)

Some gang members leave their gangs due to the violence they 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, 1983)

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's Story

("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 in."

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 shocked!

"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 down."

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 out." 

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.


Additional Resources: Read about an ex-gang member's new 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!

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.