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

Chapter 5:
Gangs and Prisons

Field Note: An ex-gang member, now director of a community-based anti-gang program, told me "As a black male, I thought prison was a natural right of passage - certainly in my surroundings. My uncle and cousin were in prison ... it was my rite of passage into adulthood."


In its Colorado incarnation, each member (of La Nuestra Familia - a prison-based Chicano gang) contributes as a mutual aid society and is benefited by his contributions, especially in times of need. The gang is the means through which convicts construct and maintain an identity. Moreover, the gang serves to reduce the potential for psychological and physical violence against its members. (Koehler, 2000)

Development of gangs in prisons is attributed in part to certain officials who give recognition to gangs as organizations and who try to work with them to maintain institutional control. (Spergel et al., 1994, p. 5)


As the gang phenomenon has grown and spread in America's cities and counties, there has been a parallel growth and spread of gangs in America's prisons. There's no way to know how many prisons have gang member inmates due, in part, to the fact that "Politics generally determine whether agencies [prisons] ... admit to having STGs [Security Threat Groups like gangs]." (Baugh, 1993)  It may also be impossible to gather accurate information on how many of America's prisoners are involved in gang activity. However, judging from my own observations and other current research on the subject, one may safely say gangs and their members are prevalent in many prisons in the United States and elsewhere.

In some prisons, inmate gang members were members of gangs prior to their incarceration. They were arrested, incarcerated and, while incarcerated, continue to recruit and build their gang. Other gang members in prison had no gang affiliation prior to their imprisonment but joined one of the prison gangs - many of which have counterparts on the streets. In other prisons, notably in California and Texas, gangs have formed which had no counterpart on the street. The gangs were created in prison. Examples of these gangs include the Mexican Mafia, Neta, Aryan Brotherhood, Black Guerrilla Family, La Nuestra Familia and the Texas Syndicate. 

The nature of the prison gang problem was highlighted by Fleisher and Decker (2001) in their article entitled "An Overview of the Challenge of Prison Gangs." They found that:

A persistently disruptive force in correctional facilities is prison gangs.  Prison gangs disrupt correctional programming, threaten the safety of inmates and staff, and erode institutional quality of life.  The authors review the history of, and correctional mechanisms to cope with prison gangs.  A suppression strategy (segregation, lockdowns, transfers) has been the most common response to prison gangs.  The authors argue, however, that given the complexity of prison gangs, effective prison gang intervention must include improved strategies for community re-entry and more collaboration between correctional agencies and university gang researchers on prison gang management policies and practices. (p. 1)

Prison gangs are not a new phenomenon. As Fleisher and Decker (2001found:

The first known American prison gang was the Gypsy Jokers formed in the 1950s in Washington state prisons.  The first prison gang with nationwide ties was the Mexican Mafia, which emerged in 1957 in the California Department of Corrections.

Camp and Camp identified approximately 114 gangs with a membership of approximately 13,000 inmates.  Of the 49 agencies surveyed, 33 indicated that they had gangs in their system:  Pennsylvania reported 15 gangs, Illinois reported 14.  Illinois had 5,300 gang members, Pennsylvania had 2,400, and California had 2,050.  In Texas, there were nine prison gangs with more that 50 members each, totaling 2,407.  Fong reported eight Texas gangs with 1,174 members.  Illinois reported that 34.3 percent of inmates belonged to a prison gang, which was then the highest percent of prison gang-affiliated inmates in the nation

Lane reported that the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) estimated the inmate gang population to be nearly 90 percent of the entire population, attributing that number to the importation of gangs from Chicago’s streets, which is supported by research. Reesshows that Chicago police estimated more than 19,000 gang members in that city and a high percent of IDOC inmates were arrested in Cook County.  Other correctional agencies, however, report their gang troubles started inside rather than outside prison walls.  Camp and Camp cite that of the 33 agencies surveyed, 26 reported street counterparts to prison gangs.

Knox and Tromanhauser suggest there are approximately 100,000 or more prison gang members across the nation. Subsequent to Camp and Camp the American Correctional Association found that prison gang membership doubled between 1985 and 1992 from 12,624 to 46,190, with relatively few gang members in minimum security units.  Later, Montgomery and Crews argued that Knox and Tromanhauser overestimated the prison gang population and cited the American Correctional Association’s 1993 study that reported some 50,000 prison gang members.


How many prison gang members are there?

Beck, et al. (Beck, et al., 1991) conducted a Survey of Inmates in State Correctional Facilities in 1991. That survey, together with similar surveys conducted in 1974, 1979, and 1986, represents the largest single database on America's prisoners. A total of 277 correctional facilities in 45 different states participated in the 1991 survey. A total of 13,986 inmates answered questions in face-to-face interviews. The prisoners represented more than 711,000 adults held in State correctional facilities. Simultaneous with the state inmate survey, a federal prison survey interviewed 8,500 inmates. Although the numbers may now be completely out-of-date and inaccurate, the following results of the survey are instructive.

Gangs, as defined in the survey, were groups of inmates which share 5 or 6 of the following characteristics in addition to committing criminal acts in the prison:
bulletFormal membership with a required initiation or rules for members 

bulletA recognized leader or certain members whom others follow  

bulletCommon clothing (such as jackets, caps, scarves or bandannas), or group colors, symbols, tattoos, or special language  

bulletA group name  

bulletMembers from the same neighborhood, street, or school

bulletTurf or territory where the group is known and where group activities usually take place (Beck, et al., 1991) 

The survey revealed that approximately 6% of inmates belonged to groups engaging in illegal activities which exhibited five or six characteristics of gangs (above). Another 6% engaged in illegal activities with groups exhibiting only three or four gang characteristics. (Beck, et al., 1991)  If a prison gang were defined as a group of inmates characterized as sharing at least three of the six characteristics identified above, in addition to committing crimes in the prison, then approximately twelve percent (12%) of the prison inmates were likely involved in gangs in 1991. 

In addition, the survey also found that half of the gang members in prison reported their gangs' as having 60 or more members. As concerns the inmates who were gang members:

bulletOn average, they had joined a gang at age 14. 

bulletHalf belonged for 36 months or more and belonged at the time they were arrested for their current offense. 

bullet32% were still members. 

bullet19% reported other members' being involved in their current offense. 

bullet91% had served at least one previous sentence either in an institution or on probation.

bullet73% had served or were serving time for a violent offense.

bullet49% or more of the gang members committed robberies, stole cars and auto parts, shoplifted, and sold drugs while in a group  (Beck, et al., 1991)

On December 31, 2000, a total of 1,237,469 inmates were confined in state and federal prisons in the United States. (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2001, p. 10)  A total of 232,900 of these inmates were between the ages of 18 and 24. (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2001, p. 10) Those youthful inmates, roughly of gang member age, represent approximately 18% of all the inmates. 

Fleisher and Decker (2001) found that:

there are at least five major prison gangs, each with its own structure and purpose. 

The Mexican Mafia (La Eme) started at the Deuel Vocational Center in Tracy, California, in the 1950s and was California’s first prison gang composed primarily of Chicanos, or Mexican Americans. Entrance into La Eme requires a sponsoring member. Each recruit has to undergo a blood oath to prove his loyalty. The Mexican Mafia does not proscribe killing its members who do not follow instructions. Criminal activities include drug trafficking and conflict with other prison gangs, which is common with the Texas Syndicate, Mexikanemi, and the Aryan Brotherhood (AB).

The Aryan Brotherhood, a white supremacist group, was started in 1967 in California’s San Quentin prison by white inmates who wanted to oppose the racial threat of black and Hispanic inmates and/or counter the organization and activities of black and Hispanic gangs. Pelz, Marquart, and Pelz suggest that the AB held distorted perceptions of blacks and that many Aryans felt that black inmates were taking advantage of white inmates, especially sexually, thus promoting the need to form and/or join the Brotherhood. Joining the AB requires a 6-month probationary period.  Initiation, or “making one’s bones,” requires killing someone. The AB trafficks in drugs and has a blood in, blood out rule; natural death is the only nonviolent way out. The Aryan Brotherhood committed eight homicides in 1984, or 32 percent of inmate homicides in the Texas correctional system, and later became known as the “mad dog” of Texas corrections.

The Aryan Brotherhood structure within the federal prison system used a three-member council of high-ranking members. Until recently, the federal branch of the Aryan Brotherhood was aligned with the California Aryan Brotherhood, but differences in opinion caused them to split into separate branches. The federal branch no longer cooperates with the Mexican Mafia in such areas as drugs and contract killing within prisons, but as of October 1997, the California branch still continued to associate with the Mexican Mafia. Rees suggested that the Aryan Brotherhood aligned with other supremacist organizations to strengthen its hold in prisons.  The Aryan Brotherhood also has strong chapters on the streets, which allows criminal conduct inside and outside prisons to support each other.

Black Panther George Jackson united black groups such as the Black Liberation Army, Symbionese Liberation Army, and the Weatherman Underground Organization to form one large organization, the Black Guerilla Family, which emerged in San Quentin in 1966. Leaning on a Marxist-Leninist philosophy, the Black Guerilla Family was considered to be one of the more politically charged revolutionary gangs, which scared prison management and the public. Recently, offshoots within the Black Guerilla Family have appeared.  California reported the appearance of a related group known as the Black Mafia.

La Nuestra Familia (“our family”) was established in the 1960s in California’s Soledad prison, although some argue it began in the Deuel Vocational Center. The original members were Hispanic inmates from Northern California’s agricultural Central Valley who aligned to protect themselves from the Los Angeles-based Mexican Mafia. La Nuestra Familia has a formal structure and rules as well as a governing body known as La Mesa, or a board of directors. Today, La Nuestra Familia still wars against the Mexican Mafia over drug trafficking but the war seems to be easing in California.

The Texas Syndicate emerged in 1958 at Deuel Vocational Institute in California. It appeared at California’s Folsom Prison in the early 1970s and at San Quentin in 1976 because other gangs were harassing native Texans. Inmate members are generally Texas Mexican Americans, but now the Texas Syndicate offers membership to Latin Americans and perhaps Guamese as well.  The Texas Syndicate opposes other Mexican American gangs, especially those from Los Angeles. Dominating the crime agenda is drug trafficking inside and outside prison and selling protection to inmates.

Like other prison gangs, the Texas Syndicate has a hierarchical structure with a president and vice president and an appointed chairman in each local area, either in a prison or in the community. The chairman watches over that area’s vice chairman, captain, lieutenant, sergeant at arms, and soldiers. Lower-ranking members perform the gang’s criminal activity. The gang’s officials, except for the president and vice president, become soldiers again if they are moved to a different prison, thus avoiding local-level group conflict.  Proposals within the gang are voted on, with each member having one vote; the majority decision determines group behavior.

The Mexikanemi (known also as the Texas Mexican Mafia) was established in 1984. Its name and symbols cause confusion with the Mexican Mafia.  As the largest gang in the Texas prison system, it is emerging in the federal system as well and has been known to kill outside as will as inside prison. The Mexikanemi spars with the Mexican Mafia and the Texas Syndicate, although it has been said that the Mexikanemi and the Texas Syndicate are aligning themselves against the Mexican Mafia (Orlando-Morningstar, 1997). The Mexikanemi has a president, vice president, regional generals, lieutenants, sergeants, and soldiers. The ranking positions are elected by the group based on leadership skills.  Members keep their positions unless they are reassigned to a new prison. The Mexikanemi has a 12-part constitution. For example, part five says that the sponsoring member is responsible for the person he sponsors; if necessary, a new person may be eliminated by his sponsor.

Hunt et al. suggest that the Nortenos and the Surenos are new Chicano gangs in California, along with the New Structure and the Border Brothers. The origins and alliances of these groups are unclear; however, the Border Brothers are comprised of Spanish-speaking Mexican American inmates and tend to remain solitary. Prison officials report that the Border Brothers seem to be gaining membership and control as more Mexican American inmates are convicted and imprisoned.

The Crips and Bloods, traditional Los Angeles street gangs, are gaining strength in the prison as well as are the 415s, a group from the San Francisco area (415 is a San Francisco area code). The Federal Bureau of Prisons cites 14 other disruptive groups within the federal system, which have been documented as of 1995, including the Texas Mafia, the Bull Dogs, and the Dirty White Boys. (Citations omitted to save space. You may view the original work which includes the omitted citations.)

If Beck's 1991 estimate that approximately 12% of prison inmates were gang-affiliated could be extrapolated to today, then perhaps as many as 148,496 gang members (12% of all 1,237,469 inmates) were confined in state and federal prisons on December 31, 2000. If, in order to be a gang, at least five characteristics of a gang were required then as many as 74, 245 inmates were gang members (6% of all 1,237,469 inmates). According to Yager, the California Department of Corrections has stated there are over 100,000 gang inmates in that state's prison system alone.

Administrators in detention centers and training schools were asked to estimate the proportion of confined juveniles who had problems in particular areas, including gang involvement. In both, ... facility administrators estimated that about 40 percent of the confined youth were involved in gangs. Gangs clearly present significant problems in juvenile detention and correctional facilities. (Howell, 1998, P. 4)

With the possibility of so many prison inmates involved in gang activity, what impact do they have? 

The Impact of Prison Gangs

Inmate gangs have an impact on prisoners' lives and well-being in prison, on prison administrators and staff and on the residents of neighborhoods into which they move upon their release from prison. The impact of prison gangs on prisoners' lives may be measured by the amount of violence which takes place in the prison. While it may be said that gangs play a role in stabilizing the inmate environment (by protecting some inmates from assaults, exploitation, or other harm), Gabriel (1996) believes they also contribute to the amount of violence found in prison.

While in prison, inmates are subject to prison politics, racism, corruption, barbarism, and the misconduct of correctional officers. The life of a gang member is in many ways tougher and more dangerous than if the gang member was on the outside. The biggest reason for this is because there is no refuge or place to lay low until favorable conditions arise. 

In prison, one must always watch his back, gangster or not. Many gang members search out friends already in prison to ally themselves with so that it is not just the individual that a potential aggressor will pit himself against. Rather it is a group of individuals that carry much more clout and power to harm than one person could ever possess. Thus the gangs that are supposedly broken down on the outside re-form within the walls of prison. (Gabriel, 1996)

A one-year study of over 82,000 federal inmates in the United States revealed that those who were embedded in gangs (referred to as gang embeddedness) were more likely to exhibit violent behavior and misconduct than those who were peripherally involved in gangs. And those who were peripherally involved exhibited more violent behavior and misconduct than those who were unaffiliated. (Gaes, et. al., 2002)

In gang-dominated prisons, gangs rule the roost. Which inmates eat at what times and where they sit in the dining hall, who gets the best or worst job assignments in the prison, who has money and nice clothes, who lives and who dies - all of these things, and others, are determined by gangs in the prison. Their very presence requires special attention from prison authorities.

A 1999 survey elicited information on prison gangs from representatives of 133 adult state correctional institutions in the U.S. In 1999, two-thirds of the facilities had disciplinary rules that prohibited gang recruitment. About half of respondents believed that 'no human contact' inmate status [being placed in solitary] was ineffective in controlling gang members. (Knox, 2000)

Prison staff, too, may be participants in or potential victims of the prison gang culture. As participants, they may be actively or passively involved. As active participants they may collude with inmate gang members by providing alibis, providing opportunities for the commission of certain crimes, or taking bribes or payment for their silence or other form of assistance.

As passive participants in prison gang activity they may simply "overlook" an incident or situation or neglect their duty just long enough for the gang members to do what it is that they wanted to do. In either case, prison staff are not immune to the negative influence of prison gangs. As victims of gang activity they may be threatened, harassed, extorted, physically or sexually assaulted, or murdered.

About one-sixth of the institutions reported that gang members had assaulted correctional staff members, and about half reported that gang members had threatened corrections officers. Two-thirds of all institutions were providing gang training to their correctional officers by 1999. (Knox, 2000)

Approximately 600,000 inmates were released from American prisons in the year 2005. Some of them were diehard gang members. Upon being discharged from prison (when one's full sentence has been served) or released early on parole, prison gang members move back into society. Unless they recant their gang membership, they are likely to continue their gang activity. Their impact on a community may be measured by their continued criminal activity, the harm they inflict upon their victims and their participation in already existing community-based gangs. 

Research suggests that involvement of ex-convicts in youth gangs increases the life of gangs and their level of violent crime, in part because of the ex-convicts’ increased proclivity to violence following imprisonment and the visibility and history they contribute to youth gangs (Howell and Decker, 1999).

As you may know, there are both state prisons and federal prisons. Generally speaking, state prisons confine people who have been convicted of violating state law while federal prisons confine people who have been convicted of violating federal laws. As we will see in another section of Into the Abyss, several states and the federal government have enacted laws which enhance or lengthen the sentences of convicted gang members. Not only are there gang members in prison, but due to their proven gang affiliation they are sometimes sentenced to longer prison terms. Given what's happening in most of America's prisons, the longer exposure may only make the problem worse.

What do prison gang members do?

Field Note: A federal prison administrator told me "Gangs exist everywhere in prisons. Whether they are a force in the prison or not is up to the administration of that prison. In low security facilities there are few gang members and they have little influence. It's a different matter in the high security prisons. And drugs and gangs are in nearly every prison. Protection is also there. They are the two primary rackets operated by gang inmates [drugs and protection]."

Among the activities of inmate gang members are drug running and cell taxing - charging to occupy a given cell. Some cells are designated by inmates as being for Caucasian inmates while others are designated for African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and so on. Cell residents may be taxed because the cells are far from the security stations at the end of the cellblock. I was told that "The dope heads (drug users) like to be away from the security folks."

There are usually televisions in prison cellblocks and a Hispanic inmate may be taxed for his cell because it is close to the television that is set on a Spanish-speaking station or an English- speaking inmate because it is located near an English-speaking station - whatever the inmate prefers and is willing to pay for. Some cells are closer to the TV than others and that may cause a cell tax to be imposed. 

Some prisons have rooms set aside for the sole purpose of television viewing. In one prison I visited, the administrator said "We have several TV rooms and all but one of them is owned by the blacks. Only certain blacks, depending on their gang affiliation, can use certain rooms unless there's some popular athletic event being shown - then all of them cram in to watch."

Rock, Scissors, Paper

Field Note: An inmate wrote "Now-a-days everything in these places is so screwed up because of all the gang bangers in these places. white gangs - black gangs - Mexican gangs. Everything is very segregated which is just fine in my point of view."

Many inmates find it difficult to survive in prison unless they are affiliated with a gang. But there's a twist. The twist may be best explained using an analogy. Do you remember a game called Rock, Scissors, Paper? It's a game kids play using hand signs. Each player chooses rock, scissors, or paper without telling the other players their choice. Then each child displays their chosen hand sign at the same time. Rock is symbolized by a clenched fist and rock beats scissors. Scissors are characterized by a protruding index and  middle finger in the shape of scissors blades and scissors beat paper. Paper is shown by holding out an open hand with fingers all touching side by side. If we stop the game there I can use this as an analogy that helps describe the gang situation in prison.

In the analogy "rock" is race or ethnicity, "scissors" is a gang, and "paper" is an inmate who is not gang affiliated. Inmates who are not affiliated with a gang are often in peril in a prison setting. They have no one who will come to their aid if they are assaulted or extorted and no one who will join them in retaliation. 

There are a few exceptions to this rule. The exceptions include inmates who have organized crime connections on the outside, and those who are knowledgeable about the law and may, therefore, be valued for their ability to help other inmates write legal briefs for their appeals. There are other inmates who are basically left alone because they are seriously ill or very old, and inmates who are so physically powerful or out of their minds that few inmates will assault them.

Most inmates, however, are vulnerable. In our analogy the next class of inmates are the gang members - scissors. They assault non-gang members - those who are "paper" in our analogy, and rival gang members. According to one federal prison administrator, "About one-third of my prison's one thousand seven hundred inmates are not in a gang. They are referred to by the staff as 'lame' or as 'dorks.'  They eat meals together in the mess hall with the First Nations People [a class of people that used to be called Native American Indians]. The unaffiliated are often extorted by gang inmates and used in other ways."   

Then there are the rocks - the racial and ethnic groups. They beat all. That is, African-American inmates who are Crips, Bloods, Black Gangster Disciples, or whatever their name, are faced with a new enemy - groups of non-African-Americans. In most instances this means they need protection from Caucasian, Asian, and Hispanic inmates in the prison. Suddenly prior gang affiliation and old hatreds between same-race/same-ethnicity gangs succumb to fears of racial or ethnic conflict.

Field Note: According to another federal prison administrator, "Among the federal inmates who are gang members, being a Crip or a Blood sometimes doesn't matter when they are confronted as blacks by Hispanic and other ethnic gangs. The conflict between these ethnic or racial groups seems to bring the black gangs together - putting aside any differences they may have had on the street."

Rock beats scissors. The hatred fostered by various racial and ethnic groups against one another can drive previously conflicting gangs and their members together in the prison setting. Solidarity occurs in the face of the larger threat to their well being.

Field Notes: According to a long time administrator in the federal prison system, "There's a split in the federal prisons among the blacks. There are incarcerated blacks who segregate themselves by their faith beliefs - Muslims, Faharakan's people, groups like that, the gangsters - and they are sometimes divided as well, into Crips, Bloods, and Black Gangster Disciples. 

"Then there are those who do not want to be involved in any of these sub-groups, and affiliate by the cities, regions of the country, or the country from which they came. Remember - this is about federal prisons where inmates come from all over the country, and from other countries."

His remarks concerning gang conflicts based upon faith or religious concerns sounded similar to the conflicts I witnessed in England between the Sikh and Muslim youth and other religious groups.

"The white inmates are also divided," he continued. [Pointing to different parts of the prison recreation area the administrator said] "The Skinheads, KKK, Aryan Brotherhood, and Neo-Nazis are over here, organized crime figures are over there, and there are the inmates who do not affiliate with any of these groups."

One of the federally incarcerated, gang-member inmates I interviewed said "White men in prison see the white gang bangers as niggers and, because of that, they put them through the test. Either they become Arian Nation [an exclusively Caucasian white supremacist gang] or other pro-white or they're beat up pretty bad."

Special administrative and management techniques have been developed to deal with the conflicts which arise out of a gang presence in a prison.

Managing Gangs in a Prison Setting

One of the federal prisons I visited had 1,200 inmates. Eight hundred of them were documented gang members and proud of their gang affiliation. They represented several different nations of gangs including those that were Asian, Hispanic, Caucasian, and African-American. Among them were at least 70 sets of Crips.   

I interviewed the head of security for the prison. His office walls were lined with wallet-size photos of every gang-affiliated inmate in the prison. The pictures were grouped by gang name and set and each picture had the gang members' moniker written on it. Some of the pictures were upside down. I asked about them and was told "Oh, those? Those are the ones who've been acting like assholes lately."

Our conversation drifted to the subject of administrating in a prison with so many gang members. 

Field Note: I asked about administrative differences between prisons with gangs and those with only a small gang presence. He said "The biggest difference is in the amount of time gangs require. Ninety percent of our time is spent with 10% of the inmates. That's an old saying, but in the case of gangs in prison, it's probably true. Gangs are the tail that wags the dog, if you know what I mean.

We spend more time working on gangs than anything else. We have to document them, control conflicts within gangs and between gangs, we have to know their tattoos and what they mean, we have to watch out who we put [in a cell, in a dining hall, or at work] with who, we have to monitor their calls and movements. It just takes a lot of time."

A correctional administrator told me "There is a heavy emphasis on gathering gang intelligence inside and outside the prison in an effort to maintain safety and security. We have five Intelligence Officers within the correctional officer cadre, one for each gang - the Blacks, Latinos, Asians, Whites, and Latin Kings."  The administrative structure of the prison reflects its gang clientele.

Prison gangs constitute a persistently disruptive force in correctional facilities because they interfere with correctional programs, threaten the safety of inmates and staff, and erode institutional quality of life.  

Prison gangs share organizational similarities. They have a structure with one person who is usually designated as the leader and who oversees a council of members that makes the gang's final decisions. Like some street counterparts, prison gangs have a creed or motto, unique symbols of membership, and a constitution prescribing group behavior. 

Prison gangs dominate the drug business, and many researchers argue prison gangs are also responsible for most prison violence. Adverse effects of gangs on prison quality of life have motivated correctional responses to crime, disorder, and rule violations, and many correctional agencies have developed policies to control prison gang-affiliated inmates. (Fleisher and Decker, 2001)

Field Note: According to a parole administrator with three years experience as an prison-based parole officer, "It's important to confiscate gang-related materials and graffiti in institutions in order to make a statement that this is inappropriate behavior. And graffiti interferes with communication in the prison."

The current policy of some prison administrators in their dealings with incarcerated gang members is to use both intervention and suppression strategies. Intervention initiatives are sometimes referred to as "deganging" or "renunciation programs" while some institutions segregate or separate gangs from one another in hopes of maintaining peace in the facility. The Taylorville Correctional Center in Illinois is an example of a prison which does not tolerate gang activity. According to the Illinois Department of Corrections:

The department designates Taylorville Correctional Center as a security threat group free prison. Admission to the facility requires inmates to have no documented history of security threat group membership or activity. Strong disciplinary sanctions are employed for any inmate identified as participating in any security threat group activity including transfer, loss of good time, disciplinary segregation and loss of privileges. (Source, copied from the Internet on 6 March 2003)

According to Meghan Mandeville, News Research Reporter for Corrections Connection, in order to "help inmates who want to break away from that way of life, TDCJ created the Gang Renouncement and Disassociation (GRAD) program to give them a way out. "It gives the offenders an avenue to renounce their gang membership, to get out of the gang and to be able to go back to the general population," said Kenneth W. Lee, Program Administrator for TDCJ's STG Management Office.  "Then, [they can] be released into the free world and thrive in society." (Online Source)

Fleisher and Decker (2001note that the conditions of American prison contribute to the problems surrounding prison gangs and their members' impact on the communities to which they return when paroled or released from prison. They state that:

We do not advocate coddling inmates but we surely do not advocate allowing millions of imprisoned inmates to live with drug addictions, emotional difficulties, and educational and employment skills so poor that only minimum-wage employment awaits them. These are the disabilities that, to some degree define the American inmate population, and these same disabilities will damage the quality of life in our communities when these untreated, uneducated, and marginal inmates return home . . . Prisons are our last best chance to help law-breakers find a lawful, economically stable place in mainstream communities.

Suppression efforts include, among other things, isolation of gang members within the prison (Judson, 1996) and reducing the influence of gang leaders by moving them to different prisons or centralizing them in one prison. (Carlson, 2001)

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, the Texas prison system now has 

sixty graduates of our gang renunciation program, 250 more inmates are awaiting participation, and another 828 have indicated they want to disassociate from a gang. Last year, out of about 6,000 gang-affiliated inmates in the system, we had only 150 who indicated they wanted to disassociate from a gang.

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 it. 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)

There's not a great deal of literature on gang defection while in prison, but one article caught my attention and speaks to some interesting aspects of this phenomenon. Fong, et al. (1995), surveyed 85 former Texas prison gang members who defected from their prison gang while in prison. Here are some of his findings.

All respondents reported no previous participation in street gangs; their active participation in prison gangs before defection was 3.36 years. Prison gangs are organized along paramilitary lines, and the majority of respondents never held any rank beyond that of "soldier." 

Additional analyses revealed that only 12 of the respondents admitted to having committed gang-related violence. Findings show that the single most important reason for leaving the gang was loss of interest in the gang (n=10), followed by refusing to carry out a "hit" on a non-gang member (n=9).

Other reasons included disagreeing with the direction in which the gang was going (n=7), refusal to carry out a "hit" on a fellow gang member (n=6), violating a gang rule (n=5), "growing out" of it (n=5), informing prison officials about gang business (n=4), and refusing to engage in gang crime (n=2). 

Given that the commitment to the prison gang is expected to last a lifetime, with death being the punishment for defection, it is surprising that most of the respondents left their gangs for the relatively inane reason of having lost interest in it. (Fong, Vogel, and Buentello, 1995)

The Future

One can only guess, of course, about what the future holds in store as regards gangs in our prisons. It is certain that more gangs and gang members are appearing in prisons where, heretofore, they were seldom found. (Jackson and Sharpe, 1997)  As of this writing, there are approximately 2,100,000 people confined in prisons and jails in the United States and that number has been growing steadily over the past two decades. Increasingly violent crimes committed by gang members, and the use of imprisonment and longer sentences to control them, suggest more gang members will fill our prisons' cells in the future.

As a result of their incarceration, gang members from different cities within the same state will continue to meet, perhaps for the first time in their lives. If they are of the same race or ethnicity, they may join forces with gangs they would never have associated with on the street. And what happens when they return to the streets? Will they bring their new alliances to the gangs from which they were taken when arrested? Is that already happening?

Robert Yager recently wrote about the impact of Los Angeles gang members who are returning to Los Angeles on parole. Noting that "Los Angeles is in terrible shape - again," he found the number of gang-related murders in the city increased 143% from 1999 to 2000 "after falling steadily from 1996 to '99." A total of "331 people died because of gang violence" in 2000 "in contrast to 136 in 1999." (Yager, 2001, p. 46)  

Criminologists point to two reasons for the city's [Los Angeles] upsurge in violence. First, veteran gang members jailed a decade ago during the crack epidemic are getting out of prison - and returning to reinfect their neighborhood with violent habits hardened and reinforced in prison. 

"The next generation of gang homicides is going to have a different construct [from the crack epidemic]," says Jack Riley, director of the criminal-justice program at Rand Corp.  His research points to returning felons as a major reason for the spike in shootings across Los Angeles. There are 100,000 gang members in jail in California and they are getting out at a rate of about 3,000 a month, according to the state's department of corrections. This year alone will see more than 30,000 veteran gang members back on the streets. (Yager, 2001, p. 46)

The second reason for the increase in violence in Los Angeles has to do with police corruption. Due to the corruption, police have "backed out" (Yager, 2001, p. 48) of the gang neighborhoods they are supposed to serve.

As gang members ... are coming back to their old neighborhoods, the police - demoralized by scandal - are backing out of them. In the mid-90's, the L.A.P.D. (Los Angeles Police Department) curtailed gang violence with some hard-nosed policing, spearheaded by tough CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) units.

But after Rafael Perez, a rogue cop from the L.A.P.D.'s Rampart division, was arrested in 1998 for stealing cocaine from a police warehouse, he implicated 70 antigang cops, alleging corruption, excessive force, planting evidence and falsifying testimony. In the end, eight cops were indicted, of these, four were cleared, three pleaded to lesser crimes, and one is awaiting trial.

As a result of his testimony ... some 100 gang convictions were overturned. The city is facing as much as $125 million in liability claims stemming from the Rampart scandal.

Los Angeles chief of police Bernard Parks dissolved the CRASH units in March 2000 and in their place set up Special Enforcement Units, which operate under severely limited rules of engagement. Morale fell to an all-time low, and many cops left for police departments in other cities. (Yager, 2001, p. 48)

The use of recently enacted federal legislation on gang members results in their incarceration in federal prisons due to their involvement with illegal drugs. There they meet offenders from around the country and the world, many of them international drug dealers, distributors, and terrorists. What are the implications of these new associations when inmates return to the community upon release from prison?

Field Note: An African-American inmate who has been in and out of prison several times told me "Bloods and Crips sort of get along in the prison because it's being Black that's important in the face of so much gang competition - not being Red [Blood] or Blue [Crip]. Their origin bein' L.A. is most important." 

He  also believed that, among the African-American gang members who have been around for a long time, the interaction between the Bloods and Crips within the prison has resulted in increased tolerance for mixing while on the street outside prison.

As all of these gang-member inmates are released into their home communities, what will their impact be on local gang members? If the receiving communities don't act to provide returning inmates with housing, job training, and jobs, I predict their newly achieved status as ex-convict will result in their being respected in the gang community. They will encourage cooperation with former enemy gangs in pursuit of greater gain and increased criminality.

As we've seen, gangs in prison, much like those on the street, are difficult to eliminate because they have come to serve a purpose - they are functional. They provide their members with protection, security, power, status, income, and association with others of their own kind. This does not bode well when it comes to integrating ex-convict gang members back into the community once they are released or paroled from confinement.

Impediments to community integration of prison gang members include the facts that gangs facilitate crime; gangs are social groups with longevity; self-identification to a gang may persist for years or decades, especially among adult offenders with extensive criminal histories; a gang identity and accompanying social ties create a sense of belonging; gang members are poor and are therefore outsiders in the mainstream community; and gang identity is linked to self identity. (Fleisher and Decker, 2001)

Other than their impact on prison life and on the communities into which they are released, what other reasons are there for being concerned about gangs?  That's our next topic.


Additional Resources: See what various correctional institutions are doing to reduce gang activity. Learn more about the Aryan Brotherhood, Neta, Black Guerrilla Family, Mexican Maria, La Nuestra Familia, and Texas Syndicate from the Florida Department of Corrections. Since September 11, 2001, much has changed in terms of Staying Ahead of Gangs/STGs in Corrections.

You can also read a good description of prison gangs by Robert Walker, Betty Ann Bowser's report on Texas prison gangs as aired on the Jim Leherer Hour, an article on gang activity in an African prison, and another on the gang situation in at least one Illinois prison. Sammy Buentello, an expert on prison gangs who works for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, reports on gangs in Texas prisons

As you may know, the History Channel (television) has a series entitled Gangland. The website for that program offers a description of "Modern Prison Gangs."

If you'd like to hear from gang members who are in prison, visit a portion of Joan O'Brien's web site Gangs and At-Risk Kids.

You can learn more about Growing Up Behind Bars or discover what's happening in Paradise (Hawaii).

Correctional officers in prisons often serve as intelligence officers. You can read about what they are expected to do. The term now used to speak of groups such as gangs and terrorists is Security Threat Groups - popularly known as STGs.

Check out what the Bureau of Justice Statistics has to say about past and future trends in corrections.

© 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.