Prison gangs are a prominent problem in many correctional institutions across the country. The violence and racial tension associated with prison gangs impacts the operation of entire correctional systems. Prison administrators face multiple challenges when dealing with prison gangs including protecting other inmates and staff from gang violence, suppressing gang activity, and preventing vulnerable inmates from gang recruitment. Ethical concerns include proper identification and classification of known gang members and balancing inmates’ constitutional rights with preventing gang activity.
Defining the term prison gang varies by prison facility. Prison gangs are also referred to as a prison group, security threat group, and disruptive group. Generally, the term is defined as a group that threatens or disrupts the prison environment through criminal activity and rule violation. A gang, or group, often consists of two or more inmates (some definitions specify three or more inmates). Some gangs are more organized than others and will use a specific label to define the group, develop encrypted language to communicate, wear common articles of clothing, and engage in a range of gang-related activities. Prison gangs are often responsible for orchestrating criminal enterprises behind bars. This includes, but is not limited to, drug distribution, prostitution, gambling, and violence. Gang membership is often formed on race, geography, and common political and religious beliefs.
Historically, prison gangs emerged in California during the 1950s and 1960s. The first gangs to develop formed along racial lines. These included the white supremacist Aryan Brotherhood group, the Black Guerrilla Family, the Hispanic group La Nuestra Familia, and the Mexican American gangs Mexican Mafia and Texas Syndicate. Street gangs have also infiltrated inside prisons across the country, including the Bloods, Crips, Latin Kings, and Vice Lords. Islamic groups, like the Nation of Islam and Five Percenters, also have a presence inside many correctional institutions. The presence, and magnitude, of prison gangs varies by state and security level of the institution. Although national statistics on prison gang members are difficult to assess, there are an estimated 200,000 gang-affiliated prisoners in U.S. prisons.
Reasons for Joining Prison Gangs
Understanding the reasons why inmates join prison gangs can best be understood through the work of Gresham Sykes (The Society of Captives, 1958). As Sykes described, inmates experience multiple deprivations, known as “pains of imprisonment,” which explains why they resort to certain behaviors while incarcerated. These pains include five deprivations: liberty, goods and services, heterosexual relationships, autonomy, and security. Due to the lack of security within prison walls, vulnerable inmates often choose to join a prison gang for protection. Inmates may also join as a way to increase their social status—another way to secure protection from more aggressive inmates. The deprivation of liberty, including separation from loved ones, may create the need for connectedness. Associating with a prison gang may satisfy the need for belonging and acceptance. Sharing a common ideology is another reason inmates affiliate with a prison group. Oftentimes this means affiliating with a group that shares the same racial background, religious, and/or other ideological beliefs. Additionally, inmates associated with street gangs prior to incarceration will often affiliate with a prison group with ties to that street gang.
Manipulating Prisoner Rights
Prisoners have certain constitutional rights, including the right to file a complaint, protection against cruel and unusual punishment, a reasonable standard of living, health care, speech, and religion. Inmates are also protected under the Fourteenth Amendment against discriminatory treatment based on gender, race, and religion. Prison officials are not legally allowed to deny inmates basic constitutional rights; however, some denial of rights may be necessary to protect the security of the institution. For example, it is unconstitutional for prisons to forbid inmates from practicing their religious freedom. In 2000, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) extended First Amendment rights to prisoners by allowing inmates to practice religion inside prisons. Prison gangs sometimes abuse their right to religious worship by using religion as a means to organize, conspire, and carry out illegal gang activity. Prison gangs will often identify as a religious group in order to conduct their activities. Prisoners denied the right to “practice religion” have the right to file a lawsuit against the correctional facility.
Identifying and Suppressing Prison Gangs
Prison gangs are responsible for much of the prison misconduct and violence that occurs within facilities. Gang violence is often the result of operating illegal enterprises and the racial tension between rival gangs. The overall objective of prison officials is to control the behavior of inmates and protect staff and inmates from harm. Since gang members are often the ones controlling illegal prison activity, officials must take precautions to identify and disrupt gang activity. This is particularly challenging when gang members communicate with one another using gang codes and language that are difficult for officials to interpret. The inability to identify and suppress gang activity creates many safety and security concerns for correctional institutions.
Identifying and classifying known gang members is a challenging task for most correctional institutions. Traditionally, institutions identify an inmate as a gang member if the inmate self-reports he is gang-involved, is seen associating with other known gang members, there is evidence of gang tattoos, and there is evidence of gang activity (e.g., misconduct reports, mail correspondence indicating gang activity, and possessing gang-related literature). Many correctional institutions keep track of gang activity through classification databases. Identifying known gang members is not 100 percent accurate. Misidentification errors occur when officials identify non-gang members, and those with loose gang affiliations, as known gang members. The result of misidentification might force non-gang members into joining a gang because they are labeled as such. Dangers also exist such as alerting rival gang members of an individual’s gang status. This might also result in an individual actually joining a gang for protection from rival gang violence. Misidentification of non-gang members may also result in undeserving punishments (e.g., segregation and prosecution). When known gang members are properly identified, prison officials are able to develop policies to reduce and prevent gang activities.
The most common ways to suppress gang activity, reduce violence, and prevent the spread of gang influence is to separate known gang members from the rest of the prison population. One of the most common separation strategies is transferring gang members to other institutions within a state, or to other facilities in a different state. This approach has received much criticism, as it is viewed as unsuccessful in disrupting gang activity and has the potential for expanding the gang problem to other facilities. Another common strategy is segregating gang members from the rest of the population. Conditions within segregation units are extremely restrictive and often involve solitary confinement. Inmates are often confined to a cell for 22–23 hours a day, and have little to no communication with other inmates. The purpose of isolating prisoners is to protect the safety of other inmates and staff. Criticisms of this approach are the increased deprivations and potential psychological consequences that come from isolation.
Another separation approach is creating congregate units that house only gang members of the same group. Although this method involves segregating gangs by race, it is a technique that is designed to control gang activity and prevent conflicts between rival gangs. This strategy, which might be criticized as a violation of Fourteenth Amendment rights, is considered constitutional because of the need to protect others within the correctional institution. Other strategies of dealing with gang members involves monitoring mail to identify illegal activity, prosecuting known gang members, and eliminating early release credits. Lockdowns are also a common technique when a gang-related (often violent) incident has occurred. Officials will confine all inmates to their cells for an indefinite period of time until an incident is resolved or stabilized.
Rehabilitation and Reintegration
Prison gang members are a difficult population to engage in rehabilitative services. Some facilities have developed specialized programs for inmates seeking to sever their gang affiliation. A remaining challenge involves how to properly reintegrate gang members back into the community. This is problematic for inmates who enter a facility as a street gang member, as well as those who become gang members once incarcerated. While it might
be likely the street gang member will continue affiliation while inside and once released, little is known about whether newly converted gang members maintain their affiliation. Some research indicates that gang members have higher rates of recidivism than non-gang members. Questions to consider are: Should known prison gang members be subjected to heightened parole supervision? And, what type of strategies can be implemented inside prisons, as well as the community, to reduce the likelihood of gang members engaging in future criminal behavior?
- Fleisher, M. S. and S. H. Decker. “An Overview of the Challenge of Prison Gangs.” Corrections Management Quarterly, v.5/1 (2001).
- Knox, G. W. The Problem of Gangs and Security Threat Groups (STGs) in American Prisons Today: Recent Research Findings From the 2004 Prison Gang Survey. Peotone, IL: National Gang Crime Research Center, 2005.
- Winterdyk, J. and R. Ruddell. “Managing Prison Gangs: Results From a Survey of U.S. Prison Systems.” Journal of Criminal Justice, v.38 (2010).
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