Gangs have continued to grow and spread in many American cities and counties. This occurrence has been paralleled by the growth of gangs in American prisons. Researchers reported that the boundaries between prison gangs and the community have become harder to identify because the gangs have become more sophisticated, and are a threat not only to the institutional security, but to the public safety, as well. According to a survey conducted by the National Gang Crime Research Center, in 1999, members of gangs in prisons and jails increased from 9.4%, in 1991, to 24.7%, in 1999. Other studies reported a smaller proportion of prisoners involved in gang activities: 13% were from prisons, 16% from jails and 13.2% of jail administrators. A survey done by the American Correctional Association reported the security threat group members to be at 13.8%, in 2008, up from 11.7%, in 2003. From the 13.8% estimate, estimated 200000 prisoners are involved in prison gangs, in the United States of America. Some members of the prison gangs were gang members before their imprisonment.
After their arrest, they continue with recruitment to build and expand their gang. Other members of prison gangs had no affiliation with any gang before their incarceration but got recruited while in prison. Examples of gangs created in prisons include Aryan Brotherhood, the Mexican Mafia, Neta, Black Guerilla Family, the Texas Syndicate and La Nuestra Familia. It is a difficult task to obtain information on prison gang numbers and membership. Most of the current estimates are old and outdated. The lack of prison gang research is due to several reasons such as prison managers who are reluctant to allow researchers into prisons to conduct studies; gang members are secretive and do not disclose information about their gang to researchers, and weak documentation of prison gangs. In the article, “An Overview of the Challenge of Prison Gangs,” Decker and Fleisher found that gangs in prisons disrupted correctional programs, threatened inmates’ and staffs’ safety and eroded the quality of life in prisons. These groups express their threats in different forms such as distribution of contraband, high violence rates, raising racial or inter-group tension and undermining programs for rehabilitation through supporting criminal values.
Prison gang was defined by Lyman (1989) as “an organization which operates within the prison system as a self-perpetuating criminally oriented entity, consisting of a select group of inmates who have established an organized chain of command and are governed by an established code of conduct.” The gangs conduct their operations secretly, and their goal is to carry out gang activities through control of the environment of the prison by intimidating non-member prisoners. These gangs have been in prison for a long time. Gypsy Jokers was the first prison gang to be known in America. It was formed in Washington state prisons in the 1950s. The Mexican Mafia was the first prison gang to create nationwide ties. It was formed in 1957, in the California Department of Correction. A research study identified 114 gangs whose members were about 13,000 prisoners. 33 out of the 49 correction agencies surveyed reported to have gangs. 15 gangs were reported in Pennsylvania 14 were reported in Illinois. 5,300 gang members were from Illinois, 2,400 from Pennsylvania, and 2,050 from California. 34.3% of inmates in Illinois were affiliated to a gang. This represented the highest percentage of inmates involved with prison gangs in the U.S. In 1989, the population of inmate gang members in Illinois Department of Correction was estimated to be close to 90% of the whole population. The high number was due to the street gangs in the streets of Chicago. Researchers indicated that there were over 19,000 street gang members in Chicago, and a high number of inmates in Illinois Department of Correction got arrested in Cook County. The prison gangs in the other correction agencies were formed within the prison environment rather than outside.
The Organizational structures of prison gangs are almost similar. One of the gang members assumes the role of the leader and oversees a council of members. The council makes final decisions for the gang. The department of justice suggested that the leaders and hard-core members constitute about 15-20% of the gang while the rest are not interested in the leadership of the gangs. The gangs have a motto, membership symbols and a constitution that prescribes the behavior of the group. Loyalty to the gang is paramount as well as secrecy. Violence is a custom that can be used to promote a member in the hierarchy of the gang. The gangs main focus is illicit businesses like drug trafficking. Movement out of the group calls for severe consequences because such out-group movements put the group security at risk. A study on the number of former gang members who changed allegiance indicated that the rate of defection was directly proportional to the size of the prison gang. Identified reasons for defecting included: loss of interest in the activities of the gang; declining to carry an assault on a non-gang member and opposing the direction of leadership of the gang. In addition, when members went against the gang rules, they developed a fear of the consequences against their actions and, therefore, had to leave the gang. Most defectors get killed, however; their numbers remains unknown.
Five main prison gangs exist with a clearly defined leadership structure and purpose. The Mexican Mafia was formed in the Correction Department of California. It was the first prison gang in California. Its members were mainly Mexican Americans. The leadership structure follows a chain of command. The generals give instructions which are followed by captains, and lieutenants. To join the gang, one must have the support of a sponsoring member. Recruitment involves blood oaths as a proof of loyalty. Gang members who go against the gang rules do not get killed. The activities of the mafia include trafficking of drugs, and confrontations with opposing gangs like Texas Syndicate, Aryan Brotherhood, and Mexikanemi. The Aryan Brotherhood is a white supremacist prison gang, which was formed in 1967 in San Quentin prison, California. The main reason behind its formation was to protect white prisoners from black and Hispanic prisoners.
The gang members held the perception that white inmates were harassed, particularly sexually, by black inmates. White inmates, therefore, came together to form a brotherhood for protection. Recruitment requires a probation period of 6 months. The recruit has to commit murder in order to join the gang. The gang activities involve drug trafficking and conflicts with opposing gangs. The gang motto is “blood in, blood out” meaning that, once a member, the only way to leave the gang is through death. The leadership structure is composed of three high ranking members of council. They conduct drug activities in collaboration with the Mexican Mafia although; recently, differences arose between the two gangs. The gang has many of its members on the streets and can carry out criminal activities both inside and outside prison environments. The Black Guerilla Family was formed in 1966, with the union of the Black Liberation Army, Weatherman Underground Organization, and Symbionese Liberation Army. The gang was inclined to a Marxist philosophy and was considered as one of the politically charged gangs. Its main goals were to fight racism, maintain dignity in prison and overthrow the U.S government. La Nuestra Familia was formed in the 1960s in Soledad prison, California. The original gang members were Hispanic prisoners from Northern California. Their aim was to protect themselves from the Mexican Mafia in Los Angeles. The structure of leadership consists of a board of directors also known as “La Mesa.” Their conflict is mainly channeled towards the Mexican Mafia over the control of drug trafficking. The Texas Syndicate was formed in the 1970s in Folsom Prison, California. The gang members were Texan Mexican Americans. It was formed to protect its members from harassment from other gangs.
Currently, membership is open to Latin Americans and Guamese. Its main rival gangs are other Mexican gangs, particularly gangs from Los Angeles. It is involved in drug trafficking and selling protection to prisoners. The leadership structure consists of a president and a vice president. A chairman is appointed to watch over his vice, captain, lieutenant and soldiers. The common members of the gang perform criminal activities for the gang. All the officials of the gang, with the exceptions of the president and the vice president, become soldiers when they move to a different prison to avoid conflicts within the local group. The gang members vote on crucial issues with the majority vote determining the direction of the gang. The Texas Mexican Mafia was formed in 1984. They share some symbols with the Mexican Mafia. It is the largest gang in the prison system of Texas and has been involved in killing within and outside prison environment in equal measure. Although the Texas Mafia conflicts with the Texas Syndicate, it is believed that they sometimes align themselves to fight the Mexican Mafia. The leadership structure of the gang consists of a president, vice president, generals, lieutenants, sergeants and soldiers. The members in the higher leadership ranks get their positions depending on their leadership skills. Their constitution consists of 12-parts. Each part outlines a set of rules that are to be followed by the gang members. For instance, part five states that a sponsoring member is responsible for the one sponsor, and a new member may be removed from the gang by his sponsor.
Prison gangs control drug business and are also involved with violence within the prison environment. Their motivation is to be at the top of the inmate power structure within the prison. In order to achieve this, the gangs exploit the institution’s weaknesses such as overcrowding and understaffed large prisons. Violence emerges as opposing gangs fight over the control of profitable businesses. With an increasing prison population and a rising demand for narcotics in prisons, the market opportunities behind bars increased. Therefore, prison gangs increased their control of illegal contraband markets. Their success in drug trafficking was because they had well defined punishment methods for any member who dared to defect. Inmates are not allowed to purchase items such as alcohol or drugs. Therefore, the economy of inmates operates in contraband markets. When the Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act was passed in 1970, the fight on drug trafficking and abuse intensified. The number of drug users and addicts sentenced to prison increased significantly over time. The inmates had vast knowledge of drugs and had connections, which allowed them to acquire the drugs behind bars. This contributed greatly to the expansion of the drug business in prisons. The violence behind bars has been attributed to prison gangs as a way of instilling fear into other inmates in order to get respect and gain control of inmate activities. A study showed that prison gangs comprised of 3% of the total population of prisons, yet they were responsible for more than 50% of prison violence. In confined areas with the gang and non-gang members put together, turf wars occur leaving a few retreat options to a safer and more neutral place.
Prison gang members for a long time have used tattoos to identify themselves or express their beliefs. They can also be used to intimidate nonmember inmates. This would apply mainly if the gang is involved in many violent activities. A member of the gang acquires a large and conspicuous tattoo related to the gang to scare other inmates. Acquiring a gang tattoo by non-gang members call for severe consequences. Gang members are known to use crude methods to remove unauthorized tattoos. They are known to cut off tattoos from an inmate’s flesh or even burn off the tattoo using hot iron. Other gang members use tattoos to disrespect rival gangs. They recognize the tattoos of rival gangs and use the information to show disrespect to rival gangs through assault or even murder. Some of the common tattoos related to prison gangs include the tear drop tattoo, which showed that the wearer had served time in prison, and the three dot tattoos, which represented the three places gang members go to, i.e. hospital, prison and/or grave.
In an attempt to suppress prison gangs, prison officials have developed overt and covert strategies. These include inmate spies, segregation of gang members, isolation of gang leaders, prison lockdowns, interruption of internal and external communication between gang members, and thorough examination of gang offences. In 1985, the state of Texas passed a bill, which made the possession of a weapon by an inmate a criminal offence. It was believed that such laws help to control prison gangs. Segregation is used as a method of control. The prisoners spend 23 hours in their cells each day and are only assigned 1 hour for recreation. Isolating the gang leader breaks down the chain of communication within the gang and weakens the solidarity of the gang. Isolation may also involve the transfer of a gang leader to a different prison. Another method that has been used to control prison gangs is “jacketing.” An official note is put into the file of an inmate. The note follows his prison activities and permits his transfer to high security prisons.
Fleisher, M. S., & Decker, S. H. (2001). An Overview of the Challenge of Prison Gangs. Corrections Management Quarterly, 1-9.
Walker, R. (2012, October 23). Major Prison Gangs. Retrieved from GANGS OR US: http://gangsorus.com/gang_tattoos.html
Winterdyk, J., & Ruddell, R. (2010). Managing prison gangs: Results from a survey of U.S. prison systems. Journal of Criminal Justice, 730-736.