The United States has between 1.5 million and 2 million people behind bars at any given moment, which means it incarcerates a larger proportion of its citizens than any other developed country in the world.
If you’ve never lived or worked inside a prison, you really don’t know what life is like on the inside. If you’ve watched some of those reality shows that take you inside a prison — or have seen every TV show and movie about prison — you still don’t get a true sense of what it’s like until you’ve been there.
One of the things about prison life that people seem to be quite curious about is the presence of gangs. Are gangs in every prison? Do they really wield that much power? Do gangs really compete for control and structure prison life for all of the inmates? But, most importantly, people want to know why inmates join prison gangs in the first place. So, that’s what we will talk about today.
In this blog post I will cover the following topics:
Prison gangs come in various shapes and sizes, and there are various definitions. As a rule, the general description of a prison gang is a group of inmates who operate as a criminally-oriented entity from inside prison walls. A prison gang threatens — or perceives to threaten — the management of a prison.
Inmates who are part of a prison group will have similar values, norms, and language. There’s also a distinct code of conduct among the members. The individual members are usually of the same race and/or ethnicity. Oftentimes, a prison gang mimics the organization and operation of a street gang.
Some white gangs include: the Aryan Brotherhood, Hell’s Angels, and Dirty White Boys. African American gangs include members belonging to the Crips, the Bloods, the Vice Lords, the D.C. Blacks, and the Black Guerrilla Family. Some Hispanic and Latino gangs include the Mexican Mafia, La Nuestra Familia, and the Latin Kings.
Although a few multiracial prison gangs do exist, members belonging to gangs that are not organized primarily by race are often organized to engage almost exclusively in economic endeavors, such as drug cartels.
In many prisons, the officials refer to gangs as STGs — which stands for Security Threat Group. Most prison administrations work hard to keep gangs out of their facilities because they do cause a serious threat to both staff members and other inmates.
Correctional facilities often use various types of segregation techniques to reduce or punish different forms of gang violence. They also rely on education of both gangs and violence in an effort to reduce their prevalence.
An inmate will join a prison gang for a few different reasons. Oftentimes, they do it as a means to secure personal protection from other inmates because prison can be an extremely violent place. Some inmates rely on gang members to be their surrogate family, while others are looking for economic gain.
Among prison inmates, violence can be a means to gain status from other inmates, and gangs provide both a means to perpetuate this violence and protection from either unaffiliated prisoners or from rival gang members.
In the book Corrections: Gangs and Violence in Prison, the authors explain that forms of prison violence include assault, sexual assault, riots, and homicide. Much of the violence that occurs in prison remains unreported, making it difficult to address on an individual victim level.
Gangs provide protection in prisons where officials often fail to do so. Bigger groups also enable prisoners to trade illicit substances—such as drugs—far more efficiently.
Status and protection are the most common reasons for joining a gang in prison, much like on the street. But ideology is also important, such as race supremacy or vigilantism.
Believe it or not, prison gangs really didn’t exist until the 1950s. As David Skarbek explains in his book The Social Order of the Underworld: How Prison Gangs Govern the American Penal System, prisons were run according to the unwritten tenets of the, “convict code,” until gangs started to take over.
At its most basic, the inmate code, “dictated that inmates should refrain from helping prison or government officials in matters of discipline and from giving them information, especially that which could be used against fellow convicts. This worked while prisons were small: terrifying reputations, ostracism, and assault kept a lid on violence.”
But once the prison population in America started to grow in the mid-20th century, inmates couldn’t rely on the convict code to keep them safe any longer. As the number of violent inmates increased, prisons became more dangerous. Race and tattoos became useful ways of identifying genuine allies among the prison population.
According to the University of Colorado, “Prison gangs exploded across the U.S. with the rise of mass incarceration in the 1980s.”
Their research found that Texas prisons, “were mostly gang-free until bloody battles broke out in 1984-85 between the Mexican Mafia and Texas Syndicate as well as the Aryan Brotherhood and Mandingo Warriors. Fifty-two prisoners were murdered in a 21-month period that became known as the war years.”
Inmates are not forced to join a gang, in my experience. In some prisons, gangs have no power. In others, they do have influence. But no gang has iron-fisted control over prison life.
Gang members only compose about 20 percent of prison inmates nationwide, but they are able to wield power and influence through violence. Ultimately, though, it’s not a requirement to be part of a gang in prison.
The general answer to this question is “yes,” you can absolutely survive prison without joining a gang. I did just fine where I was incarcerated, but there weren’t any gangs for me to join, at least that I knew of.
I know that facilities located in urban areas and near street gang populations definitely have more gang activity. Whether or not that can be survived depends on the situation and the facility.
The research of Texas prisons shows that about 10 percent of inmates join a gang during their first time down. Another 10 percent imported their gang affiliation from the streets. Still, most prisoners don’t end up in gangs. That’s true even though avoiding gangs is harder in prison than on the street.
Would you join a gang in prison to survive life behind bars? Let us know in the comments below.
Sources: Corrections Gangs and Violence in Prisons https://edge.sagepub.com/system/files/Ch12RennisonGangsandViolenceinPrisons.pdf We spoke to hundreds of prison gang members – here's what they said about life behind bars https://www.colorado.edu/asmagazine/2020/04/03/we-spoke-hundreds-prison-gang-members-heres-what-they-said-about-life-behind-bars Why Prisoners Join Gangs https://www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2014/11/12/why-prisoners-join-gangs 5 facts behind America's high incarceration rate https://www.cnn.com/2018/06/28/us/mass-incarceration-five-key-facts/index.html
Natalie earned her Bachelors degree in Journalism from the University of Kansas, and has worked in television and radio during her career. When she was a 19-year-old sophomore at KU, she got her first on-air job as a sports reporter for a CBS-TV affiliate. In 2013, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the possession and production of marijuana. She was released in 2017. We've kept her last name off of our website so that she does not experience any professional hardship for her contributions.
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