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SOURCE: Orlando-Morningstar, D. (1999). Prison gangs. Washington, DC: Federal Judicial Center.


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Chapter 10: Prison Subculture and Prison Gang Influence 261

administration serve as the breeding ground for gang development. Further, when selecting correctional staff to serve on gang task forces, the prison administrator must exercise care and remain vigilant. In some cases, an inmate’s sibling, cousin, girlfriend, former wives, and companions may be employed within the facil- ity. This is, of course, a common tactic used by gangs who seek to infiltrate the correctional system.

Gang Control, Management, and Administrative Segregation

In addition to the physical security of the facility, there are many psychological aspects of controlling gang activity. For instance, the immediate tendency of corrections officials may be to restrict privileges for gang-related inmates. But, as Fleisher (2008) notes, with- drawing incentives or placing these inmates in long-term states of restricted movement can have financial and social consequences for the prison facility. For instance, in Texas, many gang-related inmates are kept in administra- tive segregation. Administrative segregation is a security status that is intended to keep the assigned inmate from having contact with the general population. It is not punitive in nature, like solitary confinement. This custody status is intended to protect the general population from the inmate in segregation. However, this form of custody is very expensive.

Further, there is a tendency for prison systems that use administrative segregation to house inmates of the same gang in the same area. This prevents them from coming into contact with enemy gang mem- bers yet cuts costs that would ensue if they were kept on different cell blocks or dormitories. But doing this replicates the street gang culture as they are all together but with geographic isolation (i.e., one neighbor- hood, one gang) where there is one cell block and one gang. In other words, this can build solidarity for the group. This can also lead to problematic behaviors where inmates exercise power (through the gang rank structure) over a cell block or dormitory, encouraging security to work with those in power to maintain compliance over the other lower-ranking inmates of that gang. Naturally, this should be avoided because it validates the gang’s power and undermines the security staff. Fleisher (2008) notes that other problematic behaviors can also emerge. For instance, gangs may attempt to run cell blocks, “sell” cells on the cell block, or “own” territory on the recreation yard. This simply reinforces their feeling that they have power over the institution. This should be avoided.

Gang Management Data

The modern prison facility has improved surveillance, layout, and intelligence-gathering strategies that have worked well to thwart the activities of gang members. One key aspect of a comprehensive gang intel- ligence program is the use of data that is continuously validated. Fleisher (2008) notes that prison admin- istrators should do the following:

1. Develop strong nationwide ties to gang units in police departments.

2. Participate in national correctional conferences on gang intelligence.

3. Maintain good relations with fellow STG management persons in other agencies.

4. Establish strong contact with local police agencies and the state’s attorney’s office.

PHOTO 10.7

An inmate holds another inmate hostage with a homemade shank.

Journal Article Link 10.4 Read about classifying prisoners for administrative segregation.



262 Introduction to Corrections

It is important to point out that gang data are of no assistance if they are not well organized and carefully analyzed. The modern intelligence team should be well trained on databases and should have the ability to customize databases for various projects.

The first phase in developing an effective program is to initiate an effective intelligence and commu- nications network that would accurately indicate how many inmates have gang affiliations, which gangs they are affiliated with, and their status within those gangs. The database should also provide information on which facilities gang members are in and their institutional classification. Further, all of this informa- tion can provide the department with data on the proliferation or concentration of any group, so that it can forecast where or when a buildup of a particular group could cause problems. Strategic transfers of inmates can assist the agency in controlling the establishment of gang power bases and can ensure that some individuals do not have undue influence over others.

In addition, good gang intelligence programs will have developed a digitized imaging program that offers numerous advantages for identifying gang members and their status, behavior, and control. The complete history and personal data of gang members can be recorded, and digitized images (front and side) can be taken. Digitized images should also be made of any tattoos, distinguishing marks, or scars. These images are usually clearer than those obtained by film, and this negates the need for taking addi- tional photographs, or for film storage or development. The digitized images can also be entered into a computer and downloaded into the database. This type of process tends to take about two minutes per individual and can produce a permanent record that can be promptly updated as circumstances require.

Through this process, each facility is able to update records quickly. Changes are simultaneously downloaded to a central repository so the department has expedient, accurate information regarding new gang members or changes in the status of current members. An advantage of this system is that it is pos- sible to conduct single and multiple searches on the basis of any data in the file. For instance, if one inmate gang member reports being attacked by another inmate but could not identify the inmate by name, a timely departmental search could be accomplished based on any information the victim could give. If the victim stated that the attacker was about 5 feet tall, with a moustache, and that he had a tattoo of a dragon on his right hand, a computerized departmental search could be expeditiously conducted. Every registered person in the entire gang network who fit that description would be displayed on the screen in a photo array—constituting a virtual “computerized lineup.” These types of screens can also be altered to focus on points of interest, by enlarging images of areas in which there are scars, tattoos, or other distin- guishing marks.

Lastly, prison staff should, of course, be appropriately trained on the use of these types of tools, and they should also be trained in gang recognition skills. This training also requires a good deal of ethics training since gang populations can be very manipulative. Ensuring that staff are well trained and con- fident will help the institution run well and will keep security at its peak. This will also curb gangs from growing and/or exerting undue pressure upon others. All in all, staff training will augment the policies and tools that agencies utilize. In fact, staff training will be the prime factor that determines whether poli- cies and/or technical tools are utilized effectively.


This chapter has provided students with a glimpse of the “behind the scenes” aspects of the prison envi- ronment. The notion of a prison subculture, complete with norms and standards that are counter to those of the outside world, has been presented to give students an idea of the values and norms that impact the day-to-day operation of many prisons. There has been substantial debate as to whether this informal prison subculture is the product of adjustments and adaptations to prison life or if this subculture is more the product of norms brought in from the outside world—from the street life.

The informal subculture within prisons tends to be largely driven by inmates. The convict code has typically been presented as the “gold standard” of behavior among inmates. This code represents per- ceptions of eras that are now out of date and are not in sync with the modern era. The effects of profes- sionalism within the correctional officer ranks, the diversity of correctional staff, and the difference in



this generation of inmates all have led to the near demise of the honor-bound convict code. Within the informal subculture, it is clear that correctional staff also have some informal standards and expectations. The work of Kauffman (1988) has provided very good insight on the behavior of correctional staff who work in prisons.

The norms associated with both the subculture of prison staff and the convict code of inmates are in a state of flux and decline. The subculture among correctional staff has been impacted by the emphasis on professionalism and the diversification in staff recruiting. These two aspects related to employees in the system have, over time, changed the face of corrections and have also undermined the tenets of the prison subculture. What has resulted is a state of ambiguity where inmates often pay lip service to tenets of respectable behavior (according to prison logic) but often break the rules on this behavior when put under pressure. Simply put, there is truly no honor among thieves.

Gangs have emerged as a major force in state prison systems. The first recorded prison gangs began to emerge in the late 1950s and the early 1960s, primarily in the California prison system. Since that time, gangs have proliferated around the United States and have exerted substantial influence over the prison subculture and even dynamics in prison operations. In this chapter, we have covered 13 of the larger and more well-known prison gangs in the nation. From the coverage of these gangs, it is clear that they have networks that extend beyond the prison walls, and this, in turn, increases their power and influence within the prison walls. Indeed, when offenders in a street gang enter prison, they do not simply forfeit their membership in their gang. Likewise, when these inmates leave prison, they again do not simply leave their gang obligations behind. Rather, gangs have become porous groups that exist inside and outside the prison walls.

The methods used to control gang activity inside prisons have been discussed. Prison gang intelli- gence units must have effective means of investigating potential membership and collecting data on gang members. Utilizing electronic equipment for identification, storage, and retrieval is key to maintaining an effective antigang strategy. The ability to share data with other agencies enhances public safety within the region surrounding the prison and also improves security within. The truth of this issue is that, whether we like it or not, the prison has an impact on outside society, due to the manner in which the inmate population cycles into and out of prison. Thus, it is clear that prisons impact society, both in terms of keeping dangerous persons locked up and in terms of their learned behavior once they are released back into society.

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