How Prison Gangs Control Correctional Institutions

For many decades inmates lived by the “Convict Code,” which basically said to keep your head down, mind your own business, and try to avoid altercations with other inmates. But as incarceration rates in the U.S. jumped drastically in the 1950’s and prison populations became more racially and ethnically mixed, prison authorities lost control of the prisons and the Convict Code became a thing of the past.

As a result of the chaos and lack of control inside prisons, groups began banding together for self-protection. Over the years, these groups became powerful gangs that wield control over life and social order behind bars. Many prison gangs have become so powerful that they also have thriving illegal business dealings on the streets.

Racial Tensions

In general, prison gangs are typically racially and ethnically divided. White inmates join white prison gangs, while the same goes for Hispanic and African- American inmates. There is a lot of tension and hostility between gangs in prison, and fighting, brutal beatings, and even murder is not uncommon behind bars. When an inmate joins a prison gang he or she is offered protection from other gangs, but absolute loyalty is required and new gang members must follow every order issued by the gang leader.

Distribution of Contraband

There are a number of things, such as cell phones and drugs, that are prohibited in prison but prison gangs have become experts in smuggling in contraband and distributing it to inmates for a price. Weapons, tobacco, candy, and other comfort items are also popular on the black market that prison gangs control.

Prison gangs often rely on associates on the streets to assist in bringing contraband into a prison, and unfortunately corrupt prison guards have been known to work with prison gangs to distribute the contraband. As an example of how widespread contraband is in prisons, in 2013 the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation confiscated 12,151 cell phones from prison inmates; it is estimated that this figure may represent only one tenth of the number of contraband phones floating around in prisons in that state.

Methods Used to Control Gangs in Prisons

As prison gangs grew in size, prison officials tried to diffuse their power by transferring gang leaders to other correctional institutions. Unfortunately, this plan did not work and actually helped specific gangs grow in other facilities. Controlling prison gangs and their leaders is very difficult since most high-ranking prison gang members are serving very long prison sentences. Prison officials now rely on closely monitoring gangs and identifying the leaders and members of different gangs to help prevent violence from erupting. Some prisons have had to resort to carefully assigning inmates to certain cell blocks; putting a black inmate in a cell block populated by white gang members is a surefire way to start a war between rival prison gangs.

The Most Powerful Gangs in American Prisons

MS-13: This gang originated in the 1980’s in Los Angeles. The majority of the gang members are from Central America and their rivals are Mexican gangs. It is estimated that there are 8,000-10,000 MS-13 gang members in America, and the majority of the members in prison are serving sentences in California or New York. MS-13 gang members are often recognized by their numerous tattoos--they often cover their entire faces with tattoos.

Black Guerrilla Family: The Black Guerilla Family, often referred to as BGF, originated in San Quentin State Prison (CA) in 1966. The original goal of this gang was to maintain dignity in prison, erase racism, and overthrow the U.S. government. In order to become a member of the BGF an inmate must be black and has to be nominated by an existing member. During the 1990’s the BGF saw a decline in power, but it has experienced a recent growth in strength due to affiliations with powerful street gangs such as the Bloods, Crips, and Black Gangster Disciples.

Mexican Mafia: As one of the oldest and most powerful prison gangs, the Mexican Mafia formed inside prisons within the California Department of Corrections in the 1950’s. The main goal of the Mexican Mafia both inside prisons and on the streets is to earn money through criminal activity. Extreme loyalty is required from every gang member, and failure to complete tasks assigned by gang leaders typically results in death. The majority of the Mexican Mafia members in prison are found in California and Texas.

Aryan Brotherhood: The Aryan Brotherhood is another prison gang that originated in San Quentin State Prison (CA), and it was founded in 1967. The gang was originally formed to protect white inmates from black inmates, but it did not take long for the gang to begin participating in criminal activity for monetary gain. The Aryan Brotherhood is a very violent gang—members make up only 1% of the prison population but they are responsible for 18% of the murders that occur in the U.S. prison system.