According to the FBI, over one million people in the US belong to organized gangs. When members of different gangs are arrested, convicted for crimes and imprisoned, they meet each other in prison. This means that they can use the common background that they have in criminal activities in order to perpetuate criminal acts within prison cells. Outside prisons, contact with those who are yet to be imprisoned makes it easy for crimes to continue being organized and perpetrated.
Within California, Terry Thorton, a spokeswoman for California Department of Corrections, the prisons are today accommodating about 162,000 inmates within the state’s prisons. Gang population has been estimated to comprise 803 members, 325 inactive member, 900 associates and 1,050 dropouts.
In The Influence of Prison Gang Affiliation on Violence and Other Prison Misconduct, Wallace, et al, 2002 used automated The Bureau of Prisons data in order to conduct an empirical research how prison affiliation gangs contribute to various forms of misconduct and violence inside prisons. They found out that specific as well as more generic indicators of gangs were directly connected to instances of violence and various unlawful acts that threatened to destabilize law and order in prisons.
Prison gangs represent an extension of a society whose morality has suffered untold erosion. Many people who join these gangs do so in order to survive in a prison society full of animosity, hostility and cruelty.
According to Bill Wallace, a Chronicle staff writer, California’s prison system is dominated by 5 major inmate gangs. According to Wallace, the gangs are often organized based on racial affiliations. This brings into sharp focus the survival theory. In this case, those races that are threatened by marginalization find themselves finding for ways through which they can survive. They find solace in prison gangs in the face of harsh life outside and within the confines of prison walls. Even upon completion of their sentences, members of these gangs maintain close ties with the base that is within the prison.
The gangs thrive because their members are able to take advantage of the tensions that already exist among inmates due to ethnic and tribal affiliations. The State Department stated in a 2003 report relating to the genesis of organized prison gangs: “as these gangs began to continuously grow in number and acquire leverage, more and more cases of rivalries began to emerge and this resulted in increase of violence in prisons.
Nuestra Familia is one of the earliest prison gangs to be formed in Soledad Prison. It was formed in order to protect young inmates held in North California prisons from the Mexican Mafia. The Mexican Mafia, also known as La EME, had been formed as early as w1950s in order to enable prisoners to connect with the outside world and to continue organizing crimes. In November, 2005, Pelican Bay State Prison, considered one of the toughest penitentiaries in California, froze the accounts of some 16 inmates believed to have been laundering money through sale of drugs in the streets, criminal activities and prostitution.
Black Guerilla Family is another prison gang, which gang experts say, is largely responsible for racial frictions within California prisons. The gang was founded in 1996 in San Quentin prison. The 1990s saw the memberships of Black Guerilla Family drop dramatically. It is only six years ago that saw recruitment drives for this prison gang increase dramatically. The gang even started hiring from street gangs with a predominantly black population, including The Crips and 415 Kumi Nation.
How do gangs maintain control in California prisons?
All gangs thrive through connections that they maintain with street gangs. All prison gangs are affiliated to certain street gangs whose members cooperate in matters of mutual interest such as crimes, sale of drugs in the streets and prostitution. These links have become so cohesive that they have attracted the interest of federal prosecutors.
Modern communications technology has made it easy for inmates to communicate with the outside world. It takes a simple phone call for the leader of a prison gang to coordinate drug business in the street through the use of connections with gang members who are out of prison. In most cases, these members happen to be former inmates at the said prison from where the activities are being coordinated. In most cases, mobile phones find their way into prisons as contraband. This makes it possible for gang leaders to issue commands even when they are in segregation.
Geoffrey et al, 1993, looks at the organizations of California prison gangs within the context of a culture that has developed in prisons over decades that go as far back as the 1950s. Within this context, prison gangs are seen to rely on external subcultures as well as a prison culture that is not easy to find in any other place on earth. Every gang maintains a unique sense of identity by designing symbols and tattoos.
Prison population demographics are never constant; they keep changing as new inmates come in and old ones go. This scenario presents even experienced inmates with a difficult situation where they have to keep adapting to a new environment all the time. With prison gangs, the problem of maintaining cohesion is solved.
Without solidarity, gangs cannot succeed in making contraband find its way into the prisons. Where cooperation between members of different gangs takes place, it is because there are mutual benefits to be derived. In most cases, this happens when there is need to coordinate efforts aimed at covering up the illegal activities that go on in prison cells.
Members of each gang have a particular coded language that they use for communication. They also replace letters with number codes in order to ensure that only a member of their gang can decode the information that is transferred. The codes are changed periodically in order to ensure that they are not cracked by law enforcement agencies.