Authors' Note: The data in this article were provided by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice under Research Agreement No. 016-R99. Points of view are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
"I'm convinced that if you put three people on an island somewhere, two would clique up and become predatory against the other at some point."--Cory Godwin, former president of the Gang-Investigators Association for the Florida Department of Corrections. (1)
Data on the number of gang-related inmates may be one of the most elusive figures in corrections. Most of what is known about the nature and extent of prison gangs is collected through surveys of corrections officials about their respective jurisdictions. (2) Despite the usefulness of such surveys, state-to-state variations in data collection and related procedures are a significant barrier to comprehensive figures on the extent of prison gangs. For example, according to the 2002 Corrections Yearbook, most state prison systems count gang members who have been vetted through a confirmation process, although some systems count suspected and inactive members in their gang totals. In this same vein, a number of state prison systems count street gang members in their total gang member counts, while others do not. Moreover, a number of states count in their gang totals only members of recognized prison and/or street gangs, neglecting those who may be aligned with unrecognized cliques and other security threat groups. The bottom line is that significant variations exist both within and between states on the identification and counting of gang-related inmates, and such variations prevent an accurate count in assessing gang membership in U.S. prison systems.
Despite these recognized limitations, the most recent national-level data reveal that gang members account for a very small proportion of any individual prison system. In a 2002 national survey of state prison systems and the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the Criminal Justice Institute revealed a total of 15,398 prison gang members. The survey revealed that most states had fewer than 1,000 gang members, although California and Texas emerged as anomalies by accounting for nearly 70 percent of all prison gang members, each with more than 5,000 members. Despite some variation among individual state systems, strictly prison-based gang members accounted for 1.2 percent of all state and federal prison inmates. Including street gang members and members of other security threat groups, gang-related inmates constituted less than 5 percent of all prison inmates across the country.
The best evidence suggests that the overwhelming majority of prison inmates are not gang-related. Forgetting their low numbers, however, gang and security threat group members cause a disproportionate share of problems in the prison setting and are a significant administrative issue for prison managers. (3)
When a Group Thrives On Prison
A prime example of the cost and mayhem created by prison gangs was uncovered by Operation Black Widow in 1998. Operation Black Widow was a three-year, $5 million cooperation between the FBI and local authorities in California to ferret out and prosecute the most violent members of the infamous Nuestra Familia. It was and remains the most expensive investigation into a U.S. prison gang. Black Widow uncovered a complex paramilitary hierarchy within the Nuestra Familia, including insight into its recruitment and membership activities, discipline structure, communication structure and member tracking. Black Widow also uncovered information on the Nuestra Raza, a subordinate organization formed to train members aspiring to the Nuestra Familia and to distract law enforcement from Familia activities. (4)
Operation Black Widow exposed the ingenuity of incarcerated Nuestra Familia members operating inside Pelican Bay State Prison in California. Nuestra Familia members, housed in the secure housing unit, were able to order and carry out death hits and drug deals, and run extortion rackets by communicating to the outside world through notes embossed on the inside of legal envelopes and by using upcoming parolees to transport to the street notes buried in the prison's recreation yard. This complex system uncovered by Operation Black Widow resulted in the indictment of 13 members of Nuestra Familia on 24 federal counts in 2001, ranging from racketeering to witness tampering to murder. (5)
The Nuestra Familia is perhaps an extreme example of the consequences of gang proliferation in U.S. prisons, and they are in the company of other large prison gangs such as the Aryan Brotherhood, Texas Syndicate, Mexican Mafia and the Black Guerilla Family. But even smaller and less complex prison gangs, security threat groups and inmate cliques pose a major problem to prison administrators around the country. They are able to cause violence and disorder in and out of prisons and require special consideration in numerous areas from housing to movement and from visitation to mailing privileges. (6) The bottom line is that they are a major source of institutional disruption and seem to thrive on the various systems created to defeat them. (7)
Add Race to the Mix
Gangs and security threat groups are primarily aligned along race and ethnicity. The racial and ethnic divide endorsed by most prison and street gangs means that race has been and continues to be one of the most dominant influences on inmate behavior, perhaps only second to gang membership. (8) The importance of race and gang membership cannot be understated in light of the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case of Johnson v. California. In this case, the Supreme Court struck down the racial segregation of inmates unless segregation was the only way that the safety and security of staff, inmates and institutions could be maintained. Even then, racial segregation must only be a...