Latino gang culture promotes a positive educational environment--an esl teacher's perspective.

Author:Gardner, Susanne

Street gangs are prevalent in U.S. prison systems today, with an estimate of 230,000 gang members incarcerated in both federal and state prisons. (1) In Maryland, 260 different gangs exist within the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. (2) While the media and law enforcement focus on the negative gang violence that affects families and communities, there is another side to gang culture that is rarely discussed. English as a Second Language (ESL) students at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup (MCI-J), and specifically Latino gang members, have brought positive attributes to the classroom. These characteristics--cultural in origin--intertwine effectively with a three-pronged approach instructional style that allows each student to be successful as he makes academic progress in his educational journey behind prison walls. This journey begins after a student's arrival at MCI-J.

Education at MCI-J

MCI-J is a men's state prison located in the suburbs of Baltimore. It houses about 1,024 inmates at three different security levels: minimum (a sentence of less than five years), medium (five to 10 years) and maximum (more than 10 years). Inmates, including gang members, who do not have a high school diploma or equivalency are mandated to attend the MCI-1 school (located on premises) for 120 days when they enter the correctional system. The school currently enrolls 177 students. It is hoped that men will stay in school longer, if needed, in order to attain a high school diploma or appropriate level literacy certificate. These literacy certificates reflect the various academic classes in the school: ESL; special education; basic literacy; intermediate levels one, two, three and four; and adult secondary education levels one, two, three and four. ESL students are encouraged to exit ESL and enter the general education program, and work toward obtaining a high school diploma.

The ESL program. The ESL instructor is charged with teaching 24 Hispanic men, ages 18-56. ESL uses an integrated curriculum--including listening, speaking, reading and writing--to prepare offenders for academic success. There are two classes, morning and afternoon, with 12 students in each class. Each class runs for almost three hours. All students are Hispanic and generally come from four countries--El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico--with an occasional student from South America or one of the Caribbean islands. These students fall into three categories: gang members, associate members and nongang members. Of the 24 students currently on the roster, there are 11 gang members, five associates and eight nonmembers (as of November 2013). Gang members include students from many different cities and neighborhoods in Central America and Mexico. The two Latino gangs represented in the classes are the predominate Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), and 18th Street or Barrio 18 (18). Associates, defined as having allegiance to a gang, but not full membership status, are also from Central America and Mexico, with no particular breakdown between countries.

Through a literature review and personal conversations with other instructors, the author realized there was not much information documented on the Latino gang presence in the correctional and other adult education environments. It is necessary to acknowledge the gang presence with respect and...

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