Prison Gangs 101.

Author:Valdez, Alfonso J.

Prison gangs have developed and evolved in the U.S. prison system for a number of reasons. Probably the most common are for protection and control. Prison gangs can also exert their influence on street gang activity outside of the prison.

To the street-level gang member, state prison gang members carry a great deal of power, respect and influence. As such, most street-gang members will honor and pay homage to a state prison gang member. To the street gangs, the prison gang members are the "bad of the bad," as one 18-year-old Latino street gang member said. Sadly, the prison gang influence is so strong that some street gang members aspire to become prison gang members.

Even while on parole, prison gang members will continue to conduct business for the prison gang. The ultimate commitment to a prison gang is lifelong membership. "You join a prison gang for life," said Leo Durate, a prison gang specialist at the California Institute for Men in Chino.

The everyday street rules that gang members follow sometimes do not apply while in a state prison. For example, gang members who once were bitter rivals on the street may now be ethnic allies. Often in prisons, inmates of the same race stick together, suggesting that ethnicity can be an important cohesive factor in inmate populations. For proof of this theory, look at the formation of California's first prison gang, the Mexican Mafia.


It is generally accepted that the Mexican Mafia, a Latino-based gang, formed around 1957 at the Duel Vocational Institution in Tracy, Calif. It was originally founded by 13 inmates who were active Latino street gang members from different neighborhoods in the Los Angeles area. The gang's nickname became "La Eme," signifying the Spanish world for the letter M.


Gang members banded together in prison to protect themselves from other gang members, inmates and prison staff. It was this perceived need for protection from another group that acted as a catalyst for the gang's formation. Today, Mexican Mafia members come from all parts of Southern California, and active recruitment of the Mexican Mafia is an ongoing process.

Mexican Mafia prison gang members frequently tattoo their right hands with the word "Eme." Also displayed in their tattoos is an eagle holding a snake in its mouth with the letter M or the phrase "Eme Mexicana." The Mexicana Mafia gang members also identify with the term Sur, an abbreviation for the word "sureno." The Latino street gangs also started to band together under "Sur/13" once in prison. The number 13 was used because it represented the 13th letter of the alphabet, the letter M.


Once this gang formed, victims of its illegal activities tended to band together for protection. As a result, more prison gangs developed.


At the correctional training facility in...

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