Terri Compton, RN, MSW & Mike Meacham, Ph.D., LCSW, DABFE

Division of Social Work
Valdosta State University
Valdosta, Georgia 31698-0128
Telephone: 229-245-4339
Fax: 229-245-4341

The Forensic Examiner - March, 2016


Prison gangs are increasing as rapidly as street gangs. This article is an overview of the literature that gives basic statistics on the incidences, describes the processes inmates generally follow to join prison gangs, and reviews selected interventions that have been attempted. We conclude that interventions should be flexible enough for use under the unique circumstances of each prison and that these interventions should be designed with specified and measurable goals so that the interventions’ progresses may be effectively measured. We suggest that communication among prison systems on such programs is important to development of effective interventions for adaptation to individual circumstances.


  1. Readers will learn the descriptions of major prison gangs and their distinct characteristics.
  2. Readers will learn about the growing frequency of prison gangs.
  3. Readers will learn basic laws and rulings that have influenced the growth of prison gangs
  4. Readers will learn basic interventions that have been successful in controlling prison gangs.

KEY WORDS: Gangs, Prisons, Interventions, Corrections


Although outlaw gangs have been a problem in many societies since recorded history, and have been problematic throughout American history, a new wave of gang activity became a central societal focus in the 1980s. Gangs have risen to a level of power beyond the control of local or even state authorities, and many believe that the problem has international connections.

During the 1920s and 1930s, we discovered that prisons were breeding grounds for groups and gangs as those headed by Dillinger, Floyd, Barrow. Today, prison gangs flourish behind prison walls and grow stronger both there and in the community. Our intention in this paper is to give a summary of prison gangs and to suggest interventions that may be helpful. We begin with a caveat for researchers outside the prison system. The difficulties in prisons in general (and in any particular prison) are much more complex and dangerous than many outsiders realize, and we believe it is necessary to include officials within each particular institution when developing strategies to control gang activity. Furthermore, research focusing on the progress of interventions is necessary for continued effectiveness of such programs.


What causes prison gangs to arise? One reason is clear. Inside prisons, survival becomes a dominant factor. Other sources (Buentello, Fong and Vogel, 1991), asserted that once prison officials were restrained in their control of inmates, coupled with a lack of support for reforms, the prisoners found themselves in more danger from fellow inmates and so began to organize self-defense groups. They further stated that eight prison gangs were identified by Texas prison officials formed inside the prison.

One reason for the growth of these gangs is their secretive nature. Many gangs exist undiscovered until a crisis occurs (Fong & Buentello, 1991). Reforms intended to protect prisoner rights have inadvertently resulted in inhibiting the discovery and control of prison gangs. These reforms were necessary because prior rulings (i.e. Ruffin v. Commonwealth 62 Va., 1971; Price v. Johnson 334 U.S. 266) resulted in allowing unfettered treatment of prisons by officials and many had abused this. The ruling thus allowed excesses by officials and it endangered prisoners at the discretion of individual correctional employees.

Some of these reforms began in the Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167 ruling, which in 1961 ruled that inmates could seek redress for violations of constitutional rights by prison officials. This decision was expanded in 1964 in Cooper v. Pate, 378 U.S. 546. While these decisions improved many aspects of prison life, they unintentionally undermined authority of officials that had once served to suppress violence. In many respects, the system became even more dangerous for prisoners (Fong & Vogel, 1995). An example of this process may be found in Ruiz v. Estelle (1980). Texas Department of Corrections officials had been controlling illegal activities through a system known as the “building tender system.” In this system, trusted prisoners were used to monitor activities of other inmates and gave intelligence on potential or growing problems. Ruiz v. Estelle eliminated this system and without intelligence provided from this source, prison violence grew.

Even necessary changes meant to equalize prisoner treatment and allow better access to legal and personal contact led to increases in prison violence and strengthened the gangs. The elimination of racial segregation, a ruling needed to equalize treatment and conditions for all prisoners, (Lee v. Washington, 1968) had as a side effect, increased interracial violence. Intelligence was further inhibited by rulings on mail censorship (Procunier, v. Martinez, 1974). Again, while limiting the arbitrary treatment of prisoners resulted in more safety from systemic exploitation, cruelty and expanded prisoner rights, the unanticipated consequence was that prisons have in other respects become more dangerous to both prisoners and correctional personnel.

However, well-intentioned and necessary court rulings do not completely explain the growth of gangs. There is some discussion how well connected to the outside these gangs are. It is clear that they have good contact as outside members are sent to prisons where gang members already exist. This connection supports and protects gang members while in prison as well as assists in support for gang members’ families and associates outside the walls. Cummins (1995) suggested that gangs support members’ families monetarily, that outside gang capital is used to provide new starts in businesses (frequently legitimate), and that frequent contact is maintained. Inside gang training assists members in literacy, personal hygiene, enunciation and other activities. Not all of this training is so positive. Gang members are trained in the use of weapons and in guerrilla warfare as well. Some state prison systems deny regular access to classes for those involved in gangs, so the gang often provides this education.

What is the extent of the problem? Most data is provided by the states. Danitz (1998) cites the following statistics. In Illinois approximately 60% of the prison population belongs to gangs. About 240 street gangs operate in the Florida system. Texas has identified 5,000 gang members and suspects another 10,000 out of a population of 143,000. Within the prison reside many older gang members who remain powerful leaders in street gangs. It is a status symbol among most gangs to have done time. Within the prison, a gang member finds protection and the support cited above. For these and numerous other reasons, prison gang membership is increasing.

The word “gang” has many meanings and it is should be defined. To do so, we must first examine the criteria for a group. Longres (1995) defined a group as a system in which two or more individuals are interacting and influencing one another. The interactions can be direct in face-to-face contact or indirectly through representatives. Longres explained that groups, as systems, are collections of unique individuals who are all interdependent, who must interact with their environment, and who cannot exist without it. Each group has an internal structure with members who define themselves as “us” and those outside the group as “them”. He further explained “that every system is a holon; it is a whole – a unit unto itself – and a part of a whole, both at the same time” (Longres, 1995: p. 46). Each group has physical, psychological and social boundaries that give the group further definition.

Prison gangs meet group criteria and have many common features. Fong, et al (1992) described several common elements that define a gang: they have racial and ethnic boundaries, members have pre-prison gang experiences, they practice life-long membership, and the gang has a structured leadership. They often see themselves as political prisoners and therefore may seek to legitimatize their actions as political violence against a perceived enemy.

Not all prison gangs are an extension of gang activity on the street. Buentello, Fong, & Vogel (1991) described some gangs as self-protective and do not participate in illegal activities, while other gangs are predatory in nature and resort to contract murder, black marketeering, prostitution and extortion within the walls. Leet, Rush, & Smith (1997) wrote that members can do anything on the inside that they can do on the street. Imprisonment does not pose an excessive undue hardship for many gang members. They can easily get the goods and services they need on the inside.

Fong, Vogel, & Buentello (1996) described a survey conducted by the American Correctional Association (ACA) of 125 correctional facilities, which included prison system in all 50 states, the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the District of Columbia. This study revealed that prison gangs existed in 40 prison systems. The study identified 1,153 different gangs. The study revealed that Illinois, New Jersey, and California had the largest population of prison gang members. Nearly half of the prisoners in Illinois were affiliated with prison gangs.

It is important to note that many of these statistics are becoming old. Newer data is necessary for more exact knowledge of incidence.


Prison gangs continue to be a powerful and destructive force in correctional facilities. The 1993 ACA study reveals that prison gangs responsible for 20 percent of the violence toward staff and 40 percent of the violence directed at other inmates (Fong, et al., 1996). Danitz (1998) wrote that over a third of the 143,000 inmates in the Texas prison system are identified gang members with another 10,000 suspected of being gang members.

Trout (1992) identified five major gangs in federal prison system: the Aryan Brotherhood, the Mexican Mafia, the Texas Syndicate, the La Nuestra Familia, and the Black Guerrilla Family. The Aryan Brotherhood (AB) originated in California for self-defense and to promote white supremacy. The AB has a small membership, but as Trout (1992: 620) wrote, “The Aryan Brotherhood has clearly been the most violent prison gang. Its members have been involved in 18 percent of all homicides in BOP facilities in the past ten years.” The AB has formed a strong alliance with the Mexican Mafia for protection and control of the prison narcotic business (Leet et al, 1997).

The Mexican Mafia, also known as EME, began in the barrios of East Los Angeles and developed within prison by street gang members there. Leet, Rush, & Smith (1997) wrote that once in prison, the EME prey on African-American and Caucasian inmates. EME membership has spread throughout the California prison system. According to Trout (1992), the EME is the most active in the BOP and has been at war with other Hispanic gangs. They can be identified by tattoos of an eagle and a serpent with the letters EME superimposed.

The Black Guerrilla Family (BGF) is a terrorist group that was organized in San Quentin in the 1960s. Leet, et al (1997) wrote that the BGF is the smallest, yet strongest and most revolutionary of the major gangs. They adhere to a Marxist revolutionary movement outside the prison. Members usually have the insignia of a crossed rifle and sword tattooed on the upper body.

La Nuestra Familia was established to protect rural, Mexican-American prisoners from the EME. Leet, et al (1997) wrote that the gang now accepts a few Native Americans and some Caucasians. Rank is achieved by number of murders counted and members consider the gang’s leader as a General with absolute power. La Nuestra members usually have large tattoos of a sombrero superimposed over a bloody dagger (Trout, 1992).

Hispanic Americans from Texas started the Texas Syndicate. It is the oldest and second largest gang in Texas. It is organized along para-military lines, but their leaders are elected from the entire membership (Fong, et al, 1990). The gang members are fiercely loyal and will act with swift retaliation with little regard for their own safety (Leet, et al, 1997). They actively recruit members and now accept Latinos from all Latin American countries. Their tattoo includes a highly styled “S” superimposed over a “T” (Trout, 1992).


Buentello, et al (1991) developed a theoretical model of prison gang development. They describe a five-stage process of attitude and behavior change that inmates undergo when they first enter the prison system. In the first stage the prisoner quickly learns how to anticipate and react to violence, how to play by prison rules, and how to relate to administrations, officers, and inmates.

In stage two Buentello, et al describe the process of the inmate becoming part of a clique. These relationships are based on the need to belong and to survive. Criminal activity is rarely promoted during this stage.

When the cliques become large enough or begin to feel threatened by other groups, prisoners evolve into the third stage, which are self-protection groups. A good example of this process is the formation of the Texas Syndicate in the California prison system. A group of Texas-born inmates banded together when other California inmates threatened them. As the members of the clique develop confidence, leaders develop and begin to exert control over other group members and over group activities.

The group may then evolve to the fourth stage, the predator group. During this stage, group members are expected to have similar viewpoints and weak members are excluded. Predator groups are willing to participate in illegal activities such as extortion, gambling, prostitution and violence. The leaders of the group develop the means and the power to profit from illegal activities.

Stage five develops as the predator groups become stronger and more feared. Buentello, et al described the fifth stage as gang formation. Formal rules and a hierarchy of leadership are developed. Members are expected to follow all the rules, which include involvement in contract murder, extortion, gambling, drug trafficking, and prostitution. Leadership is often developed along para-military lines, each member knows his place in the gang, and is considered to be a member for life.


Most efforts to deal with gang activity have been reactive rather than proactive. Fong & Buentello (1991: 69) wrote that until recently, (they wrote in 1991) correctional officials have categorically ignored or minimized the emergence of prison gangs. Their hope was that by refusing to acknowledge their existence, prison gangs would eventually disappear, which has proven not to be the case. On the contrary, prison gangs have grown to cause a major correctional crisis in America. Still, many correctional officials take a reactive approach to the problem because of their lack of knowledge about prison gangs.

Most gang interventions have focused on street gangs with little attention given to prison gangs. Correction officials have tried several methods to control the gang population. Fong, et al (1996) described a programmatic control strategy for controlling prison gangs. It involves the segregation of gang members in a unit separate from the general population and imposing disciplinary sanctions, such as isolation, for prison rule violations. This strategy also includes in-state and out-of-state transfers for gang members, security upgrades, as well as mail and telephone monitoring. Other control strategies include criminal prosecution, protective custody for defected members and denial of contact visits and furlough privileges.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice Institutional Division (TDCJ-ID) has instituted several new strategies. Buentello (1992) wrote of the interventions taken by the TDCJ-ID. They develop new in-service and pre-service training along with increasing the number of staff and building additional facilities. They place known gang members in administrative segregation. This move helps reduce the tension among general population prisoners and makes it more difficult for gang members to recruit and carry out illegal activities.

Buentello elaborated on another strategy that the TDCJ-ID finds useful. It involves the creation of a special prosecutor who aggressively addresses in-house violence. The Texas legislature has passed two new laws that make it a felony for an inmate to possess a weapon and, if convicted of a felony while incarcerated, must serve this sentence consecutively. As a result, gang members have begun to defect and become witnesses for the state. This creates distrust among gang members and eventually leads to erosion of some gangs’ effectiveness.

Another strategy that Buentello (1992: 60) described is the designation of gang intelligence officers. They help identify gang members in the general population and gather information for the special prosecutor. As a result, more gang members begin to provide information about pending violence to avoid being the subject of further prosecution.

One key management plan is to establish communication between outside state and federal law enforcement. This allows the authorities to monitor and disrupt gang activity in the community. Many gang members had been prosecuted at the federal level and had not been sent to state prisons. Buentello explains, “It was a combination of several strategies working together that allowed the department to take the initiative in battling gangs and gang violence.”

These are only some of the strategies being developed. Many more are being tried or considered. Communication and reports on progress of these programs should prove very useful in the future.


In summary, while gangs always have existed in prisons, the modern prison gang is larger, better organized, and much more assisted by outside gang members than those of previous times. It appears that the initial reaction was one of a fruitless hope that the problem will pass with time.

Instead, this attitude results in a “free time” during which gangs grow, organize, and arm themselves with capital and weapons. Often, before any concerted action is taken, a crisis level has been achieved and possibly an actual event has triggered the action by officials.

Several interventions have been tried with some success. It is necessary to communicate these programs to other prison systems and to measure their effectiveness. More research is needed because of the complexity of the problem. While this article describes the major prison gangs, many more exist. Some of these are found in a particular prison. Some exist solely for survival, while others emerge as a power that exploits fellow inmates and threatens control of the prison.

There are therefore two unique elements in relating to any prison gang. First, there is the unique situation that affects the response by the officials of the particular prison involved. Intervention must focus on the unique aspects of this system. The hierarchy, budget, numbers of employees, the structure of the prison, including its physical structure, may be foci to be addressed. Second, there are the unique aspects of each gang and how it affects the general population within a particular prison. Are they formed only for self-defense? Have they moved into illegal marketing, etc, within the prison? How big of a threat are they to the rest of the population? Does the gang have contacts on the outside? These are some of the issues to be addressed.

Finally, we suggest that any program be operationalized with clearly defined, measurable goals for each aspect of a selected intervention. Some aspect then may prove fruitful and be enlarged while others discarded. The relationship among the aspects of an intervention may also be researched.

We hope that by building on the strategies above and other strategies available, combined with thorough analysis of progress, that effective interventions may be available for every prison. It is then important to communicate the results to other prison systems to enhance progress on a national program that may be adjusted to individual circumstances.


Buentello, S. (1992). Combating gangs in Texas. Corrections Today, 54, 58-60.

Buentello, S., Fong, R.S., & Vogel, R.E. (1991). Prison gang development: A theoretical model. The Prison Journal, LXXI, 3-14.

Danitz, T., (1998). The gangs behind bars. Insight on the News. 54, 34-end.

Cooper v. Pape, 378 U.S. 546 (1964)

Cuming, E. (1995). California Prison Gang Project. Final Project.

Fong, R.S. (1990). The organizational structure of prison gangs: A Texas case study. Federal Probation, 55, 36-43.

Fong, R.S. & Buentello, S., (1991). The detection of prison gang development: An empirical assessment. Federal Probation, 55, 66-69.

Fong, R.S. & Vogel, R.E., (1995). A comparative analysis of prison gang members, security threat group inmates, and general population prisoners in the Texas Department of Corrections. The Journal of Gang Research, 2, 1-12.

Fong, R.S. & Vogel, R.E., & Buentello, S. (1996). Prison gang dynamics: A research update. In J.M. Miller & J.P. Rush (eds.) Gangs: A Criminal Justice Approach 105-128. Cincinnati, OH: Andersen Publishing Co.

Lee v. Washington, 390 U.S. 333 (1968).

Leet, D.A., Rush, G.E., & Smith, A.M. (1997). Gangs Graffiti and Violence. Incline Village, NV: Copperhouse Publishing Company.

Longres, J.F. (1995). Human Behavior in the Social Environment. Itasca, IL: F.E. Peacock Publishers, Inc.

Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167 (1961).

Price v. Johnson, 334 U.S. 266 (1948).

Procunier v. Martinez, 416 U.S. 396 (1974).

Ruffin v. Commonwealth, 62 Va. 21 Grat, (1871).

Ruiz v. Estelle, 601, U.S. Court of Appeals for Fifth Circuit (1980)

Ruiz v. Estelle, 503 F. Supp. 1265. United States Court for the Southern District of Texas, Houston Division, (1980)

Trout, C.H. (1992). Taking a look at an old problem. Corrections Today, 54, 62-66.

About the Authors

Ms. Teri Compton is an RN who obtained her MSW in 2000. Her practicum for her degree was in a state prison, where she counseled inmates in group and individual treatment. During her practicum she became interested in prison violence and researched this paper at that time with her co-author.

Dr. Mike Meacham is an Associate Professor of Social Work with six years experience as a prison therapist. He was the field liaison for Ms. Compton’s practicum and continues to supervise students and social workers seeking licensing about corrections and other therapeutic issues. He has developed a graduate course in forensics for social workers and is awaiting administrative approval.

Publisher Dr. Robert O'Block, American College of Forensic Examiners.