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New Book on Gangs in Prison Sheds Light on Their Operations, Members, and Motivations

Prison gangs exploded onto the scene across the United States in the 1980s. While there is much speculation about these gangs, little research has been done to learn how they are organized and governed, who joins them, if people can leave them, and how gang membership affects people who are recently released from prison. A new book based on interviews with hundreds of inmates in Texas prisons as well as administrative data from the prison system addresses many of these unanswered questions.

The book, Competing for Control: Gangs and the Social Order of Prisons, was written by researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder and Arizona State University. It is published by Cambridge University Press.

“Prisons have been called the final frontier in research on gangs as well as a topic that policymakers and criminal justice practitioners know little about,” says David Pyrooz, associate professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder, who coauthored the book. “We went to the source to learn about gangs in prison—the gang members themselves.”

In the largest study of prison gangs, the authors interviewed 802 inmates at two Texas prisons; 368 were identified by the prison system as affiliated with a gang. They also used administrative data from the prison system, finding a strong overlap between what the prisoners said about themselves in the interviews and information in official records from the system.

Based on their work, the authors reached the following conclusions:

  • Prison gangs are in a period of transition: They are not monolithic but vary considerably in their organization and structure. While they maintain power and influence in prison, particularly over contraband and violence, they lack iron-fisted control over the prisoners and the institutions in which they operate. And nearly all gangs operate outside prisons, too.
  • Prison violence is concentrated among gang populations: This finding suggests that criminal justice officials need to develop new ways to fix the sources of violence in prisons. In addition, contrary to popular thought, gang membership does not protect inmates from victimization in prison. In these ways, gangs in prison resemble those on the street.
  • About 20 percent of all inmates in Texas are affiliated with gangs: Half of those inmates joined a gang after becoming imprisoned and half were gang members before they entered prison and brought that affiliation with them when they were imprisoned. Black people in prison are more likely to bring prior gang affiliations with them, while White and Latino people in prison are more likely to join a gang for the first time while in prison.
  • People in prison join gangs or maintain gang membership for a variety of reasons: Influences of family and friends, the desire for status and belonging, the need for safety and protection, and belief in a gang’s ideology (e.g., related to race, religion, or general concepts like standing up to violence) are just some of those reasons.
  • The popular notion of “blood in, blood out” among prison gangs is a myth: Although it is more challenging to leave a gang in prison than to do so on the street, it occurs regularly, even among the most serious gangs and gang members; there were more former than current gang members in the study. Disillusionment with the gang was the primary reason for leaving gangs in prison, “Our work captures the nature of gangs in a time of transition, as they become more decentralized and their power is more diffuse, and as prison reform movements gain momentum,” notes Scott Decker, professor of criminology and criminal justice at Arizona State University, who coauthored the book. “At this time, it is critical for public health and safety that researchers, policymakers, and practitioners understand the nature of gangs and gang members in prison.”

The research reported in the book was funded by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Summarized from Competing for Control: Gangs and the Social Order of Prisons by Pyrooz, D (University of Colorado Boulder), and Decker, S (Arizona State University). Copyright 2019 Cambridge University Press. All rights reserved.

Contact Information
Caitlin Kizielewicz
Crime and Justice Research Alliance
(412) 554-0074