Prison Gangs

The prison population is different from the rest of the population living in “normal” conditions. The isolation of the prison population from the rest of the society undermines traditional social relations between people because they have to live in a very specific community.

Nevertheless, the striking difference between the life in a civil community and in prison does not necessarily mean that the prison population has lost its social habits and skills. Instead, offenders serving terms in prison are inclined to social relations as all other people do but, because of the specific environment, they shape specific social relations. In this respect, the prison population tends to formation of social groups, which unite people on the basis of certain characteristics, including the similarity of ethnic and cultural background, common place of origin, race, and other characteristics which may distinguish a group of people from the rest of the prison population.

However, unlike communities which are normally formed in the society on the similar basis as aforementioned groups in prison, the prison population tends to form prison gangs, which unite offenders on the basis of certain similarities and common ideology and interests. At the present moment, specialists (Reiman, 141) point out the growing number of prison gangs but still it is possible to distinguish several major gangs which persist throughout the time and which are particularly influential in the US prisons, including such notorious prison gangs as Aryan Brotherhood, Black Guerilla Family, La Nuestra Familia, Mexican Mafia, Texan Syndicate, and Neta Association. At the same time, it is possible to distinguish prison gangs on the racial basis and divide the prison gangs on white, black, Latino, and Asian.

On the other hand, in spite of the wide-spread of prison gangs in the US penitentiary system and their significant influence on American prisons and life of inmates, the larger share of the prison population are not members of gangs. In fact, the majority of inmates stay aside of prison gangs because, even though prison gangs memberships provides certain benefits and protection from the part of a gang, it still increases the risk of victimization and involvement in gang wars. As a result, prison gang membership is the choice of offenders who already are or are inclined to recidivism and who do need being gang members because of specificities of their psychology or their lifestyle.

Prison gang members invent their own language and system of recognition of gang members, including tattoo which is a symbolic language through which gang members can express their criminal experience and through they demonstrate their belongingness to the specific prison gang. In such a way, prison gangs constitute an essential part of the prison life and they have a significant impact on prisons, while its members are inclined to distinguish themselves from the rest of the prison population to facilitate identification. In fact, inmates are encouraged to join prison gangs as long as they need to gain a higher position in the prison hierarchy and if they are inclined to recidivism because being a gang member facilitates the life for those inmates who are sent to prison repeatedly because they gain respect and authority among inmates.

Types of gangs

a. White gangs

Prison gangs involve people representing different social and cultural groups but often the race of gang members is an important factor that defines membership in the gang. In this respect, it is possible to define prison gangs on the basis of race of its members. In actuality, it is possible to single out white prison gangs comprising white Americans. White prison gangs are widely spread respectively to the share of the white population in the total prison population of the US prisons. At the same time, white prison gangs are often well-organized and renowned due to their history. White prison gangs exist for years as well as many other prison gangs consisting of non-white gang members. At the same time, some specialists (Abramsky, 312) estimate that white inmates were among the first who started to organize gangs to stand for their specific interests.

Aryan Brotherhood is one of the most renowned and notorious white prison gangs in the US. The origin of this prison gang dates back to the late 1960s, when racial issues were extremely important in the US. To put it more precisely, the 1960s were the time of the rise of the Civil Rights movement and the relationship between representatives of different racial groups grew tense, especially in prison. In fact, the Civil Rights movement challenged the position of white inmates in the US prison and Aryan Gang was created as the supremacist gang comprising white inmates, who united their efforts to defend their interests in prison. It is worth mentioning the fact that racism was an integral part of the ideology of this prison gang. Being a supremacist was one of the major conditions of the gang membership. This element of ideology persists till present days and gang members are devoted to supremacist views. No wonder, often Aryan Brotherhood is called Nazi Gang to stress its supremacist, racist ideology.

However, Aryan Brotherhood is not absolutely racist. At any rate, this prison gang admits the possibility of its members with blacks when they are needed for drug and extortion transactions. However, black inmates cannot gain the gang membership. Instead, the gang can only associate with black inmates. At this point, it is worth mentioning the fact that supremacist views of Aryan Brotherhood’s members are changing and evolving in the course of time. In this regard, the change of the environment of the US prisons plays probably the key part because Aryan Brotherhood as well as other prison gangs has to adapt to the changing environment and policies conducted by the prison authorities. In addition, the increased share of the non-white population in prisons encourages the ongoing interaction between white and non-white inmates, including gang members.

In such a context, the appearance of a newer white prison gang ”“ Nazi Lowriders ”“ seems to be quite logical, if not to say natural. Nazi Lowriders consists of white, light-skinned or Caucasian-identified Hispanic members. At the same time, many members of this gang used to be members of Aryan Brotherhood. The emergence of this new gang mirrors the evolution of supremacist views within the white gangs in the US prisons. On the other hand, Nazi Lawriders is the gang that was based not only on the ground of ethnic origin or race of its members but also and mainly on the basis of the place of origin of its members. To put it more precisely, the gang mainly consists of members who originate from the Antelope Valley. In such a way, this gangs is one of those gangs based on the territorial basis. The latter is mainly the characteristic of black prison gangs rather than white prison gangs.

b. Black gangs

Black gangs tend to grow rapidly because the share of black population in the US prisons increases significantly. At the same time, the organizational level of black gangs is lower compared to other prison gangs because black gangs are mainly organized on the territorial basis and gang members associate themselves with certain prison gang on the basis of their belongingness to this gang in their life before they were sent to prison. As a rule, they extrapolate their street gang system and hierarchy on the prison system. As a result, black prison gangs do not always have such a long history as Aryan Brothers, for instance and they can often come into conflicts with each other, regardless of the similarity of their racial origin because territorial factor plays the dominant role in the functioning of these gangs.

Nevertheless, it is possible to single out the Black Guerilla Family, which is one of the oldest prison gangs in the US. Its origin dates back to the 1960s. Remarkably, this prison gang emerged as a part of the radical political movement that stood for rights of African Americans in the US. many members of this prison gang were former members of the Black Liberation Army. In actuality, this prison gang is one of the most politically-oriented prison gangs in the US penitentiary system. The ideology of the Black Guerilla Family is close to Marxist-Maoist ideology and comprise the idea of the elimination of racism and inequality in the US along with the overthrowing the US government through the social revolution. In such a way, the Black Guerilla Family has a strong political basis and its members are devoted to ideals of the gang.

However, today, the Black Guerilla Family is not numerous, but its members are devoted to the gang because it has a very strict death oath which requires a life pledge of loyalty to the gang. The military background of the Black Guerilla Family affects its organizational structure because the gang is organized on the military basis with a strong Supreme Leader, military ranks, and Central Committee that takes decisions concerning the life and development of the gang.

c. Latinos gangs

Latinos gangs emerge rapidly along with African Americans gangs. The emergence of Latinos gangs is closely intertwined with the growth of the Hispanic population in the total prison population in the US. At the same time, Latinos gangs are mainly grounded on the ethnic origin of its members and place of their origin. For instance, it is possible to single out prison gangs comprised of Mexican Americans mainly, such as the Mexican Mafia prison gang and La Nuestra Familia, the Puerto-Rican prison gang, such as the Neta Association, and others. In such a way, Latinos gangs tend to be gangs that unite Hispanic inmates which share the same ethnic origin and who used to live in the same area. Remarkably, many prison gangs are closely associated with inmates from California.

The Mexican Mafia is one of the oldest prison gangs in the US, which dates back to the 1950s. Originally, the prison gang was created to unite Mexican American inmates and ethnical solidarity is still one of the milestones of the ideology of the gang. Therefore, the members of this gang are Mexican Americans. The organization of the Mexican Mafia consists of a chain of command, similar to the military structure, which descends from generals to captains, lieutenants, and soldiers. Originally, each prison has separate leadership.

La Nuestra Familia is another Mexican American prison gang which was created in the 1960s and it was closely intertwined with the Mexican Mafia because of its members used to be members of the Mexican Mafia. This prison gang has strict membership requirements which may be defined as “blood-in blood-out” (Stewart, 195). Similarly to many other prison gangs, La Nuestra Familia has a paramilitary structure. As for the ideology of this gang, it should be said that La Nuestra Familia was originally created to defend younger inmates. In such a way, this prison gang is supposed to defend interests of younger inmates in face of oppression from the part of the older ones.

Also it is worth mentioning the Neta Association, which comprises inmates of Puerto-Rican origin. In fact, this organization is similar, in a way, to the Black Guerilla Family because it is politically-oriented but not so significantly as the Black Guerilla Family. Members of the Neta Association deny the power of the US authority and stand on the ground of independence of Puerto Rico. At the same time, the membership in the Neta Association ends as soon as inmates are released from the prison.

d. Asian gangs

Asian gangs are not as numerous as other gangs in the US prison because a relatively low share of Asian population in the total prison population. At the same time, Asian gangs are characterized by a strict hierarchy and rigid organizational structure. Basically, it is possible to single out prison gangs of Asian origin which are Yakuza for inmates of Japanese origin and Triads for inmates of Chinese origin. However, their impact on the prison life in the US is not very significant, but due to the effective organization and strict discipline of its members, Asian gangs are quite effective in terms of protection of interests of its members.

Gangs and their relationships in prisons

Traditionally, prison gangs perform the role of the underworld in the penitentiary system which opposes to the officials and attempts to establish its own rules in prisons. At the same time, prison gangs are often and mainly the organizations which help inmates to carry on their illegal activities in prison. What is meant here is the fact that it is prison gangs that are responsible for drug trafficking in prisons, for instance. In such a way, prison gangs are organizations that resist to the official prison system and help inmates to continue their illegal activities earning the respect and authority in the criminal world.

However, one of the major goals of prison gangs was and still is the protection of its members. Prison gangs are organized on the ethnic, racial or territorial basis. Originally, they were created to maintain the power of certain groups comprising the gangs in prisons. On the other hand, the organization of prison gangs is the natural manifestation of strife of people to socialization. What is meant here is the fact that inmates do need feel belongingness to a community. In such a situation, often a prison gang becomes the community inmates are searching for. The characteristics that are essential for gang membership reveal the similarity of interests and common background of gang members that actually unites them in gangs. As a result, while joining the gang, inmates can count that they will share common ideology, interests and values with other gang members. Therefore, some specialists (Brantingham and Brantingham, 192) believe that inmates are encouraged to join prison gangs because of the sense of belongingness to a community.

However, gang membership is closely associated with numerous risks. In this regard, the major problem that gang members face is the problem of conflicts between prison gangs. In fact, gang membership does not only protect an individual from the part of other inmates, but also it imposes certain duties and obligations of gang members. To put it more precisely, gang members should stand for interests of their gang and they should protect every member of the gang. Therefore, often conflicts, which start as conflicts between two individual gang members representing different gangs, outgrow into large scale conflicts between gangs. These conflicts can outburst into severe violent clashes between prison gangs to the extent that the life and health of inmates may be under a threat. The prison authorities face substantial difficulties with the prevention of such conflicts because the organized struggle of prison gangs is difficult to control and prevent, while open conflicts and fights between gangs are difficult to suppress because of the large number of inmates being involved in such struggle. In addition, prison gangs are involved in illegal activities that naturally put under a threat the position of an inmate in case revelation of the involvement in illegal activities as gang member.

In such a way, gang membership has both advantages and drawbacks. As a result, new inmates are not concerned with gang membership because risks and threats often outweigh potential benefits, while recidivists and inmates, who are accustomed to gang membership in their life outside the prison, are likely to join gangs because they feel comfortable in gangs and they need their support to improve their position in prison hierarchy.

Gang tattoos

Gang membership is based on the oaths and agreements between gang members. However, along with the formal characteristics of membership, gang members tend to develop visual forms and attributes which manifest their belongingness to a gang. In this respect, tattoos (see appendices) play a particularly important role because many gangs have their own tattoos which wear their gang members. As a rule, tattoos mirror specific symbols which are associated with gangs. For instance, Aryan Brotherhood members often make tattoos which incorporate elements of swastika. The latter is the manifestation of the supremacist ideology of Aryan Brotherhood. Often letters or, to put it more precisely, abbreviations and even messages are used to mark the belongingness of inmates to a gang. For instance, BGF tattoo is widely spread among the Black Guerilla Family members. Furthermore, another widely spread element used in tattoos to distinguish gang members is weapon. In fact, it is probably one of the most widely-spread elements used in tattoos. Knives, guns, and other weapon are typical symbols of many gangs. At the same time, some gangs tend to use some elements reflecting their ethnic background.  For instance, sombrero is an element of tattoos of some Mexican American gangs.

In fact, tattoos are not just decorations of human body for prison gang members. Tattoos also perform communicative function because they main contain certain message about the experience of an inmate and crimes he committed, his character and so on. In such a way, tattoos are used as a sort of communication between inmates. For instance, tattoos can symbolize the status and standing of an inmate in a prison gang.


Thus, taking into account all above mentioned, it is possible to conclude that prison gangs comprise an integral part of the prison community. In fact, prison gangs are communities that unite inmates and protect them. On the other hand, prison gangs are manifestations of the criminal underworld that persists even in prisons. Gang members are involved in criminal activities, such as drug trafficking, even in prisons. At the same time, gang membership is not absolutely beneficial for inmates because it increases the risk of getting involved into conflicts between gangs as well as the risk of being punished for illegal activities and violation of norms established in a prison. In such a situation, new inmates are not really encouraged to join prison gangs but for recidivists and inmates, who are accustomed to gang membership, prison gangs are attracting.

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