Prison Violence and Prison Gangs Essay

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Prison gangs, also referred to as security threat groups, loosely refers to collections of inmates who engage in what is considered gang activity. Prison gangs engage in various illegal activities involving drugs, gambling, murder-for-hire, extortion, loan sharking, money laundering, and prostitution. A recent study estimated that one fourth of all adult male inmates confined in U.S. correctional units were members of gangs.

Gangs use violence instrumentally and expressively. Violence may be instrumental to attain economic rewards, sex, social power, or control over desired institutional resources or space. Violence may also be expressive, with much gang violence being directed at enemy gangs. Gang members are socialized to use violence to uphold the honor of themselves and their gangs, as well as to vanquish potential rivals. Gangs may use violence expressively against their own members to establish discipline and control. Incarcerated gang members are no longer seen as just “doing time”; they are “doing gang time,” meaning that they are not just passing time until release, but also are fundamentally oriented toward serving the needs and goals of their gangs during their periods of incarceration.

One study has shown that prison gangs were responsible for 20% of the violence toward staff and 40% of the violence directed at other inmates. Another recent study demonstrated gang affiliation as a predictor of inmate violence. Further, this study revealed that core gang members were more likely to engage in violence than more peripheral members.

Gangs may be informal, loosely organized groups with shifting axes of power and alliances. But gangs can also be formal, hierarchical societies with strict codes of conduct and detailed social control practices. In recent years, prison gang affiliation has tended to be based along racial and ethnic lines. The larger gangs in the U.S. prison system in recent times are the Aryan Brotherhood, the Crips, Gangster Disciples, White Supremacists, Vice Lords, and Latin Kings.

Prison administrators have struggled to reduce the influence of and even the existence of prison gangs in a number of ways. Many prisons forbid tattooing since gangs often use their own unique tattoo design to symbolize members’ affiliation, though the bans have not been strongly successful. Prison classification specialists often attempt to separate gang members, using administrative segregation for anyone thought to be affiliated with a gang, assigning gang members to different prison units or work details, and/or sending individual gang members to separate prisons. Prison officials also have refused to permit gangs to meet and distribute informational materials as other groups in prison enjoy. Despite these attempts, gang activity continues to flourish in prison.


  1. American Correctional Association. (2003). A study of gangs and security threat groups in America’s adult prisons and jails. Alexandria, VA: Author.
  2. Gaes, G. G., Wallace, S., Gilman, E., Klein-Saffran, J., & Suppa, S. (2001). The influence of prison gang affiliation on violence and other prison misconduct. Washington, DC: Federal Bureau of Prisons.
  3. Knox, G. (2005). The problem of gangs and security threat groups (STGs) in American prisons today: Recent research findings from the 2004 Prison Gang Survey. Chicago: National Gang Crime Research Center. Retrieved from

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