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Imagine a prison without formal oversight or regulation. No governance or rules. No correctional officers or authorities. No cameras or monitoring. Such a prison might resemble a Hobbesian state of nature where there is a constant war of atomized individuals engaged in hedonistic pursuits of control and power. Such a state would be intolerable, or, as Hobbes described it: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Only in the most extreme and infrequent circumstances – the riots in Attica, New Mexico, and South Carolina (Thompson 2017; Useem 1985) – are US prisons described in these terms. The specter of living in such a Hobbesian state leads people to either cede certain privileges or cooperate with each other in ways that reduce the worst of such disorder. This is another way of saying that order is ubiquitous in institutions, including prisons. In the abstract, orderly prisons are those where operations and routines are largely predictable and stable (Useem and Piehl 2008).
We now present a conceptual framework for the study. The first chapter laid the foundation for the book by placing prison and street gangs in the broader context of incarceration. It also established that while gang research has exploded over the past three decades, prisons unfortunately escaped the interest of most social scientists. A number of important conceptual and empirical issues remain to be addressed. We highlight four foundational issues that are central to the interconnected theoretical framework motivating the empirical analysis. Some of these issues are better established than others, but all of them merit the empirical investigation that has largely escaped our understanding of gangs and prison.
The idea for this type of study had been long in the making. The second author of this book interviewed California and Illinois gang members in prison (Decker, Bynum, and Weisel 1998). In 2001, he produced a training manual on gangs on the street and in prison for the American Correctional Association and, together with Mark Fleisher, guest edited a special issue of Corrections Management Quarterly on gangs and security threat groups. Fleisher and Decker identified a range of issues related to gangs in prison, while also recognizing the challenges of reintegrating gang members in the community (Fleisher and Decker 2001a, 2001b).
The LoneStar Project was initiated in the fall of 2014 with several ambitious goals. Key among those goals was the successful completion of interviews with gang and non-gang members. By the spring of 2018, the research team had completed two different types of interviews: the first included interviews with 802 inmates in two Texas prisons and the second included two post-release interviews conducted within the first year upon returning to the community. This book is the product of those interviews, official records for each individual, and the subsequent analysis and interpretation of those data. The primary focus of our work has been to produce a comparison of the culture, structures, processes, and behaviors of gang and non-gang members in prison and their roles in controlling prison life. Our approach was mainly quantitative and comparative, although qualitative accounts of these foci are important to this book.
Life is a series of transitions across institutions, relationships, and roles. People age, develop new identities, assume new roles, and change associates, friends, and even family. Joining a gang is one of the critical transitions that may occur in the life course. Although group processes and structures are both central to this book, up to this point we have paid more empirical attention to the latter. We have compared the members of gangs to inmates who were not affiliated with gangs. In addition, we examined the form and function of the different structures of gangs behind bars, including their role in the governance of prisons as well as misconduct and victimization. In this chapter, we focus on a crucial aspect of group process: joining a gang. If transitions into new identities, roles, and statuses are consequential for the life course, we ought to learn about how such transitions unfold, especially if they occur in places like prisons that are tasked with the job of rehabilitation.
In 1927, Frederic Thrasher observed that “No two gangs are just alike” (1927, 45). Of course, the point of Thrasher’s emphasis was heuristic; it directed attention to the diversity within gangs identified in his fieldwork in Chicago. This chapter is motivated by Thrasher’s early observations and uses data from the LoneStar Project to examine this claim quantitatively with application to prisons. If gangs are not all alike, in what ways are they different? If they are indeed different, what explains the differences and similarities across gangs? And, most importantly, what role does prison play in explaining variation in the group-level characteristics of prison gangs? While these questions guide our interests in this chapter, our overarching goal is to describe the characteristics of gangs in prison.
Who are the members of gangs in prison? What attitudes and beliefs do they maintain? What do their social networks look like? And how similar are they to inmates who are not in gangs? In many ways, we see these questions as an extension of Chapter 3 because it provides an additional description of our sample. After all, these are individuals as well as members of a group. We reported in prior chapters that a large majority of prison inmates in the United States are not gang members. In other words, there is a small group of inmates (~15 percent) who affiliate with gangs and a much larger group of inmates who do not. This is also the case in Texas. Both official records and self-reports of prison gang membership confirm this. In this chapter, our objective is to compare gang and non-gang inmates across a range of characteristics.
At the turn of the century, James Jacobs, New York University law professor and author of Stateville (1977), lamented: “It is hard to understand why the prison gang phenomenon does not attract more attention from the media, scholars, and policy analysts” (2001, vi). Certainly, prisons are dangerous places that impact communities as well as the lives of inmates and those who work there. Over the last several years, prison gangs have made headlines across the country. The 2013 inmate hunger strike in California – involving over 30,000 inmates – was organized by black, Latino, and white gang members housed in solitary confinement for indeterminate sentences (Reiter 2016); the executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections was executed on the doorstep of his home in 2013 by a recently released 211 Crew prison gang member (Prendergast 2014); and a multi-jurisdictional task force led to the indictments of nearly seventy-five Aryan Brotherhood of Texas gang members, some of whom were implicated in the blowtorch removal of a gang tattoo, the inspiration for a Sons of Anarchy episode (Schiller 2016).
The phrase attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, “There is nothing permanent except change,” is aptly applied to gangs and gang members. As this book has shown, transitions characterize the lives of prison gang members even in highly structured institutional settings. Gangs exert considerable influence on their members whether on the street or in prison. This influence can be measured in the involvement in crime and misconduct in prison, as well as in the disruption of many positive socializing forces such as employment, marriage, religion, and school. In the previous chapter, we examined the transition into gangs on the street and in prison. This chapter examines instances where gangs’ control over individuals weakens and their members sever their ties to the group and transition out of gangs on the street and in prison.
Despite being highly controlled environments, crime and victimization occur in prisons. According to a report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, eighty-three inmates were the victims of homicide in federal and state prisons in 2014 (Noonan, Rohloff, and Ginder 2016). The homicide rate among inmates reached historic lows in the first decade of the twenty-first century (Mumola 2005), but has crept up in recent years and now exceeds the homicide risk in the general population. Just like on the streets, homicide remains a rare event in prison – for example, the Texas prison system averaged four homicides per year between 2001 and 2014. But this does not mean victimization is rare. Indeed, inmates are subject to a wide variety of types of victimization, including theft, extortion, and robbery.
Pyrooz and Decker pull apart the bars on prison gangs to uncover how they compete for control. While there is much speculation about these gangs, there is little solid research. This book draws on interviews with 802 inmates - half of whom were gang members - in two Texas prisons; one of the largest samples of its kind. Using this data, the authors explore how gangs organize and govern, who joins gangs and how they get out, the dark side of gang activities including misconduct and violence, the ways in which gang membership spills onto the street, and the direct and indirect links between the street and prison gangs. Competing for Control captures the nature of gangs in a time of transition, as prison gangs become more horizontal and their power is diffused across groups. There is no study like this one.
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