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3.2: Criminal Gang Members

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    As the gang phenomenon has grown and spread in America's cities and counties, there has been a parallel growth and spread of gangs in America's prisons. There's no way to know how many prisons gang member inmates have due, in part, to the fact that "Politics generally determine whether agencies [prisons] ... admit to having STGs [Security Threat Groups like gangs]." It may also be impossible to gather accurate information on how many of America's prisoners are involved in gang activity. However, judging from my own observations and other current research on the subject, one may safely say gangs and their members are prevalent in many prisons in the United States and elsewhere.

    In some prisons, inmate gang members were members of gangs prior to their incarceration. They were arrested, incarcerated and, while incarcerated, continue to recruit and build their gang. Other gang members in prison had no gang affiliation prior to their imprisonment but joined one of the prison gangs many of which have counterparts on the streets. In other prisons, notably in California and Texas, gangs have formed which had no counterpart on the street. The gangs were created in prison. Examples of these gangs include the Mexican Mafia, Neta, Aryan Brotherhood, Black Guerrilla Family, La Nuestra Familia and the Texas Syndicate.

    According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, On December 31, 2000, a total of 1,237,469 inmates were confined in state and federal prisons in the United States. A total of 232,900 of these inmates were between the ages of 18 and 24. Those youthful inmates, roughly of gang member age, represent approximately 18% of all the inmates.

    Graphic depiction of Number of Gang Members per 1000 people shown on map of the US

    Figure 3.1 Image by: NGIC and NDIC 2010 National Drug Survey Data is in the public domain.

    There are at least five major prison gangs, each with its own structure and purpose.

    The Mexican Mafia (La Eme)

    The Mexican mafia started at the Deuel Vocational Center in Tracy, California, in the 1950s and was California’s first prison gang composed primarily of Chicanos, or Mexican Americans. Entrance into La Eme requires a sponsoring member. Each recruit has to undergo a blood oath to prove his loyalty. The Mexican Mafia does not proscribe killing its members who do not follow instructions. Criminal activities include drug trafficking and conflict with other prison gangs, which is common with the Texas Syndicate, Mexikanemi, and the Aryan Brotherhood (AB).

    The Aryan Brotherhood

    The Aryan Brotherhood, a white supremacist group, was started in 1967 in California’s San Quentin prison by white inmates who wanted to oppose the racial threat of black and Hispanic inmates and/or counter the organization and activities of black and Hispanic gangs. Pelz, Marquart, and Pelz suggest that the AB held distorted perceptions of blacks and that many Aryans felt that black inmates were taking advantage of white inmates, especially sexually, thus promoting the need to form and/or join the Brotherhood. Joining the AB requires a 6-month probationary period. Initiation, or “making one’s bones,” requires killing someone. The AB traffics in drugs and has a blood in, blood out rule; natural death is the only nonviolent way out. The Aryan Brotherhood committed eight homicides in 1984, or 32 percent of inmate homicides in the Texas correctional system, and later became known as the “mad dog” of Texas corrections.

    The Aryan Brotherhood structure within the federal prison system used a three-member council of high-ranking members. Until recently, the federal branch of the Aryan Brotherhood was aligned with the California Aryan Brotherhood, but differences in opinion caused them to split into separate branches. The federal branch no longer cooperates with the Mexican Mafia in such areas as drugs and contract killing within prisons, but as of October 1997, the California branch still continued to associate with the Mexican Mafia. Rees suggested that the Aryan Brotherhood aligned with other supremacist organizations to strengthen its hold in prisons. The Aryan Brotherhood also has strong chapters on the streets, which allows criminal conduct inside and outside prisons to support each other.

    Black Panther George Jackson united black groups such as the Black Liberation Army, Symbionese Liberation Army, and the Weatherman Underground Organization to form one large organization, the Black Guerrilla Family, which emerged in San Quentin in 1966. Leaning on a Marxist-Leninist philosophy, the Black Guerrilla Family was considered to be one of the more politically charged revolutionary gangs, which scared prison management and the public. Recently, offshoots within the Black Guerrilla Family have appeared. California reported the appearance of a related group known as the Black Mafia.

    La Nuestra Familia

    La Nuestra Familia (“our family”) was established in the 1960s in California’s Soledad prison, although some argue it began in the Deuel Vocational Center. The original members were Hispanic inmates from Northern California’s agricultural Central Valley who aligned to protect themselves from the Los Angeles-based Mexican Mafia. La Nuestra Familia has a formal structure and rules as well as a governing body known as La Mesa, or a board of directors. Today, La Nuestra Familia still wars against the Mexican Mafia over drug trafficking but the war seems to be easing in California.

    The Texas Syndicate

    The Texas Syndicate emerged in 1958 at Deuel Vocational Institute in California. It appeared at California’s Folsom Prison in the early 1970s and at San Quentin in 1976 because other gangs were harassing native Texans. Inmate members are generally Texas Mexican Americans, but now the Texas Syndicate offers membership to Latin Americans and perhaps Guamese as well. The Texas Syndicate opposes other Mexican American gangs, especially those from Los Angeles. Dominating the crime agenda is drug trafficking inside and outside prison and selling protection to inmates.

    Like other prison gangs, the Texas Syndicate has a hierarchical structure with a president and vice president and an appointed chairman in each local area, either in a prison or in the community. The chairman watches over that area’s vice chairman, captain, lieutenant, sergeant at arms, and soldiers. Lower-ranking members perform the gang’s criminal activity. The gang’s officials, except for the president and vice president, become soldiers again if they are moved to a different prison, thus avoiding local-level group conflict. Proposals within the gang are voted on, with each member having one vote; the majority decision determines group behavior.

    The Mexikanemi

    The Mexikanemi (known also as the Texas Mexican Mafia) was established in 1984. Its name and symbols cause confusion with the Mexican Mafia. As the largest gang in the Texas prison system, it is emerging in the federal system as well and has been known to kill outside as will as inside prison. The Mexikanemi spars with the Mexican Mafia and the Texas Syndicate, although it has been said that the Mexikanemi and the Texas Syndicate are aligning themselves against the Mexican Mafia (Orlando-Morningstar, 1997). The Mexikanemi has a president, vice president, regional generals, lieutenants, sergeants, and soldiers. The ranking positions are elected by the group based on leadership skills. Members keep their positions unless they are reassigned to a new prison. The Mexikanemi has a 12-part constitution. For example, part five says that the sponsoring member is responsible for the person he sponsors; if necessary, a new person may be eliminated by his sponsor.

    Hunt et al. suggest that the Nortenos and the Surenos are new Chicano gangs in California, along with the New Structure and the Border Brothers. The origins and alliances of these groups are unclear; however, the Border Brothers are comprised of Spanish-speaking Mexican American inmates and tend to remain solitary. Prison officials report that the Border Brothers seem to be gaining membership and control as more Mexican American inmates are convicted and imprisoned.

    Crips and Bloods

    The Crips and Bloods, traditional Los Angeles street gangs, are gaining strength in the prison as well as are the 415s, a group from the San Francisco area (415 is a San Francisco area code). The Federal Bureau of Prisons cites 14 other disruptive groups within the federal system, which have been documented as of 1995, including the Texas Mafia, the Bull Dogs, and the Dirty White Boys. (Citations omitted to save space. You may view the original work which includes the omitted citations.)

    If Beck's 1991 estimate that approximately 12% of prison inmates were gang-affiliated could be extrapolated to today, then perhaps as many as 148,496 gang members (12% of all 1,237,469 inmates) were confined in state and federal prisons on December 31, 2000. If, in order to be a gang, at least five characteristics of a gang were required then as many as 74, 245 inmates were gang members (6% of all 1,237,469 inmates). According to the California Department of Corrections there are over 100,000 gang inmates in that state's correctional facility.

    A one-year study of over 82,000 federal inmates in the United States revealed that those who were embedded in gangs (referred to as gang embeddedness) were more likely to exhibit violent behavior and misconduct than those who were peripherally involved in gangs. And those who were peripherally involved exhibited more violent behavior and misconduct than those who were unaffiliated.

    In gang-dominated prisons, gangs rule the roost. Which inmates eat at what times and where they sit in the dining hall, who gets the best or worst job assignments in the prison, who has money and nice clothes, who lives and who dies - all of these things, and others, are determined by gangs in the prison. Their very presence requires special attention from prison authorities.

    Prison staff, too, may be participants in or potential victims of the prison gang culture. As participants, they may be actively or passively involved. As active participants they may collude with inmate gang members by providing alibis, providing opportunities for the commission of certain crimes, or taking bribes or payment for their silence or other form of assistance.

    As passive participants in prison gang activity they may simply "overlook" an incident or situation or neglect their duty just long enough for the gang members to do what it is that they wanted to do. In either case, prison staff are not immune to the negative influence of prison gangs. As victims of gang activity, they may be threatened, harassed, extorted, physically or sexually assaulted, or murdered.

    Approximately 600,000 inmates were released from American prisons in the year 2005. Some of them were die hard gang members. Upon being discharged from prison (when one's full sentence has been served) or released early parole, prison gang members move back into society. Unless they recant their gang membership, they are likely to continue their gang activity. Their impact on a community may be measured by their continued criminal activity, the harm they inflict upon their victims and their participation in already existing community-based gangs.

    Many inmates find it difficult to survive in prison unless they are affiliated with a gang. But there's a twist. The twist may be best explained using an analogy. Do you remember a game called Rock, Scissors, Paper? It's a game kids play using hand signs. Each player chooses rock, scissors, or paper without telling the other players their choice. Then each child displays their chosen hand sign at the same time. Rock is symbolized by a clenched fist and rock beats scissors. Scissors are characterized by a protruding index and middle finger in the shape of scissors blades and scissors beat paper. Paper is shown by holding out an open hand with fingers all touching side by side. If we stop the game there I can use this as an analogy that helps describe the gang situation in prison. In the analogy "rock" is race or ethnicity, "scissors" is a gang, and "paper" is an inmate who is not gang affiliated. Inmates who are not affiliated with a gang are often in peril in a prison setting. They have no one who will come to their aid if they are assaulted or extorted and no one who will join them in retaliation.

    There are a few exceptions to this rule. The exceptions include inmates who have organized crime connections on the outside, and those who are knowledgeable about the law and may, therefore, be valued for their ability to help other inmates write legal briefs for their appeals. There are other inmates who are basically left alone because they are seriously ill or very old, and inmates who are so physically powerful or out of their minds that few inmates will assault them.

    Most inmates, however, are vulnerable. In our analogy the next class of inmates are the gang members - scissors. They assault non-gang members - those who are "paper" in our analogy, and rival gang members. According to one federal prison administrator, "About one-third of my prison's one thousand seven hundred inmates are not in a gang. They are referred to by the staff as 'lame' or as 'dorks.' They eat meals together in the mess hall with the Native Americans. The unaffiliated are often extorted by gang inmates and used in other ways."

    Then there are the rocks - the racial and ethnic groups. They beat all. That is, African-American inmates who are Crips, Bloods, Black Gangster Disciples, or whatever their name, are faced with a new enemy - groups of non-African-Americans. In most instances this means they need protection from Caucasian, Asian, and Hispanic inmates in the prison. Suddenly prior gang affiliation and old hatreds between same-race/same-ethnicity gangs succumb to fears of racial or ethnic conflict.

    3.2: Criminal Gang Members is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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