The Gang System in Prisons

According to the United States Department of Justice, prison gangs are “self-perpetuating criminal entities that can continue their operations outside the confines of the penal system.” A prison gang is usually made up of several inmates who have “an organized hierarchy and who are governed by an established code of conduct.” Across the country and the world, prison gangs are a threat because they play a role in distributing and transporting drugs. These gangs are much more prevalent in a state prison facility than a federal prison system. 

Why Are Prison Gangs on the Rise? 

A political scientist named David Skarbek believes that prison gangs are on the rise because of the increase in the prison population, overcrowding, and the need for inmate’s safety. Most gangs are racially and geographically divided, and, to my surprise, Texas and California account for 70 percent of prison gang members. 

Some of the most common prison gangs today are the Mexican Mafia, Neustra Familia, Fresno Bulldogs, Latin Kings, Netas, United Blood Nation, Folk Nation, Gangster Disciples, Dirty White Boys, Aryan Brotherhood, European Kindred, Dead Man Incorporated, 211 Crew, Nazi Lowriders, the Black Guerrilla Family, People Nation, The Barrio Azteca, Mexikanemi, and Simon City Royals. 

It is important to know that the prison gangs also have members outside of the prison walls, which are known to be smugglers, informants, and drug dealers. Even though prison gangs were not common until the 1960s, they have quickly become one of the largest criminal organizations to date. 

Do Prison Gangs Account for Most of the Violence in Prisons? 

When it comes to the gang system in prisons, these members have an established history of violence. As a matter of fact, gang members typically account for majority of misconduct cases in the prison system. In addition, they are known to be dangerous and aggressive toward new inmates and the correctional officers. A new inmate may be recruited to one of the gangs quickly if he shows potential when it comes to his aggressiveness and ability to fight. 

What Do Prison Gangs do? 

One of the main duties of gangs is to provide what inmates cannot easily get in prison. For example, gangs have access to cigarettes, foods, alcohol, and narcotics. If a person wants to get involved with these trades, they most likely will have to communicate with a gang member, which may result in some sort of deal. 

Prison gangs use violence to handle any disputes or disagreements, protect their members and interests, and to provide discipline to their members and non-members. The most popular reasons as to why someone would join a prison gang is because they needed protection and status. In fact, most people who were interviewed from prison stated that avoiding gangs in prison is harder than when not in prison. 

It is common for gangs to enter the prison system from off the street. However, a lot of inmates join a gang for the first time in prison. When a new inmate enters a prison, they are often quickly recruited. When a person does not want to join a prison gang, they usually must give a good reason such as religion. A lot of times they will also lie and say they are a sex offender because most prison gangs do not accept individuals who are serving time for any type of sex crime. 


Skarbek has spent years studying prison gangs, which has led him to the conclusion that they function like a “community responsibility system.” Instead of knowing an individual person’s reputation, the inmates will focus on the gang’s reputation. This gives them a sense of community, safety, and a family-like environment while they are serving their sentences.