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Combating gang activity in prison
By John Hancock
Published: 03/24/2008

Abstract 4 Editor’s Note: This story is being shared with us by Gangs Across America, an online source providing strategies to combat gangs across the nation. From time to time, Corrections.com will publish articles from the Gangs Across America website.

While what works for one department/jurisdiction might not work for another, I can detail for you the success story that one state correctional department has enjoyed. Not all departments combat gang activity in the same manner. Some departments ignore the problem while gangs flourish and rule the roost right under the administrator’s noses. Some departments mandate that identified gang members go through declassification programs and renounce their gang ties. Some departments simply lock up identified gang members and throw away the key while they’re incarcerated, leaving them locked up in segregation.

The department I work for has settled somewhere in the middle of these approaches. Actually their answer was to build cells and make each individual inmate responsible for their own actions through the disciplinary process. But building cells, in my opinion, was the number one way to gain control of the gangs. Let me explain.

Like many other states in the late 1980’s the public was fed up with crime and criminals. Tougher laws, stiffer sentences and more aggressive policing led to an explosion in the prison populations. In two years alone in the late 1980’s my department built/opened ten prisons. These prisons were open bay dormitory style medium security institutions. They were quick to build and cheaper to construct than maximum security prisons. The concept of these prisons was “openness” where inmates had much more freedom of movement. These prisons were typically built for seven hundred and fifty inmates and only had thirty two traditional cells in the Special Housing Units (SHU, “disciplinary segregation”).

The prison population continued to explode past the prison’s capacities. Gymnasiums in several medium security prisons were double-bunked with two hundred inmates. Open bay dormitories built for fifty inmates were double-bunked with ninety inmates. This meant that prisons built for seven hundred fifty inmates suddenly had upward of thirteen hundred inmates in them, crammed into very tight quarters. These prisons still only had thirty two cells to lock up or segregate the trouble-makers.

In this timeframe the Latin Kings were battling the Five Percenters (Black inmates) for dominance among the prison population. Violence was rampant. Fights, stabbings and slashings were a daily occurrence. It was not uncommon at all to find weapons right on an inmate’s person (this author has been to court several times to testify against inmates). The problem was, though, there was limited cell space to lock up the troublemakers and the inmates knew this. Inmates were in and out of the SHU so quickly sometimes that the joke was the SHU had a revolving door on it!

In the early 1990s the prison system seemed to level off for a short period of time. The Latin Kings and Netas had gained dominance over the Black inmate population (seen as the Five Percenters). Then came 1993, when Omar Porter (OG Mack) and Leonard McKenzie (OG Deadeye) formed the east coast version of the Bloods gang on Riker’s Island. By 1994 the Bloods were in the state prisons and began to wreak havoc against the Hispanic inmates (Latin Kings and Netas) and the prison system.

The “gang war” between the Bloods and the Hispanic inmates (Latin Kings and Netas) was in full swing in 1996 when the department began to build the first of four thousand eight hundred “beds” in maximum security cells. These were the first maximum security cells that had been built in the state in over ten years. It was called “right sizing” the prison population. To put inmates who needed to be classified maximum security in maximum security prisons. Or inmates with long term disciplinary confinement sentences into disciplinary cells. This began by opening nine SHU-200 units, built to hold eighteen hundred inmates in disciplinary confinement. These units were one hundred cell double-occupancy stand-alone buildings, built inside of nine existing medium security prisons. The department was finally getting the cell space to lock up a lot of the troublemakers.

The next step was when Upstate Correctional Facility opened in 1999. Upstate brought on line twelve hundred more disciplinary confinement “beds” to lock up even more troublemakers. In less than three years the department had an additional three thousand disciplinary confinement cells to manage its prison population. Violence in the way of fights, disturbances, stabbings and slashings began to plummet. One facility alone, Collins Correctional Facility, documented a seventy-eight percent decrease in violence (comparisons of 1996 to 2001), having had averaged forty-one incidents a year, to only nine incidents in all of 2001. (DOCS Today magazine, January 2003).

“Right sizing” continued when Five Points Correctional Facility opened in 2000. Five Points is a fifteen hundred bed maximum security facility with inmates living in double-occupancy cells. This meant more maximum security inmates could be placed in a more secure setting as opposed to medium security. Violence and incidents of contraband continued to decline at a steady pace.

According to DOCS Today magazine, February 2003, then Commissioner Goord reported that incidents of inmate-on-staff assaults had declined thirty-eight percent, inmate-on-inmate assaults decreased forty-four percent and gang activity was down twelve percent. Commissioner Goord stated, “Inmates know that the department now has the disciplinary space to house them if needed, and that realization has helped fuel steep declines in inmate-on-staff and inmate-on-inmate assaults.” (DOCS Today, April 2003).

The department also continued to prosecute inmates for crimes they committed while incarcerated in prison. The Inmate Prosecution Task Force successfully prosecuted one hundred twenty-one inmates in the year 2000 alone. (DOCS Today, April 2003). This reinforced the knowledge to the inmates that they would spend more time in prison for crimes they perpetrated.

The department introduced Body Orifice Scanning System (BOSS) chairs to many of its facilities between 2000 and 2003. These chairs scan inmates for the presence of metal (weapons) on their person or concealed inside their body. Then Commissioner Goord credited these machines in aiding a fifty-eight percent reduction in cut/stab incidents, from nineteen hundred ninety-two incidents in 1997 to only six hundred eight incidents in 2002.

It has been my experience that cells have been the number one project that the state embarked on that reduced violence and made the gangs easier to control. As then Commissioner Goord alluded to in April 2003, the department created the cell space to lock up the troublemaking inmates and they knew it. Now troublemaking gang members either stay locked up in disciplinary confinement (by committing more infractions while in the SHU), or they have conformed to the rules and regulations of the department and live relatively trouble free in general population.

As then Commissioner Goord stated in February 2003, “Inmate rule no. 105.12, “Unauthorized Activity or Assembly”, is used by the staff to control gang activity. Our policy is that since each inmate comes to prison alone, they will do their time alone. We will not allow gangs to flourish. Inmates have learned through staff monitoring that they will be disciplined for such activity. Constant surveillance has led to a reduction in gang sanctions – from a high of one thousand eight hundred ninety-six in 1998, to one thousand one hundred forty-seven last year (2002).”

Statistics for 2003, the last I have access for, show that the department continues to enjoy a decline in violence. As published in August 2004, there was a forty-one percent decline in inmate-on-staff assaults (from nine hundred sixty-two in 1995 to five hundred sixty-eight in 2003) and an astonishing fifty-nine percent decrease in inmate-on-inmate assaults (from one thousand seven hundred forty-one in 1995, to seven hundred thirteen in 2003).

John Hancock is the pseudonym of a twenty year veteran of a large Northeastern state correctional department. He is well versed in prison gangs and routinely investigates gangs, gang members and their activities at the maximum security facility that employs him. He is also a member of several gang investigators associations throughout the United States.


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