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Leveraging Technology in the Management of Security Threat Groups
By Robert Winters, JD, Professor, School of Criminal Justice, Purdue Global University
Published: 03/25/2013

Gangenforcement Setting aside recent state and federal budget issues that carry the potential for understaffed facilities, the predominant and growing security threat in U.S. correctional institutions is gang activity. Growing in both numbers and power, the various security threat groups (STGs) found in our prison system represent a major challenge for facilities and the state and federal systems as a whole. While there is no magic bullet to solve the STG problem, technology is increasingly being employed as an aid to both monitoring and management.

A study published in 2010 by John Winterdyk of Mount Royal University and Rick Ruddell of Eastern Kentucky University surveyed all state and federal correctional systems and two privatized systems. The results are sobering, if not surprising to those who deal with the problem daily. As early as 1984, research indicated that fully 80% of the homicides within the Texas correctional system were gang-related. Analysis of Arizona DOC data from 1994 to 2000 showed that gang members were 74% more likely to commit serious violations than non-gang members. A more recent study by the Washington DOC revealed that 43% of major infractions were committed by STG members—who represented only 18% of the total population.

Even more disturbing is the reach that many of these gangs possess. Two studies in 2006 and 2009 discovered that gang members had attempted to “manipulate and/or intimidate” correctional staff using members on the streets. Furthermore, in some cases off-duty staff members were actually murdered by gangs. Even more prevalent is what this outside-the-walls reach brings into facilities: contraband, drugs in particular.

STGs also work to transform the institutional environment to their advantage. Reported activities have included attempting to compromise staff members with the substantial financial resources created by drug trafficking; undermining rehabilitation, therapy, and educational programs; and manipulating violence within the inmate population. Gangs also actively recruit non-affiliated inmates, and the combination of power and access to contraband that membership can provide is very attractive.

Efforts to combat STGs encompass two major areas: identification of STG members and management of known members. Technology can potentially aid in both. Various jail management software systems had already taken the first step, enabling automated separation of rival gangs by monitoring the housing of identified STG members and implementing “keep separate” rules, thereby reducing gang-on-gang violence.

Furthermore, gang intelligence officers at facilities routinely interchange information about various STGs, the relationships among them, and criteria for identifying affiliated inmates. E-mail and digital photography have long aided this process. However, recently more powerful database management tools have been employed for information sharing. So-called “fusion centers” consolidate STG data from state, federal, and private institutions as well as law enforcement agencies to maximize the dissemination of all available data. Data mining practices can then be applied to these large databases to identify patterns and trends, enabling approaches that are proactive rather than reactive.

Law enforcement is a valuable ally in the STG fight. Obviously officers routinely confront gangs and gang members and have vital information to contribute. In addition, wider dissemination of internal investigation results has enabled prosecutors to link crimes with currently-imprisoned gang members. It has also in many cases contributed to identifying current inmates as responsible for unsolved cases, resulting in additional prison terms that make gang membership less appealing.

Technology has likewise enhanced monitoring. A recent (and at this point not thoroughly tested) innovation from private sector vendors uses software-based monitoring of commissary and telephone systems. While monitoring and recording of phone calls is nothing new, these systems allow analysis of phone traffic to identify interrelationships of gang members both in the facility and on the street. They can even look at commissary purchasing patterns to home in on likely flows of money within the institution, an important consideration when STGs are so heavily involved in the smuggling of contraband.

On the known-member management side, technology has made much more complex (but hopefully equally more effective) STG management systems possible. One example is the system currently in use in the California system. It employs a four-level scale called the Step-Down Program (SDP). Because an inmate’s SDP level affects nearly every aspect of his or her daily life, its management would be unduly complex without technological aid.

First, case management review for movement to the next lower level takes place on a strict schedule. Reviews are conducted every 180 days, but an inmate must serve at least 12 months at each of the four levels before being returned to the general population. Disciplinary violations can, of course, result in reversion to the next higher level, starting the clock over.

Second, various privileges are linked to SDP level. In Step 1 monthly commissary spending is limited to 25% of the general population amount. This increases to 30% in Step 2, 40% in Step 3, and 50% in Step 4. In addition to the spending limit, the nature of products allowed for purchase may also be controlled. Step 1 inmates may receive one photo after one year of no disciplinary violations, receiving an additional photo after completing Step 1, two more after completing Step 3, and two more after completing Step 4.

Phone privileges, meal location, and allowable personal property are all linked to SDP level as well. As you can see, across hundreds of inmates in a facility this would create a tracking nightmare without the help of automated systems. Yet the SDP system provides a set and predictable program of rewards for desired behaviors that is more appealing than the all-or-nothing aspects of California’s previous system, which required at least six years in a Special Housing Unit before review for release into the population.

The STG challenge is here to stay. Particularly along the U.S.-Mexican border, competing gangs will reflect the fragmentation and competition of the Mexican cartels, sowing the seeds for even more violence. The only question at this point is how effectively institutions can identify and manage STG members. Staff members in general and gang intelligence officers in particular need every available tool at their disposal, so any assistance that emerging technologies (and creative use of existing ones) can provide is welcome.

About the author:

Corrections.com author, Robert Winters, holds a Juris Doctorate degree and is a Professor with Kaplan University. He is also a member of the National Criminal Justice Association and serves as a Western Regional Representative, a member of the National Advisory Board and their National Elections Committee.

Other articles by Winters


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