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Managing Prison Gangs/Security Threat Groups
By Terry Campbell, Professor, Purdue University Global
Published: 04/07/2014

Inmates on break Prisons are responsible for housing convicted inmates in a safe and secure environment. This also includes identifying an inmate’s custody level, program needs, medical, mental health issues, and housing assignment. An assessment is completed to determine if the inmate is involved with a gang and/or security threat group. This verification can be completed in a variety of ways, including self-admission, gang tattoos, written materials, and other means. The following questions need to be answered: Does the inmate pose a threat to other inmates and staff? Is the inmate deemed an escape risk and/or security threat? Does the inmate require protection from other inmates, or pose a threat to the safety, security, and good order of the prison? A compilation of the assessment allows for identifying proper security level, housing assignment, program needs, and other.

We may ask why there is a concern for security threat groups. These security threat groups are involved in violating various prison rules. This may consist of, but is not limited to, trafficking and trading in contraband, sexual acts and exploitation, participating and ordering assaults on inmates and staff, disrupt activities, exhibit extreme violent acts, and other. If left uncontrolled and not effectively managed, these violent actions can lead to serious disruption and even riots. These groups pose a serious management problem and concern for prisons.

Security threat groups are a challenge to management and effectively managed prisons result in lower rates of violence. To discuss control of security threat groups I will focus on the following areas, management-leadership, training, classification, Security Threat Group Coordinator, institutional rules, communication, renunciation and/or step down, and other. These areas are not ranked in any particular order.

Management tools are in place to effectively manage and control security threat groups. Unfortunately, some prisons are more effective at this than others. Leadership begins at the top of the prison organization. Generally, this will be the prison warden who sets the tone, direction, support to manage the prison organization. The warden is only as effective as the team and staff (uniform and non-uniform) assigned to the prison. Every employee plays a significant role in maintaining a safe, healthy, and secure prison environment. To accomplish this all employees need to know what the mission is, understand their roles in managing the inmate population, and be allowed to communicate concerns.

The warden needs to manage by walking and not just manage from his office. This also reinforces support to staff and exhibits the warden's understanding of the staff’s duties and responsibilities. The warden is then visible and accessible to staff. The warden needs to demonstrate this is a group effort in effectively managing and controlling security threat groups. All too often, the warden may not be familiar with all staff, and this can affect morale. This prevents staff from assuming the only time we see or hear from the warden is when something is wrong or there is a tour.

Our most precious resource within a prison is our staff. There is no excuse for staff not being properly trained and receiving ongoing training to prepare staff in dealing with the difficult and dangerous inmate population of security threat groups. It is always a sad fact when some inmates are more familiar with departmental rules, regulations, and policies for security threat groups than some staff. This goes back to having effective leadership and management at all levels. Proper training and support are great motivators and confidence builders for staff.

As new information is developed regarding gangs, there needs to be a current evaluation and assessment of training needs evaluation. Any changes and/or additions to training needs to be provided to all staff. Besides training, we also need to assess any additional security and/or technology that may be used. Anytime there is a serious incident, a critical incident review needs to be conducted to look at a variety of areas. Especially to determine if training needs and training effectiveness are being met.

There are a couple of other areas related to training and effectively controlling security threat groups; communication and consistency. Staff needs to know correct communication procedures. This can consist of written and verbal communication modes. This is vital information that must be shared with all shifts and again shared with staff who are off upon their return to work. Supervisors will determine how this information should be disseminated. Consistency is enforcement of the rules by all staff. This prevents any confusion on the part of staff and inmate population.

There are a couple of additional components necessary to effectively manage and control security threat groups; security threat group coordinator and the renunciation and/or step down process. The prison warden needs to establish and implement the security threat group coordinator position. This position will be responsible for the collection and monitoring of security threat group records, information, and is part of the gang identification and validation and/or certification process. The role of the coordinator will vary from state to state. Refer to that agency’s security threat group manual and policies. The importance of the coordinator position cannot be stressed enough. The renunciation and/or step down process allows for security threat group members the opportunity to return to general population provided they are committed and demonstrate discontinued gang activity.

The 2013 (11)AELE Mo.L.J.301 law journal provided the following from the Harbin- Bey v. Rutter case. “Identifying, reclassifying, and separating prisoners who are members of groups that engage in planning or committing unlawful acts of misconduct targets a core threat to the safety of both prison inmates and officials.” Prison managers must ensure development and implementation of security threat group policies adhere to the various legal requirements.


Terry Campbell is a criminal justice professor at Kaplan University, School of Public Safety and has more than 20 years of experience in corrections and policing. He has served in various roles, including prison warden and parole administrator, for the Arkansas Department of Corrections. Terry may be reached at criminaljustice@kaplan.edu.

Other articles by Campbell



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