We spoke to hundreds of prison gang members – here's what they said about life behind bars

With 1.5 million Americans currently in prison, the United States imprisons a greater percentage of its citizens than any other country. However, for those who don't live or work in a facility, the life behind bars remains mysterious. Only when there are riots and executions, or scandals, does the public get a glimpse into life inside.
In 2016, we spent nine months interviewing more than 800 Texas prisoners as criminologists. We interviewed over 800 prisoners in Texas in 2016 and got to know their lives, including their experiences before and after prison. They also shared their plans for returning to their community, which is a journey that more than 600,000 people share each year.

We also discovered a very important reality in prison: Gangs.

Our 2020 book sheds light on how gangs compete to control prison life and structure it. Although gangs have power behind bars they are less powerful and more fragmented than people think.

Getting in, getting out

Although there has been a lot of research into street gangs, very little is known about gangs in prison.

Because it is difficult to get access, conducting research in prisons can be very difficult. Prison officials are often cautious and reluctant to allow outsiders in their prison walls. Researchers may not be allowed to enter prisons, so it is possible that prisoners won't participate in interviews. These issues become even more complex when the topic is gangs.

This was not the case. Half of those we interviewed were gang members. Both gang and non-gang prisoners said that they would rather speak to each other than remain in their cells.

The war years

With the advent of mass incarceration, prison gangs flourished across the United States. Until 1984-85, Texas prisons were largely gang-free. However, bloody battles erupted between the Texas Syndicate and the Mexican Mafia as well as the Aryan Brothershood and Mandingo Warriors. In 21 months, 52 prisoners were killed. This period became known as the war year.

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Our study included over 50 gangs. These gangs were both active in prisons and on the streets. According to prison officials, all 12 security threat groups or STGs, as they were called by prison officials, fit the traditional definition of prison gangs, which is organized, conspiratorial, and violent. Cliques are the remaining gangs. They are similar to criminal organizations. Cliques are a group of criminals that lack clear leadership, direction, or structure.

All gangs considered race and ethnicity important. For street gangs, geographic proximity is a great social determinant. Prison gangs rely on race and ethnicity to determine their social status. Nearly all prison gangs were made up of one race or ethnicity.

People we spoke to said that Texas prison gangs aren't what they used be. According to prison gang members, they are now less powerful and have lost the ability to enforce rules, particularly those pertaining to security threats. Few prison inmates, including gang members believed that prison gangs brought order and made them safer. This is a common claim about prison gangs. It is easier to believe power than it is.

Wielding power

Although gangs might not be able to exert a stronghold over prison life, they are still able to influence it. How can gang members wiese power if they are only 20% of Texas' prisoners (according to our research).


Gangs resort to violence to settle disputes, discipline members, and protect their interests. To preserve the memories of violence, stories are passed on from generation to generation. People we interviewed still remember the war years from more than 30 years ago.

Gangs add a new flavor to prison violence. The multiplier effect is real. Because of the collective gang identity, a violent incident involving gang members can increase the number of victims and offenders. These liabilities are part of being in a gang.

Join the gang

Prison can be scary for the uninitiated. Prison is a place where people are stripped of their identities, roles, and status. Half of all prisoners are convicted of violent crimes. It would be a good idea to join a gang.

Our research shows that approximately 10% of Texas inmates joined a gang while in prison for the first time, and another 10% brought their gang affiliation from the streets. As with the street, status and protection were two common reasons to join a gang in prison. However, ideology was important as well, such as vigilantism or race supremacy, which is something we seldom see in street gangs.

However, the majority of prisoners don't end up in gangs. Even though it is more difficult to avoid gangs in prison than on street, this holds true. Nongang members are subject to a background check and can be recruited once they have entered a prison unit. People who want to avoid gangs often cite their religion, homosexuality, or status as sex offenders as reasons not to join.

Blood out, blood in

Once it was believed that you couldn't leave a gang if you joined one. Criminologists have dispelled the myth that street gangs can never be left. Young people often leave gangs without any violence, according to criminologists. This was also true in prisons, even for security threat groups.

The main reason people leave is disillusionment. Gang members soon realize that they have been sold a lot of goods by gangs. Gang life is full of discontent.

It is harder to leave a gang in prison. It is not possible to walk away from gang members. Gang members requested permission to leave or gave notice that they were leaving. They also enrolled in the two-year prison system exit program.

Block the on-ramps and open the off-ramps

Despite years of efforts, it has not been possible to break the hold of gangs in prison despite all the effort. There is no silver bullet.

Although it is a possible solution, solitary confinement for gang members could be an effective management strategy. This is a Band-Aid for a bullet wound, which could cause more harm than good. One-size-fits all rehabilitation methods ignore the baggage of gang membership. Daily deep knowledge. Subscribe to The Conversations newsletter.

Gangs must have numbers to compete for control. This is why focusing only on entry and exit points can help reduce the power of gangs in recruiting new members and encouraging them to leave.

The problem will only grow and fester if you do nothing. Today's prisoners will become tomorrow's neighbors, religious congregation members, and employees. We want prisoners to leave prison in a better condition than when they entered it. Effective responses to gangs are essential.

This article was republished by The Conversation, a non-profit news site that shares ideas from academic experts. It was written and edited by David Pyrooz (University of Colorado Boulder) and Scott H. Decker (Arizona State University).

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David Pyrooz received funding for research grants in the last five years from the City of Denver, the National Institute of Justice, the Charles Koch Foundation and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, all part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Scott H Decker was awarded funding by the National Institute of Justice as well as the Arizona State University Foundation.