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Role of Prison Ganges in the Drug Market

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 4866 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Final Paper: Prison Gangs and Drugs


Introduction and Theory Overview


 The purpose of this paper is to analyze the role that prison gangs have in the drug market. In order to comprehend prison gangs, I will provide a brief overview of their development and explain the impact they have on society. Lastly, I will select and provide a brief explanation of three relevant theories that will further illuminate the issue.

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 According to Fleisher and Decker (2001), a prison gang is defined as “An organization which operates within the prison system… consisting of a select group of inmates who have established an organized chain of command and are governed by an established code of conduct” (p. 2).  Gangs expect complete loyalty from members and members who violate codes can face fatal repercussions. In addition, gangs generally form along racial lines and they often attack or intimidate rival/non-members. Overall, prison gangs function in secrecy and have leaders that plan criminal activities to try gain control of the prisons environment. A recent study revealed that “… approximately 13% of jail populations are thought to be gang-involved” (Ruddell, Decker, & Egley, 2006, p. 33). Although, the percentage of prison gangs is not large, they negatively impact prison environments. For example, a study revealed that “surveyed prison officials in 33 states concluded that prison gang members… were responsible for 50% or more of the prison violence” (Griffin & Hepburn, 2006, p. 423). Prison gangs utilize violence to gain control of the underground markets in prisons. They sell protection to inmates as well as contraband such as drugs, sex, and illegal merchandise (Skarbek, 2012). Therefore, the focus of this paper will be to further understand how prison gangs have developed and the impact they have in perpetuating the drug industry in our society.

 Prison gangs did not always exist within correctional facilities. One leading theory as to why prison gangs developed was due to the overcrowding in prisons. Skarbek (2012) states that “the earliest period of notable increase in the inmate population took place from 1944 to 1969… inmate population grew from 5,710 to 27,535 inmates, increasing nearly five times” (p. 101). As prison populations increased, the resources available to inmates became scarce and violence escalated. Prisoners reacted by creating gangs in order to establish order in their hostile environment. As more prisoners joined gangs they become more powerful and exerted more control over the prison environment. Petersilia and Tonry (2008) explained that “as the number of prison gang members grows, the balance of power shifts from management to the gangs and administrators lose leverage they need to achieve safety and correctional goals” (p. 234). In essence, prison gangs have taken control of the prison environment and this has far-reaching consequences as they are able to conduct criminal activities that affect society on the outside.

 According to the United States Department of Justice (2015), prison gangs pose a national threat due to their role in the distribution and transportation of narcotics. Prison gangs are an important link between drug-trafficking organizations (DTO), outlaw motorcycle gangs, and street gangs. Prison gangs often broker the transfer of drugs between DTO’s to gangs in many regions. To further explain this issue it is important to understand that prison gangs can extort drug dealers that are outside in the communities because they have a high likelihood to be incarcerated due to selling drugs (Skarbek, 2011). Essentially, a drug dealer can face serious repercussion if they are arrested and they did not follow orders from a prison gang while on the outside. Therefore, prison gangs can influence what happens in communities outside of prison. In conclusion, due to the large increase in inmate populations within correctional facilities prison gangs emerged and through violence have become prominent players in the drug market. 

Theoretical Frameworks

 In order to further understand the issue of prison gangs and their influence in the drug industry, I will be reviewing three theories that are relevant. The three theories that I will be explaining and applying are the Systems, Social Constructionist, and Conflict Perspective.

 Hutchinson (2017) writes “The systems perspective sees human behavior as the outcome of interactions within and among systems of interrelated parts” (p. 32). Furthermore, there is an extended version of this which is the ecological theory. Essentially, this theory focuses on the relationship and interactions between people and their environment (Hutchinson, 2017). Furthermore, there are different levels that affect individuals such as the microsystem, mesosystem, exo-system, and macro-system (Lau & Ng, 2014).  An example of a microsystem would be the people closest to the prisoner such as his gang members, other inmates, correctional officers, and family. The mezzo system could be understood as the relationship between an incarcerated individual and their community. An exosystem is comprised of systems that are outside of the individual. For example, policies regarding drug regulations affect the prison gang’s drug business. Lastly, the macrosystem would be the beliefs, values, and culture held by society. For instance, the belief held by society that illicit substances are harmful to individuals. Furthermore, if one or more of these systems are changed then it could affect the individual in either a positive or negative manner (Hutchinson, 2017). Therefore, systems theory can help us understand that in order to address this issue we must take a systematic approach to make changes in all of the different levels.



The theory is comprehensive because it incorporates various dimensions of human and environmental systems. Also, helpful to understand human behavior.

Concepts are abstract, ambiguous and often confusing in their generality.

Can be utilized at any level of practice. 

Difficult to translate concepts into measurable variables for research.

Suggests that assessments and interventions should expect better outcomes from multidimensional interventions.

Does not address diversity and the idea that there are power differentials in system transactions.

Source: (Hutchison, 2015)

 The systems theory has strengths and weaknesses when applied to the social issue of prison gangs. For instance, it can assist others understand that people that become involved in gangs and illicit activities have been impacted by their environment. Furthermore, the theory implies that there are several systems interacting with an individual and that interventions that utilize a multidimensional approach to resolving issues are more effective. However, this theory does not address the power differentials among individuals and the different systems. I will discuss a research article that provides further insight into the social issue and theory.

 Densley (2011) writes that “gang intervention requires a comprehensive model which recognizes the gang phenomenon for what it really is: a complex interaction of individual and situational variables” (p. 20). The researcher understands that the issue of gangs is not only at the micro level, which is the individual because there is macro level systems (institutions) that contribute to the problem. Densley explains that there needs to be an improvement in the cooperation and partnership of traditionally divergent agencies and institutions such as those of the police and social services. Applying systems theory to this issue is helpful because it is exposes how gangs are affected by various systems at different levels. We will now turn to constructionist theory which can assist provide a further understanding on how gang members establish their identities.

 A theory that can help shed light on how people create their realities is the social constructionist perspective which “… focuses on how people construct meaning, a sense of self, and a social world through their interactions with each other” (Hutchison, 2017, p. 40). Essentially, people form their identity and their role in life by the interactions they have with others. One may wonder what would compel an individual to take on the identity of a gang member. According to a study that interviewed youth about why they chose to identify as gang members, the majority claimed that doing so would earn them respect (Harding, 2014). For example, the image that has been socially constructed of gang members is that they are tough and dangerous criminals that should be feared by others. On the other hand, a gang is also thought of as a family that protects its members and provides structure. Individuals that may not have a strong support system could seek refuge in a gang. Overall, you can see there is more than one reality.  



Accommodates diversity because acknowledges that there are multiple social realities.

There is an inequality in who shapes reality. People with power and privilege will be able to construct reality at the disadvantage of minorities. 

Focuses on starting where the client is and with how they view their situation.

Has failed to provide the theoretical tools necessary to analyze power relationships.

Considers the social environment in which the individual lives.

Does not pay attention to how the macro world such as social institutions affect individuals.

Source: (Hutchison, 2015)  

 The social constructionist theory provides helpful insight into how gang members form their identities. For example, this approach focuses on the gang member’s view his situation and treats the client as the expert of their life. Furthermore, this theory understands that people’s environment also affects them such as how gang members experience stigma in our society. However, this theory does not address the power dimension in our society and how this negatively impacts people who are in gangs. To obtain a more in-depth analysis of this theory and social issue, I will review an article from the literature.  

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Stretesky & Pogrebin (2007) explain that the “value of masculinity as a form of expression plays an important role in gang socialization” (p. 88). Many young men who join a gang may do so because they want to earn a reputation and be manly. For instance, if they are growing up in an impoverished neighborhood and are socially isolated then they may not have the option to demonstrate their manhood in conventional roles. These men might not have the opportunity to earn respect by getting a job and assisting their families as there may be no jobs available, so they find a way to earn a reputation of toughness through violent actions in gangs. Following I will introduce the conflict perspective to further present the oppression that gang members have experienced in their lives. 

 Conflict Perspective draws “… attention to conflict, dominance, oppression in social life” (Hutchinson, 2017, p. 35). This theory focuses on addressing conflicts related to the unequal distribution of resources. Generally, this involves the economic, political and cultural arenas of society. An approach that expanded on this perspective is the empowerment theory which focuses on oppressed groups of people finding patterns of inequality to take action and to increase their collective power (Hutchinson, 2017). Prisoners are a vulnerable population that has been marginalized and stigmatized as deviants. However, the institutional problems that they have negatively experienced in life are often not acknowledged. For example, “Many criminals are, in a real sense, victims of family abuse and neglect, school disciplinary practices that expelled them before they had sufficient education to get a good job, and impoverished neighborhoods…”(Fleisher & Decker, 2001, p. 2). Prisoners often lack education/job skills, struggle with substance use, emotional disorders and need services to address these issues. Essentially, there are many structural issues that can make people more prone to crime. Lastly, viewing this issue through the conflict perspective could assist to develop interventions targeting communities/prisons such as implementing re-entry and rehabilitative programs for prisoners.



Concepts of conflict, power, domination, and inequality are straightforward. Explains how oppression can affect human behavior.

Can be difficult to conduct research because concepts are not consistently used. Unclear whether concepts are subjective or objective.

Takes into consideration the historical patterns of power and conflict struggles. 

However, some interpretations of historical data from the conflict perspective have been criticized.

Provides useful recommendations for practice strategies such as focusing on empowerment and small group interventions.

Does not explicitly address the dimension of biology. Also, provides little in the way of policy direction.

Source: (Hutchison, 2015)

 The strengths of the conflict perspective are that this theory provides insight about how gang members have been negatively impacted by oppression in their lives. Furthermore, it encourages practitioners to assist clients to be aware of their power struggles and become empowered through group efforts. However, the weaknesses are that this perspective does not provide any direction for developing policies to address conflict struggles. I will discuss an interesting peer reviewed article that provides a further understanding of the societal causes of gangs and recommends what type of interventions are effective as well as ineffective.

  Eitle (2004) states that the risks associated with a young man joining a gang are, “that financial hardship, rather than poor quality relationships, may be the driving force when family factors are considered” (p. 105). For example, if a young person’s family is struggling due to financial reasons and the child does not know any healthy coping mechanisms then they could become involved with gangs as a way to manage the stress in their lives. Eitle critiques the current gang suppression interventions in that they fail to address the attractiveness of gangs for young people. He recommends the use of effective community strategies that focus on the causes of gangs as well as their allure in order to provide meaningful change. 

Connection to TCP

 There is no perfect theory that can address a social issue because they usually focus on one dimension of the problem while ignoring other aspects. Therefore, it is important to take into consideration the transcultural perspective when examining issues related to incarcerated individuals. The dimension of power, privilege, and oppression incorporate key aspects that the incarcerated population struggle with. For example, Stretesky and Pogrebin (2007), explain that gangs are a byproduct of communities and they will continue to produce vulnerable individuals if the economic and social environmental factors are not changed. To illustrate the importance of applying the TCP to social issues, I will analyze what aspects are not addressed by the theories.

Conflict theory addresses that there are inequalities in society that incarcerated individuals’ experience but fails to provide any direction for developing policy initiatives to resolve the issue. In addition, while systems theory presents various dimensions of an issue at different levels it does not acknowledge the diversity and power relations among systems. Lastly, the social constructionist perspective highlights an important aspect of gangs which is the socialization process nonetheless it does not consider the structural issues that affect gangs. Furthermore, researchers have begun to realize that “… the strategy of focusing on gang socialization, however, falls most closely in line with social intervention perspectives that have not proved to be highly successful in various situations” (Stretesky & Pogrebin, 2007, p. 110). Hence, the power, privilege and oppression dimension could be utilized to develop interventions that target the macro-level as this will eventually influence the socialization process at the micro level of gangs (Stretesky & Pogrebin, 2007). Densely (2011) recommend that such a model should simultaneously apply prevention, deterrence and rehabilitation practices with interventions for individuals such as aggression replacement training and different systems that include families, the criminal justice, schools, recreation, and employment. In conclusion, in order to effectively understand and address the issue of prison gangs and to reduce their influence in the drug industry, it would be recommended to develop interventions that use a combined method that targets the micro and macro-levels.

Theory Application

            For the remainder of the paper, I will be introducing an intervention that addresses the social issues of gangs. Although, the major concern is the illicit drug sales and violent offenses that gangs perpetrate, the nature of this intervention is to prevent and reduce gangs. Essentially, by reducing the number of gang members their influence is reduced as well as their power which results in a reduction in crime. This intervention seeks to empower communities, individuals and change how we view gang problems not solely as a concern for public safety but also understand the root causes of the issue. Lastly, the intervention is derived from an ecological theory and addresses all three levels of the micro, mezzo and macro dimensions.

Description of Intervention

            Eitle (2004) explains that when prisoners are released especially “high-risk individuals (i.e., gang members and violent offenders) typically face more difficulty successfully transitioning back into the community” (p. 1482). For example, many of these individuals may be struggling with substance use disorders which make it difficult from them to maintain employment, have positive relationships and have a high self-esteem which can increase the likelihood of recidivism. In addition, all incarcerated individuals that are released carry the stigma of a criminal history and a former gang member may still be viewed as an active gang member by people in the community, the police, and rival gangs. Therefore, it is evident that there needs to be a reentry intervention that assists prisoners successfully reintegrate into their communities. In the following paragraphs, I will provide a description of a model that was based on the anti-gang initiative of Dr. Spregel and his colleagues, which focuses on providing reentering individuals a multitude of services (Bender, 2016).

             The Comprehensive Community-Wide Approach (CAGI) to gang prevention, intervention, suppression, and reentry program was funded by the United States Department of Justice (Bender, 2016). The intervention proposed that communities implement five different strategies which included: community mobilization, opportunities provision, social intervention, suppression, and organization change/ development. For community mobilization, the practitioner would need to involve citizens, current and former gang members as well as agencies to be involved in the program. Next, the opportunities provision entails providing services such as transitional housing, employment training, and mental health/substance use treatment. The third strategy is social intervention, and this involves community agencies, grassroots groups, faith-based organizations, the police and criminal organizations reaching out to gang members and connecting them to their families, conventional society and services they need. The fourth method is suppression and it entails informal social control procedures such as correctional officers, community agencies monitoring and supervising the gang members. The final suggestion is to develop and implement policies in agencies that best utilize the available resources to address the issue of the gangs. Overall, the goal is to address gang members, their families as well as the communities to assist them to become active participants in society.

Evidence base:

             The CAGI program began in 2006 and was implemented in six major cities and by 2008 was further extended to 12 cities throughout the United States (National Institute of Justice, 2015). In order to measure the effectiveness of CAGI researches measured different components of the intervention such as the rate of gun homicides. A balanced panel regression framework was utilized to measure any changes to the gun homicides rates between pre and post intervention in the 12 cities. Results demonstrated that there was a significant and immediate change because of the law enforcement strategies. For example, there was an 8.1% decline in homicide rates related to gang crimes. This program was reviewed by the National Institute of Justice and was deemed as a promising initiative to alleviating the problem of gangs.    

Connection to Theoretical Framework  

             The intervention is primarily at the mezzo level because it involves establishing partnerships between community organizations, law enforcement, and the gang members to provide them with the services they need to successfully be active members of society. In addition, the intervention targets the micro level because it provides mental health/substance use programs to assist the individual gang member to improve their overall wellness. Furthermore, the CAGI initiative targets the macro levels as well because it seeks to inform the public about not only focusing on the public health concerns of gangs but also the root causes of gangs. For instance, this intervention was influenced by the social disorganization theory (has ecological characteristics) in that violence is caused by social instability and lack of economic support (National Institute of Justice, 2015). The stigma that gang members experience is challenged because they are viewed as a vulnerable population that has suffered hardships caused by society. This intervention assesses the needs of the gang members and provides individualized support by involving families and establishing partnerships between key community organizations.

Transcultural Perspective for Intervention

             When assessing the CAGI initiative through the transcultural lens, a strength that it has is it is culturally competent and culturally knowledgeable. For instance, before the CAGI is implemented a thorough assessment of the community is required in order to understand the service gaps, community perceptions and types of gang activities/crime patterns (Arciaga et al., 2009). The community assessment provides the cultural knowledge necessary to ensure that practitioners are culturally competent because the model is individualized for each city. Furthermore, respectful partnerships are established as well because the community organizations/ gang members and local law enforcement agencies are treated as experts about their situation and their participation is necessary to implement the intervention. Lastly, the intervention incorporates the power, privilege and oppression dimension because it acknowledges that individuals that are involved in gangs are a vulnerable population that require support. For example, as I mentioned previously the intervention is based on the social disorganization theory which focuses on economic/social inequalities as the root cause of violence in society. In conclusion, the CAGI intervention incorporates all dimensions of the transcultural perspective.               


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