Prison gang

Prison gang is a term used to denote any type of gang activity in prisons and correctional facilities. Prison officials and others in law enforcement use the term Security Threat Group, or STG.

The concept for the "Security Threat Group" name is to take away the recognition and publicity that the term "gang" connotates when referring to people who have an interest in undermining the system.

Most prison gangs do more than offer simple protection for their members. Most often, prison gangs are responsible for any drug, tobacco, or alcohol handling inside correctional facilities. Furthermore, many prison gangs involve themselves in prostitution, assaults, kidnappings, and murders. Prison gangs often seek to intimidate the other inmates, pressuring them to relinquish their food and other resources.

In addition, prison gangs often exercise a large degree of influence over organized crime in the "free world", larger than their isolation in prison might lead one to expect. Since the start of the "War on Drugs" in the 1980s, which led to both massive increases in the prison population and high profits for drug trafficking, larger prison gangs have consciously worked to leverage their influence inside prison systems to control and profit from drug trafficking on the street. This is made possible based upon the logic that individuals involved in selling illegal drugs face a high likelihood of serving a prison term at some point, or in having a friend or family member in prison. The cooperation of drug dealers and other criminals can be secured due to the credible threat of violence upon incarceration if it is not provided. Prison gang members and associates who are released are usually expected to further the gang's activities after their release, and may face danger if they refuse and are returned to prison, such as on a parole violation. The War on Drugs also led to large numbers of drug addicts serving prison terms, providing gangs with a significant method of asserting control within prisons, by controlling the drug trade.

Prison gangs can also be responsible for laundering money from outside gangs, usually the free world branches of the same gangs "on the inside".

Most correctional facilities have policies prohibiting the formation of prison gangs; however, many prison gangs continue to operate with impunity. Many members are serving life imprisonment (a few are on Death Row) for various crimes, thus they have no incentive to leave a gang or to integrate with the general prison population.

It should be noted that prison gangs often have several "affiliates" or "chapters" in different state prison systems that branch out due to the movement or transfer of their members. Smaller prison gangs may associate with or declare allegiance to larger ones. In addition, some prison gang "chapters" may split into antagonistic groups that become rivals, as the Mexican Mafia did in Arizona (into the "Old" or "Original" Mexican Mafia associated with the original California gang and the "New Mexican Mafia", a rival group).

* Aryan Brotherhood - A white prison gang that originated in California's San Quentin prison in 1964. Perhaps out of their ideology, and the necessity of establishing a presence among the more numerous Black and Hispanic gang members, the AB has a particular reputation for ruthlessness and violence. Since the 1990s, in part because of this reputation, the AB has been targeted heavily by state and federal authorities. Many key AB members have been moved to "supermax" control-unit prisons at both the federal and state level or are under federal indictment.
* Nazi Lowriders - A newer white prison gang that emerged in California after many Aryan Brotherhood members in that state were sent to the Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay or transferred to federal prisons. NLR is associated with members originally from the Antelope Valley of Southern California, and is known to accept some light-skinned or Caucasian identified Hispanic members.
* La Eme - The Mexican Mafia. "Eme" is the letter "M" in Spanish, it's also the 13th letter in the alphabet. The Mexican mafia are composed mostly of Hispanics, although some caucasian members exist. The Mexican Mafia and the Aryan Brotherhood are allies and work together to control prostitution, drug running, weapons, and "hits" or murders. Originally formed in the 1950s in California prisons by Hispanic prisoners from the southern part of that state, Eme has traditionally been composed of US-born or raised Hispanics and has retained ties to the Southern California-based "Sureños". During the 1970s and 80s, Eme in California established the model of leveraging their power in prison to control and profit from criminal activity on the street.
* Nuestra Familia - "Our Family," The "N" is the 14th letter in the alphabet which is used as their symbol along with the Roman numeral "XIV" to represent their gang, another mostly Hispanic prison gang that is constantly at war with La Eme, and was originally formed from Northern-California or rural-based Hispanic prisoners opposed to domination by La Eme, which was started by and associated with Los Angeles gang members.
* The Texas Syndicate - A mostly Texas-based prison gang that includes mostly Hispanic members, and does not allow Caucasian members. The Texas Syndicate, more than La Eme or Nuestra Familia, has been more associated or allied with Mexican immigrant prisoners, such as the "Border Brothers", while Eme and Familia tend to be composed of and associate with US-born or raised Hispanics.
* Most African-American prison gangs retain their street gang names and associations. These commonly include Rollin' sets (named after streets, i.e. Rollin' 30's, Rollin' 40's, etc.) that can identify with either Blood or Crip affiliations. The Black Guerilla Family represents an exception, as an originally politically-based group that has a significant presence in prisons and prison politics.

Blood in, Blood out

Most prison gangs follow the policy of "blood in - blood out."

* Blood In - This generally means that to get into a prison gang, one has to spill someone else's blood. Most often this requires a murder, although occasionally it can be an aggravated assault. The idea is that law enforcement officials will refuse to carry out murder or aggravated assaults, therefore allowing the prison gangs to remain without infiltration.

* Blood Out - Most prison gangs are for life. Blood Out refers to trying to get out of a prison gang. Most often, this means the member will be killed.


Many small prison gangs require members to recognize every other member of the organization. In larger prison gangs such as La Eme, gang tattoos are used for identification. The tattoo must be earned and anyone found with a prison gang tattoo that they didn't earn will usually have it removed, commonly by cutting it out or by using an iron. Because tattooing is used for prison gang identification, many prisons have prohibited tattooing while inside the facility and issue severe penalties for any tattoo equipment or signs of recent tattooing. Tattoos can also be used to 'validate' a suspected prison gang member for transfer to a 'Supermax' or 'SHU' facility where identified gang members are segregated. As a result, some prison gang members may carry a 'brand' or gang identifier on a piece of paper or some means other than a tattoo for identification.

Latent function

Christian Parenti argues in his book "Lockdown America" that prison gangs serve a convenient function for the prison establishment and officers: they help regulate rogue and rebellious elements within the prison population without intervention from prison authorities. Parenti sees the repression dished out by gangs on non-affiliated prisoners as a latent function of prison gangs. Thus, gangs are often more-or-less tolerated by prison administrators due to the side-benefits they create.

Prison gangs in fiction

*"Blood in Blood out"
*"American Me"
*"American History X"

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