Skip to main content

Gang Affiliations Studied to Determine Violent Behavior of Inmates

August 08, 2007

Marie Griffin at Arizona State University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice and John Hepburn, dean of the university’s College of Human Services recently completed their study of the effect of gang affiliation on the violent behavior of inmates in Arizona’s prisons.

Gangs present a major challenge for prison administration. There is some evidence that prison gangs attract inmates with a higher level of programming need, especially due to histories of physical and sexual abuse, substance abuse, psychiatric disturbances, post-traumatic stress disorder, cognitive deficits, poor self-esteem, and other problems.

The dramatic rise of prison gangs in recent years has brought renewed attention to their predatory behavior. Prison gangs resist authority, violate rules, and promote violence. In competition with other gangs, and in opposition to administrative efforts, prison gangs feud over marketing territories and illicit supplies of contraband; their use of violence and intimidation to acquire social, physical, and economic capital affects the social order and the social climate of the prison for inmates and staff alike.

In Arizona’s prisons, active and well-organized prison gangs are officially designated as Security Threat Groups.

“Prison violence is caused by violent inmates,” said Griffin, a faculty affiliate in the Center for Violence Prevention and Community Safety. “This study shows us that gang affiliation leads to even greater rates of violence in prison.

“To reduce prison violence, prison management needs to do more than focus its attention on the classification and management of violent inmates; prison management must effectively reduce and eliminate prison gangs.”

Funded by the National Institute of Justice, and working in collaboration with the Arizona Department of Corrections, the study of 2,158 men during their first three years in prison found that gang affiliation predicts violent behavior. The highest rates of violence occurred among inmates who were affiliated with prison gangs, such as the Aryan Brotherhood, Border Brothers, New Mexican Mafia, Skinheads, and Surenos.

Those inmates who had been members of street gangs before entering prison had lower rates of violence than inmates who were members of a prison gang, but these previous ties to street gangs were reflected in a higher rate of violence than was found among inmates with no prior gang affiliations. This effect of gang membership on violent behavior was found to persist even when the individual risk factors of the inmates, such as their youth, their prior history of violence, and any prior incarceration, were controlled.

“We believe prison management is a critical factor in gang control,” said Griffin. “Arizona’s Department of Corrections has adopted an aggressive, proactive gang control strategy in which affiliations with street or prison gangs are given greater weight in the classification process, and known members of prison gangs are confined in maximum security prisons and isolated from all other inmates.

“Even with these actions, however, prison gangs and their predatory behaviors persist.”