American jails need to pay close attention to the problems of gangs and security threat groups (STGs). This is the main message from the research on U.S. jails carried out since 1993 by the National Gang Crime Research Center (NGCRC).
The NGCRC has developed a variety of research projects dating back to its founding in 1991. The organization has surveyed municipal police agencies, juvenile detention facilities, county jails, adult and juvenile state correctional institutions, and county prosecutors—the gamut of main actors who deal with the gang problem in the U.S. justice system.
Jail problems related to gangs and STGs have increased over the years. This article discusses the NGCRC 2019 jail survey, which contains a national sample of N=276 county jails. It also compares some of the 2019 jail survey findings with a similar jail survey conducted in 1993 by the NGCRC (N=135 county jails).
Survey Results Gang density increased from 5% to 15.5%. Gang density is the percentage of inmates who are members of gangs/STGs. This percentage has increased in U.S. jails from a national average of 5% in 1993 to 15.5% in 2019. As a rule of thumb, because of the screening process, adult prisons have much higher gang-density rates.
75% of jail classification systems now take gang/STG membership into account. There has been a proportional increase in the percentage of jails that take gang/STG membership into account in their inmate classification systems. The 1993 survey showed that 42.6% of jails reported that their classification system takes gang membership into account. This rose to 75.4% in the 2019 survey. Clearly, more jails are now attuned to this security matter.
Gang/STG training for jail staff has lagged behind the rise of gang/STG problems. The survey asked: “Do your staff receive formalized training in dealing with the gang problem.” Only approximately 25% of the jails (N=73, 27.4%) responding to this survey indicated an affirmative answer that “yes, the staff in their jails receive formal training in dealing with the gang problem.”
Basically, the majority of jails (N=193, 72.6%) report that their staff do not receive formal training for managing the jail’s gang problem. Not much has changed in 25 years as we found the same percentages in the 1993 jail survey, which showed 26.1% of the jails provided training on the gang issue.
The survey asked: “In your opinion, could your staff benefit from professional outside training dealing with gangs?” Here, the results showed that an overwhelming majority (81.7%, N=219) felt “yes, such training would in fact be beneficial.”
What we know can more precisely be stated as follows: While the vast majority of jails would welcome gang training as beneficial, most jails overall do not provide their staff with this type of training. And when they do, it is not very intensive. Yet the gang problem figures prominently in one of the clusters of jail issues that can be a source of trauma and stress for those who work there.
Gang members are increasingly a problem in terms of assaults and threats on jail staff in most jurisdictions. The survey asked: “Have gang members been a problem in terms of assaults on your staff?” The results showed that only 18.3% of the jails in the U.S. (N=49) reported that gang members have been a problem in terms of assaults on jail staff. Thus, in most areas (N=219, 81.7%), gangs are not a problem in terms of assault on jail staff.
Still, this finding shows a trend toward increasing severity when compared to the 1993 jail survey when only 3% of the jails reported that gang members were a problem in terms of assaults on staff. The present research shows that there has been a substantial increase in this problem of assaults on staff in the 25-year period between 1993 and 2019. It is fair to say that jails and correctional agencies are generally seeing an upward trend in gang/STG issues.
A separate question addressed the lower threshold of this same risk factor; that is, the survey asked if gang members have been a problem in terms of threats on staff. Here we find that N=94 jails or 37.6% of the respondents currently report that gang members have been a problem in terms of threats against jail staff.
The 1993 jail survey showed 26.2% of the jails reported gang members were a problem in terms of threats against staff. So, here again, we see a trend toward increased gang problems in U.S. jails.
Half of the jails expressed the belief that giving staff recognition to inmate gang leaders is similar to negotiating with terrorists. Generally, conveying authority to one inmate over another could be construed as a human rights issue dating back to the United Nations standards on the treatment of inmates. The idea of using inmates to control other inmates—one of the best known being called “Building Tenders” in the Texas penal system—was the basis of prison inmate management in the state of Texas for many years until courts got involved.
The idea is not unlike that of using trustees as a supplemental security force or force multiplier, such as in the former prison system of Mississippi. The idea of negotiating with inmate gang leaders can be similar in its effect—giving extra power and authority to specific inmates in the hope that they use it to keep the peace.
The survey asked: “In your opinion, is giving staff recognition to inmate gang leaders similar to negotiating with terrorists?” Just over half of the jails (N=150, 57.5%) felt that giving staff recognition to inmate gang leaders is not similar to negotiating with terrorists.
This opinion has not changed much since the 1993 jail survey where 53% of the jails felt that giving staff recognition to inmate gang leaders is similar to negotiating with terrorists.
It would appear that this matter remains a divisive issue for U.S. jails today. As a rule of thumb, building “goodwill” is essential for correctional staff anywhere and from a practical point of view, gang leaders do exert a lot of control over their members. The other side of this controversy is that there could be substantial liability and significant “blowback” associated with negotiating with inmate gang leaders.
The antithesis of distrust toward gang leaders also overlaps with gang intervention work. Basically, jails may need to work with gang members, especially with their leaders, as they have reputational power that can be used to reduce gang conflict. They are said to have “street credentials” and reputations that some feel make them credible messengers.
It is not unreasonable to expect that gang recruitment extends into the jail. We do know that some people join gangs for the first time in jails and prisons. So, why not add components to your policy or services that tries to prevent gang recruitment behind bars?
Most of the jail respondents believe that gang affiliation increases recidivism. The survey asked: “Do you believe that gang affiliation tends to increase recidivism?” The finding here is that the vast majority of the respondents (N=218, 81.6%) believed that gang membership does increase the risk of recidivism. Only 18.4% (N=49) of the respondents expressed the belief that gang affiliation does not increase inmate recidivism.
It would seem reasonable to conclude that jail respondents in this survey tend to express the same conclusion as most criminological researchers on gang issues—that yes, gang affiliation would tend to be a factor of increased risk for recidivism.
The 1993 jail survey reported that 43.9% of the jails believed that gang membership does increase recidivism. Actual empirical research shows gang membership is a factor that increases the likelihood of individual relapse.
A third of the jails report inmate gangs have led to improvised weapons production among inmates. The survey asked the question: “In your opinion, have inmate gangs tended to result in more improvised weapons production (e.g., shanks) among inmates in your facility?” If there is a gang presence—and gang rivalries exist between the various STGs—then it is reasonable to assume a motivation exists for the ongoing production of improvised weapons. But only a third of the jails (N=87, 33.6%) indicated that inmate gangs have tended to result in more improvised weapons production. Thus, two-thirds of U.S. jails (66.4%, N=172) are claiming the gang problem is not severe enough to noticeably increase weapons production among inmates.
The 1993 survey found that only 19.5% reported inmate gangs have tended to result in more improvised weapons.
Strong support exists; tougher laws are needed to control the gang problem among inmates. The survey asked: “Do you feel we need tougher laws to control the gang problem among inmates?” There are lots of possibilities for this—ideas such as criminalizing gang recruitment of other inmates while in jail custody or establishing sanctions for gang behaviors behind bars, etc.
Some 82.3% (N=214) of the jails reported that they felt tougher laws are needed to control the gang problem among inmates. Only 17.7% (N=46) disagreed with the “get tough” approach to gang legislation.
The 1993 survey showed that 75.9% felt we needed tougher laws to control the gang problem among inmates.
Have gangs significantly affected the jail environment? The survey asked: “Do you believe that the inmate gangs have significantly affected your correctional environment?” By way of comparison, the exact identical question when asked in a survey of state prisons in a 2004 NGCRC research report showed 63.6% of the prisons in the U.S. reported that gangs have significantly affected their correctional environment. Only 36.1% (N=96) of the jails in 2019 are reporting that gangs have
significantly affected the jail environment. Nearly two-thirds of the jails in 2019 are reporting that gangs have not significantly affected the jail environment.
The 1993 survey of jails showed that 11.2% report “yes” that gangs had significantly affected their environment.
Certain factors differentiate whether inmate gangs have significantly affected the jail environment. Our analysis of background factors that impact on high and low conditions of whether inmate gangs have significantly affected the jail environment consist of nine different variables.
Shown in the survey research analysis to be statistically significant by the Chi-square distribution (p<.05), these factors are:
• White inmates have a separate gang. • Gang members have threatened staff. • The jail has had inmates who could be considered to be military-trained gang members. • Gang members have been a problem in terms of assaults on staff. • The jail has held inmates who are associated with the Sovereign Citizens Movement. • Inmate gangs have tended to result in more improvised weapons production. • Racial conflicts are a problem among the jail inmates. • Jail staff have received serious injuries in confrontations with inmates. • The jail often finds illicit drugs in its shakedowns.
Urgent Needs to Address in the Future There is an urgent need for Congress to recognize the serious challenges of gangs in today’s jails and the courageous staff who work in these facilities. We can reasonably expect some gang/STG problems to escalate in the future. We are not seeing much optimism about the possibility of abatement of the gang problem that gets imported into our jails. There is also an urgent need for front-line staff to receive more formal training on gangs and STGs. Because there has been a training lag with regard to gang/STG issues, the gang/STG problem has increased at a much faster and higher pace than the extent to which jail staff are being provided with training to deal with these serious problems. _______________________ George W. Knox, Ph.D., serves as the Executive Director of the NGCRC and is a previous contributor to American Jails Magazine. He wrote the first full textbook on gangs (An Introduction to Gangs, 1991) and founded the Journal of Gang Research now in its 29th year as a professional quarterly. He can be contacted at email@example.com.