A group of prison inmates, standing while unified by their mutual gang affiliation.
Prison Race Issues Prison System Issues

Prison Games: How Order Came from the Gang Violence

Gangs formed in prison many years ago as a way for prisoners to protect themselves. As a result, prisons experience order and balance with the violence.

It is no secret that violence runs rampant in prisons. Or, that most of the violence is gang-related. The truth is, prisons didn’t always have gangs in them. Odd as it may seem, gangs rose up not as an outlet for aggression but as a deterrence to violence. Despite the chaos they seem to represent, prison gangs may actually be systems of order. Enforcers in a broken and corrupt system.

There are others, but six of the main prison gangs are:

  • Northern Structure
  • Black Guerilla Family
  • Nazi Lowriders
  • Aryan Brotherhood
  • Mexican Mafia
  • Nuestra Familia

Labeling Race in Prison

Prison guards at Pelican Bay in California have no illusions about the reality of gangs in their prisons. On each of the cell blocks in Pelican Bay, hangs a card with the inmate’s name and photo. Most important for the guards, however, is the color of those cards which indicate which gang they are most likely associated with:

  • Green for northern Hispanics
  • Pink for southern Hispanics
  • Blue for Blacks
  • White for whites
  • Yellow for others, including American indigenous peoples, Mexican nationals, Laotians, and Eskimos.

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Consider the reality that the labeling comes from above. Often, it can come before having enough information. The result is the top-down reinforcement of racial prejudices that divide people in prisons.

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These systems can also be necessary to limit the violence. Identifying inmates in this way circumvents situations where one gang member is surrounded by several members of a rival gang. Despite the problems, the system of identification looks like it’s here to stay.

An Arms Race

It’s odd to think gangs used to not be as common in prisons as they are today. Before the 1950s, prisons operated under a personal “prisoner code”. Newcomers looked at the older inmates as mentors.

What Changed the Order?

Beginning in the ‘50s, a flood of first offenders became inmates of the prisons. They were younger and less likely to follow the advice of the older, grizzled inmates. Prisons became much more racially and ethnically diverse. The type of inmate became less predictable.

A group of prison inmates, standing while unified by their mutual gang affiliation.
It’s important to understand what inmates are willing to do if it means surviving prison. Not all inmates are soulless hardened beings, and there is a sense of security in numbers. Image Source: The Economist

What resulted was a pot set to boil. When authorities lost control, that is exactly what it did. Inmates could no longer trust individual codes or the guards to protect them. They had to turn to each other. It was then the first prison gangs formed.

Following that, gangs flexed their new muscles. They used violence to show they would protect their own. Other gangs came together in response to a growing need. Operating outside of a gang was too dangerous. Backing away from violence only increased the chance of being preyed upon by rivals.

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It is only recent times the escalation has begun to even out a little. That does not mean the violence has ended.

Finding Order

Back at Pelican Bay, the inmates have a nightly ritual when the lights go out. When darkness falls, each leader of the gangs says goodnight to the rest of the prison. Odd as it may seem, it is done to say none of the members of their gang will disturb the night’s rest.

For example, if a member of the Aryan Brothers gang violates the silence after-hours, they would discipline the member themselves. It avoids having the members of another gang attacking their own.

Beyond that, gangs are a more complex and orderly structure than they first appear:

  • Bureaucracies
  • Goals
  • Covert methods of communication
  • Even a form of human resources

Gangs structure themselves for protection as well as profit. Even prison guards admitted the tenuous balance of violence and control has created a new order in prisons.

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N. L. Sweeney
N. L. Sweeney is an English Creative Writing graduate from Western Washington University. His work has been published by Flash Fiction Magazine, Niteblade, Defenestration Magazine, Jeopardy Magazine and Inroads: Writers in the Community. He currently writes editorials and feature news pieces for Prison Rideshare Network. When Sweeney's not writing, he busies himself with petting furry animals, learning Chinese and making friends in local tea shops.