Why Prison Gangs?

Prison gangs are violent non-state actors (VNSAs) engaged in a host of criminal activities directly threatening to the security and stability of countries throughout the Western Hemisphere.  Their activities run the gamut from exceptional brutality to drug smuggling and human trafficking.  The existence of powerful gangs within government prison systems, the ultimate expressions of state authority and the primacy of the rule of law, is paradoxical.  Yet not only do prison gangs exist, they thrive in confinement.  Contemporary prisons often form the epicenter of criminal activities and serve as institutions of higher learning for criminals, where ordinary and minor offenders join organized criminal groups and transform into hardened gang members and career criminals.

The growing significance of prison gangs has yet to be fully recognized among security experts.  The analysis presented here aims to reduce the ongoing disparity between the increasingly importance of prison gangs in national and transnational criminal activity and the comparative lack of expert knowledge.

The problems of street gangs and prison gangs are increasingly inextricable.  Gangs outside prison , motivated by some combination of money and fear, often carry out the dictates of powerful prison gangs and incarcerated gang leaders.  Street gangs often occupy subordinate positions in their relations with prison gangs: inevitable incarceration puts street gang members at the mercy of violent and well-entrenched prison gangs, placing a premium on good relations with the latter.  The growing reach of prison gangs parallels the broader transformation of such groups into powerful, for-profit organized criminal entities, many of whom pose increasingly transnational threats. They are the enemy within, a threat that no one suspects until it is too late and must be recognized as such.


The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) defines prison gangs as:

“criminal organizations that originated within the penal system and operate within correctional facilities…although released members may be operating on the street. Prison gangs are also self-perpetuating criminal entities that can continue their criminal operations outside the confines of the penal system.”

In the United States, prison gangs are classified as Security Threat Groups (STGs).  According to the National Gang Crime Research Center (NGCRC), an STG is any group of three or more persons with recurring threatening or disruptive behavior which includes, but is not limited to, gang crime and gang violence.  The moniker of “security threat group” is intended to take away the recognition and publicity that the term “gang” connotes when referring to people who seek to undermine the system.

For the purposes of this project, the NGCRC’s definition of prison gangs will be used:

any gang (where a gang is a group of three or more persons who recurrently commit crime, and where the crime is openly known to the group) that operates in prison.

This definition is consistent with the reality that not all prison gangs originated behind prison walls.  The 2010 Small Arms Survey distinguishes between “natives” or “pure” prison gangs formed within and those “imported” into prison systems, the members of which function as “prison branches” of an organization that already established on the outside, such as MS-13 and M-18.  In practice, however, the distinction between a “native” gang and an “imported” one is often inconsequential.  The gangs observed in this analysis all utilize prisons as bases for their criminal activities and all share the same goal of undermining the laws of society.


Image of Man in Prison:

Image of Western Hemisphere: