1. Improve Prison Conditions

Though problems like poverty and underdevelopment are often considered to be the root causes of crime, the formation of gangs after criminals have been arrested can be curbed with the improvement of living conditions inside detention facilities.  Currently, prisoners justify their rioting, brutality against guards, and general violence as retaliation against, and protection from, states that violate their basic rights.  Whether from a lack of prisons or stringent arrest policies, overcrowding plagues the prison systems of the United States, Mexico, and Central and South America.  Prisoners from the latter three regions complain they are denied basic necessities like blankets and soap, and international human rights organizations validate their claims.  If authorities address inadequate living conditions, prison gangs will be denied the foundations of their moral claims, and possibly, the subsequent support from sympathetic and often impoverished populations outside the prisons (i.e. in Central and South America).

2. Inmate Labor for Underdeveloped Neighborhoods

If infrastructure deficiencies and underdevelopment are contributing to poverty-based crime in place like Central and South America, then development projects aimed specifically at these higher-risk neighborhoods may help prevent young people from joining gangs out of economic desperation.  Additional manual labor programs for prisoners would reduce the costs of development and contribute to long-term solutions to the gang problem.  By partnering with non-government, non-profit, or charitable development organizations, law enforcement officials could bring economic stability to the impoverished populations that contribute to and often support the illegal operations of gang members.  Using inmate labor would also remove prisoners from the overcrowded conditions of their cells.

Risks, of course, exist.  The chances of prisoner escape during projects increase, so programs would have to be accompanied by an increase in the number of prison guards.  Communication between prisoners and non-inmate gang members may also be facilitated by the travel.  Cell phones inside prisons, however, already allow inmates to communicate with their colleagues; adding “community service” to prisoners’ daily activities may serve more as a distraction than as an added benefit for them.

3. Separate Housing Facilities Based on the Nature of the Crime

Prisoners should be housed in separate facilities based on the crime committed.  For example, inmates convicted of less serious crimes (i.e. vandalism and petty theft) would be placed in one detention block, while those guilty of serious crimes (i.e. murder and drug trafficking) would be placed in separate blocks.  This policy goes beyond isolating gang leaders and members from the general prison population, although the intended aims are the same: the prevention of gang “contamination” of unaffiliated prisoners.  The majority of individuals are incarcerated for a variety of petty crimes and often have little interest in gang culture.  But when these inmates are mixed with prisoners from other criminal professions, there is a high probability they will encounter individuals who proselytize the economic and personal merits of gang membership.  By recruiting inmates with diverse backgrounds, prison gangs gain new contacts to diversify their criminal networks (acquiring the skills of counterfeiters, marijuana growers, etc.), making them harder to disrupt and dismantle.  By isolating gang members from regular prison populations, and further separating prisoners according to the nature of the crime committed, the pool of criminal knowledge available to the prison gangs will be restricted and gang membership will decrease.

4. Increase Funding for Prison Guards

Most prison officers in the United States and Latin America are paid wages lower than other professions, tempting them facilitate the activities of prison gangs to supplement their incomes.  An increase in funding for prison personnel will not only provide higher salaries to stave off corruption, but also lead to more guards per prisoner strengthening state authority and the ability monitor illicit gang activity.  However, the opportunity costs may include less funding for food, training, and rehabilitation programs, etc.  In times of economic stress, intelligent retrenchment strategies (i.e. targeted cuts) from the various prison systems in the United States and Latin America can locate funding for guards to offset the opportunity costs in a satisfactory manner.

5. Build More Supermax Prison Facilities

To successfully alter the effectiveness of prison gangs, there is a strong need to build more exclusive maximum security prison facilities.  There are numerous maximum security prisons throughout the United States and other nations, but the majority rely only on a designated area in which the most dangerous inmates are housed.  The ADX supermax prison facility in Florence, Colorado, is entirely designated for the most dangerous offenders and has largely been a success story in keeping these offenders in complete isolation, essentially cutting off their influence in the outside world.  Gang leaders thrive off the ability to reach prison populations with their ideology and recruit more members.  Therefore, there is a need to keep leaders in total isolation in these maximum security prisons where such communication is an impossibility.  Supermax facilities like the one in Florence, Colorado should be replicated throughout the United States and Latin America to meet the challenges of housing prison gang leaders separately from their soldiers.  This approach is very costly, yet it is the most effective strategy for crippling the capabilities of prison gangs by diminishing the influence of the men who dominate the decision-making of gangs.

6. Gang Prevention Programs

Increased opportunities for education and gang prevention are two policy options that may further decrease gang activity.  The U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice, and Delinquency Prevention recommends a number of prevention strategies such as parent training, after school activities, truancy and dropout prevention, re-entry programs, tracking former offenders, and job programs for youth in high-risk neighborhoods.  The Gang Resistance Education and Training (GREAT) program places uniformed police officers as instructors in middle schools to teach students about the negative consequences of gang participation.  Non-profit groups like the Boys and Girls Club of America provide after-school activities that may keep children from joining gangs.  Some Central American countries have also enacted programs designed to prevent youths from turning to gangs, such as the Open Schools program to keep schools in high-risk neighborhoods, or “red zones,” open on the weekends and various vocational training efforts.  In Guatemala, for example, an alliance of human rights organizations provides schooling and social development activities to help at-risk youths raise their self-esteem.  These programs form an important starting point for Central America, Mexico and Brazil, but they should be expanded further, drawing on successful U.S. programs.  A scaled-up effort to change youth attitudes toward gang involvement could drastically reduce gang membership in the long run.

7. International Action to Address the Root Causes of Poverty and Interrupt the Drug Trade

National legislation is an important step in combating the prison gang problem.  However, most Central American countries lack strong government structures, resources, and incentives to enforce national laws.  International efforts are needed to strengthen the rule of law, address poverty, and expand educational opportunities.  National governments must continue their efforts to strengthen internal governance, increase stability, and create fair legal procedures, but Central American nations have thus far been unsuccessful at solving the problems posed by gangs alone. The only way to address these problems is with assistance from other countries in the form of an international initiative to address the root causes of gang activity.

8. Inmate Therapy

Rehabilitative programs offer another way to combat the root causes of gang membership.  Expanded rehabilitation efforts would serve to reintegrate gang members back into society.  As Juan Fogelbach has argued, “Gang members should be provided with alternatives to gang life, including education, music, art, youth sports, and trades that may allow them to survive in society.”[1]  Rehabilitation programs that assist gang members in developing a sense of self-esteem and acquiring skills to gain legal income will further deter gang activities.


[1] Fogelbach, Juan J. “Mara Salvatrucha (MS 13) and Ley Anti Mara: El Salvador’s Struggle to Reclaim Social Order.” San Diego International Law Journal 7 (Fall 2005): 209-210.