In Prison, Keeping Order Is Up to Gangs

And they're very careful about it, writes Graeme Wood
By Matt Cantor,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 17, 2014 2:00 PM CDT
In Prison, Keeping Order Is Up to Gangs
In this Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2011 file photo, concertina wire and a guard tower are seen at Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent City, Calif..   (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, file)

An in-depth look at prison gangs in the Atlantic shows that the groups aren't just forces of feuding and violence—they're actually central to the structure of prison life. "Prison gangs end up providing governance in a brutal but effective way,” a researcher tells Graeme Wood. "They impose responsibility on everyone, and in some ways the prisons run more smoothly because of them." Indeed, as Wood writes, they're "highly sophisticated organizations with carefully plotted strategies, business-development plans, bureaucracies, and even human-resources departments." New inmates, for instance, are sent questionnaires upon arrival to determine who they are, where they're from, and what they might be able to provide a gang. Groups regulate the behavior of their own members to avoid attacks by rival gangs.

Prisoners find clever ways to communicate, using everything from their cell's toilet pipes to tiny, rolled-up messages called "kites" written using micrography, or tiny writing—which gang members are schooled in. Leaders, Wood notes, "are the Lee Iacoccas of the prison world: brilliant managers of violence." And prison guards have learned to work within the gang structure. Much of Wood's article focuses on California's Pelican Bay State Prison, where the major gangs are largely divided by race. Colored cards posted on the wall of every cellblock show an inmate's likely allegiance, and officers work to ensure a gang-to-gang "balance" in nearby cells. Meanwhile, members of the gangs outside prison "look to the gang members inside as role models," says an ex-guard. “Getting sentenced to prison is like being called up to the majors." Click for the full piece. (Read more prison gang stories.)

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