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The Prison and the Gang

NCJ Number
Crime and Justice Volume: 51 Dated: 2022 Pages: 237-306
Date Published
70 pages

This article discusses research literature—both classic and recent—on prisons gangs.


A prison gang is a durable group that shares a collective identity, maintains a locus of custodial influence, exhibits collective behavior, and engages in a pattern of illegal activity. Emerging evidence suggests that prisoners enter and exit gangs while incarcerated. Prison officials have constructed intelligence apparatuses to document and manage gang populations. There is no consensus whether concentration or dispersion strategies produce safer prisons, although gang affiliates are overrepresented in solitary confinement. Evidence is too sparse to reach any conclusions about the effectiveness of promising liabilities- and obligations-based rehabilitative programs. Prison gangs proliferated in recent decades for reasons that remain unclear. The classic view of prison gangs—conspiratorial, hierarchical, monolithic, predatory, and rule bound—is outdated; contemporary research reveals far greater heterogeneity in forms and functions. There is a nascent micro-macro paradox about gangs and (dis)order. Misconduct, especially violence, is concentrated disproportionately among gang populations, attributable to group processes rather than to individual propensities. Countervailing claims that gangs bring order and disorder remain at best speculative and await more rigorous research. About 15 percent of US prisoners are affiliated with gangs; a much larger proportion maintain associations by virtue of homophily and institutional constraints. (Published Abstract Provided)

Date Published: January 1, 2022