We spoke to hundreds of prison gang members – here’s what they said about life behind bars

Over 800 prisoners in Texas relate their experiences.

prison gang members on what it is like to live in jail
OSCAR RIVERA/AFP via Getty Images

The United States incarcerates a larger proportion of its citizens than any other developed country in the world, with around 1.5 million people serving time in prison.

But to anyone who doesn't work or live in a facility, life behind bars largely remains a mystery. The public gets a glimpse of life on the inside only when there are riots, executions or scandals.

As criminologists, we spent nine months interviewing over 800 prisoners in Texas in 2016. They told us about their lives before and during prison, as well as their impending return to the community, a journey shared by over 600,000 people each year.

We also learned about a significant reality in prisons: gangs.

Our new book pulls back the curtain on how gangs compete for control and structure prison life. Gangs wield power behind bars, but they are more fractured and have less control than people believe.

Getting in, getting out

Despite fairly extensive research on street gangs, there is little research on gangs in prison.

Conducting research in prisons is rare because it is hard to gain access. Prison officials tend to be risk-averse and loathe to let outsiders inside the walls. Even if researchers get inside, there's the possibility that prisoners will not participate in interviews. When the topic is gangs, these issues are even bigger.

That was not our experience. About half of the people we interviewed were affiliated with gangs. Gang and nongang prisoners told us, "I'd rather talk to you than sit in my cell." They saw the interview as cathartic; they were able to "get things off their chest" to a neutral party.

The 'war years'

Prison gangs exploded across the U.S. with the rise of mass incarceration in the 1980s. Texas prisons were mostly gang-free until bloody battles broke out in 1984-85 between the Mexican Mafia and Texas Syndicate as well as the Aryan Brotherhood and Mandingo Warriors. Fifty-two prisoners were murdered in a 21-month period that became known as the "war years."

Over 50 different gangs were represented in our study. Most of these gangs were active in prison and on the street. All of the 12 "security threat groups," or STGs as they are termed by prison officials, fit the classic view of prison gangs: organized, conspiratorial and violent. The remaining gangs are called "cliques." If security threat groups are like criminal organizations, cliques are like a band of criminals without clear leadership, direction or structure.

Race and ethnicity mattered to all gangs. Geographic proximity is the great social sorter for street gangs; it is race and ethnicity for prison gangs. Nearly all of the prison gangs were composed of a single race or ethnicity.

The people we spoke with made it clear that prison gangs in Texas are not what they used to be. Prison gangs were described as "watered down," no longer having the teeth to enforce rules, especially the security threat groups. Few prisoners, including gang members, believed that gangs brought order to prisons or made prisons safer, a claim often made about prison gangs. The perception of power is stronger than its reality.

Wielding power

While gangs may not have iron-fisted control over prison life, it would be wrong to think they lack influence. If gang members compose only a minority of prisoners, around 20% in Texas according to our research, how do they wield power?


Gangs use violence to resolve disputes, discipline members and protect their interests. Stories of violence are passed down across generations to ensure the memory lives on. The "war years" occurred more than 30 years ago, yet still loom large in the minds of the people we interviewed.

Gangs bring a different flavor to prison violence. There is a multiplier effect. A violent incident involving a gang member expands the pool of future victims and offenders because of the collective gang identity. Being in a gang means assuming these liabilities.

Joining the gang

For the uninitiated, prison is scary. People are stripped of their identity, roles and status from the outside. About half of the prison population is convicted of a violent offense. Joining a gang would seem like a pretty good decision.

Our research reveals that about 10% of inmates in Texas joined a gang for the first time in prison, while another 10% imported their gang affiliation from the street. Status and protection were common reasons for joining a gang in prison, much like on the street. But ideology was also important, such as race supremacy or vigilantism, which we rarely observe in street gangs.

Still, most prisoners don't end up in gangs. That's true even though avoiding gangs is harder in prison than on the street. Nongang members get their affiliations "checked" and are often recruited when they step onto a prison unit. Those that want to avoid gangs cite their religion, homosexuality or even status as sex offenders – most gangs ban inmates convicted of sex crimes – as reasons to not to join.

Blood in, blood out

It was once believed that once you join a gang you could never leave. Criminologists have dispelled this myth among street gangs; young people leave gangs regularly, and usually without repercussions like violence. We also found this to be the case in prison, even for the security threat groups.

Disillusionment is the leading reason for leaving. Gang members eventually realize they are sold a bill of goods on gangs. Snitching, victimization, solitary confinement and delayed parole crystallize discontent with gang life.

Leaving a gang is more difficult in prison. Walking away is not a credible option. Gang members sought permission or "gave notice" of intentions to leave, or enrolled in the prison system's two-year exit program.

Block the on-ramps, open the off-ramps

Despite decades of effort, breaking the grip of gangs on prison has been unsuccessful. The "silver bullet" simply doesn't exist.

Placing gang members in solitary confinement is thought to be a solution, but that's a management approach. It applies a Band-Aid to a bullet wound that could hurt more than help. And one-size-fits-all approaches to rehabilitation ignore the baggage of gang affiliation.

To compete for control, gangs need numbers, which is why focusing on points of entry and exit offers hope for reducing the power of gangs in attracting new members and encouraging current members to leave.

Doing nothing only allows the problem to fester and grow. Prisoners today will eventually become the neighbors, religious congregants and employees of tomorrow. We want people to leave prison in a condition better than they arrived. That means effective responses to gangs.

David Pyrooz, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Colorado Boulder and Scott H. Decker, Foundation Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Arizona State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Meet Dr. Jennifer Doudna: she's leading the biotech revolution

She helped create CRISPR, a gene-editing technology that is changing the way we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

Courtesy of Jennifer Doudna
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

Last year, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier became the first all-woman team to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work developing CRISPR-Cas9, the gene-editing technology. The technology was invented in 2012 — and nine years later, it's truly revolutionizing how we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

CRISPR allows scientists to alter DNA by using proteins that are naturally found in bacteria. They use these proteins, called Cas9, to naturally fend off viruses, destroying the virus' DNA and cutting it out of their genes. CRISPR allows scientists to co-opt this function, redirecting the proteins toward disease-causing mutations in our DNA.

So far, gene-editing technology is showing promise in treating sickle cell disease and genetic blindness — and it could eventually be used to treat all sorts of genetic diseases, from cancer to Huntington's Disease.

The biotech revolution is just getting started — and CRISPR is leading the charge. We talked with Doudna about what we can expect from genetic engineering in the future.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Freethink: You've said that your journey to becoming a scientist had humble beginnings — in your teenage bedroom when you discovered The Double Helix by Jim Watson. Back then, there weren't a lot of women scientists — what was your breakthrough moment in realizing you could pursue this as a career?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a moment that I often think back to from high school in Hilo, Hawaii, when I first heard the word "biochemistry." A researcher from the UH Cancer Center on Oahu came and gave a talk on her work studying cancer cells.

I didn't understand much of her talk, but it still made a huge impact on me. You didn't see professional women scientists in popular culture at the time, and it really opened my eyes to new possibilities. She was very impressive.

I remember thinking right then that I wanted to do what she does, and that's what set me off on the journey that became my career in science.

CRISPR 101: Curing Sickle Cell, Growing Organs, Mosquito Makeovers | Jennifer Doudna | Big Think www.youtube.com

Freethink: The term "CRISPR" is everywhere in the media these days but it's a really complicated tool to describe. What is the one thing that you wish people understood about CRISPR that they usually get wrong?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: People should know that CRISPR technology has revolutionized scientific research and will make a positive difference to their lives.

Researchers are gaining incredible new understanding of the nature of disease, evolution, and are developing CRISPR-based strategies to tackle our greatest health, food, and sustainability challenges.

Freethink: You previously wrote in Wired that this year, 2021, is going to be a big year for CRISPR. What exciting new developments should we be on the lookout for?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were multiple teams around the world, including my lab and colleagues at the Innovative Genomics Institute, working on developing CRISPR-based diagnostics.

"Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time."

When the pandemic hit, we pivoted our work to focus these tools on SARS-CoV-2. The benefit of these new diagnostics is that they're fast, cheap, can be done anywhere without the need for a lab, and they can be quickly modified to detect different pathogens. I'm excited about the future of diagnostics, and not just for pandemics.

We'll also be seeing more CRISPR applications in agriculture to help combat hunger, reduce the need for toxic pesticides and fertilizers, fight plant diseases and help crops adapt to a changing climate.

Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time.

Freethink: Curing genetic diseases isn't a pipedream anymore, but there are still some hurdles to cross before we're able to say for certain that we can do this. What are those hurdles and how close do you think we are to crossing them?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There are people today, like Victoria Gray, who have been successfully treated for sickle cell disease. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are absolutely still many hurdles. We don't currently have ways to deliver genome-editing enzymes to all types of tissues, but delivery is a hot area of research for this very reason.

We also need to continue improving on the first wave of CRISPR therapies, as well as making them more affordable and accessible.

Freethink: Another big challenge is making this technology widely available to everyone and not just the really wealthy. You've previously said that this challenge starts with the scientists.

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: A sickle cell disease cure that is 100 percent effective but can't be accessed by most of the people in need is not really a full cure.

This is one of the insights that led me to found the Innovative Genomics Institute back in 2014. It's not enough to develop a therapy, prove that it works, and move on. You have to develop a therapy that actually meets the real-world need.

Too often, scientists don't fully incorporate issues of equity and accessibility into their research, and the incentives of the pharmaceutical industry tend to run in the opposite direction. If the world needs affordable therapy, you have to work toward that goal from the beginning.

Freethink: You've expressed some concern about the ethics of using CRISPR. Do you think there is a meaningful difference between enhancing human abilities — for example, using gene therapy to become stronger or more intelligent — versus correcting deficiencies, like Type 1 diabetes or Huntington's?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't.

There's always a gray area when it comes to complex ethical issues like this, and our thinking on this is undoubtedly going to evolve over time.

What we need is to find an appropriate balance between preventing misuse and promoting beneficial innovation.

Freethink: What if it turns out that being physically stronger helps you live a longer life — if that's the case, are there some ways of improving health that we should simply rule out?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The concept of improving the "healthspan" of individuals is an area of considerable interest. Eliminating neurodegenerative disease will not only massively reduce suffering around the world, but it will also meaningfully increase the healthy years for millions of individuals.

"There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't."

There will also be knock-on effects, such as increased economic output, but also increased impact on the planet.

When you think about increasing lifespans just so certain people can live longer, then not only do those knock-on effects become more central, you also have to ask who is benefiting and who isn't? Is it possible to develop this technology so the benefits are shared equitably? Is it environmentally sustainable to go down this road?

Freethink: Where do you see it going from here?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The bio revolution will allow us to create breakthroughs in treating not just a few but whole classes of previously unaddressed genetic diseases.

We're also likely to see genome editing play a role not just in climate adaptation, but in climate change solutions as well. There will be challenges along the way both expected and unexpected, but also great leaps in progress and benefits that will move society forward. It's an exciting time to be a scientist.

Freethink: If you had to guess, what is the first disease you think we are most likely to cure, in the real world, with CRISPR?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Because of the progress that has already been made, sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia are likely to be the first diseases with a CRISPR cure, but we're closely following the developments of other CRISPR clinical trials for types of cancer, a form of congenital blindness, chronic infection, and some rare genetic disorders.

The pace of clinical trials is picking up, and the list will be longer next year.

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