Miss. prison, jail officials keep an eye on gang members

A recent check shows 6,001 state inmates are classified as members of a security-threat group or gang

By Robin Fitzgerald and Margaret Baker
The Sun Herald

BILOXI — State prisons around the nation began validating incarcerated gang members several decades ago, noting the process is an effective way to help keep inmates and staff safe from gang-related activity.

The process has proven so effective that some jails, such as the Harrison and Jackson county jails, now use similar procedures to help reduce gang violence and retaliation between rival gangs.

A recent check shows 6,001 state inmates are classified as members of a security-threat group or gang.

State prison numbers show nearly half of those, 2,888, are Black Gangster Disciples. There are 1,973 Vice Lords and 693 Royals, and lesser numbers of other gangs.

Keeping an eye on gang members behind bars is something prison officials take seriously, said Grace Fisher, communications director for the state Department of Corrections.

"Overall, MDOC has seen a 38 percent decrease in inmate-on-inmate assaults and a 44 percent decrease in gang-related incidents such as extortions, threats and conspiracies, and an overall decrease of 36 percent since its first measurable statistics of year-end 2002," Fisher said.

Simon City Royals aren't the largest gang in the state, but gang studies show they're the largest gang in South Mississippi, and the largest at the Harrison County jail, one of the region's largest detention centers.

On an average day, as much as 20 percent of the Harrison County jail population is gang members.

"We wouldn't have enough space to separate all gang members from the general population," Harrison County Warden Evan Hubbard said. "If they are troublesome, actively recruiting or actively acting as the disciplinarians for the gangs, we will separate them."

Gang members in jail
A total of 605 inmates were held at the Harrison County jail on Friday. Of those, 100, or nearly 17 percent, are gang members, Hubbard said. The largest number, 43, are Royals.

The jail housed 75 Royals two months ago, but some have cycled into the state prison by now, he said. Only 17 Black Gangster Disciples were incarcerated then, but the number grew to 39 by Friday.

The Jackson County jail houses an average of 280 inmates. The jail has at least 15 Royals in custody daily, along with members of other gangs. Officials said 253 documented Royals have passed through the jail system since 2005.

Both county jails use a validation system similar to the one used by MDOC.

"We ask them if they're in a gang, we look for tattoos, go on Facebook and look to see who they are associated with," Hubbard said. "If we're in doubt, we consider them a gang member to be on the safe side."

Jackson County started seeing a larger gang population moving through the area after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and now the Royals are the fastest-growing gang in the county, said Keith Havard, South Mississippi Metro Enforcement Team commander.

Most Royals they come across, he said, are in jail for drug, weapon and property crimes, such as burglaries and home invasions.

Jackson County corrections officers segregate rival gangs to reduce the chance of violence.

As inmates are convicted, MDOC probation officers begin a more-detailed check to determine gang affiliation.

The problem of contraband
Prisons nationwide face an ongoing problem of violence and contraband, according to a national gang assessment published by the FBI. That includes smuggled drugs and cellphones, which officials say can allow gang members to direct violence against inmates and exercise control over activity on the street.

It's also a problem in Mississippi.

On April 21, MDOC reported a box filled with contraband was delivered by commercial vehicle at a state prison in Pearl. The same day, a shakedown at Parchman, the state's largest prison, uncovered cellphones, phone chargers and Spice, and shanks and other homemade weapons.

Sometimes, in the past, it's been state corrections officers who helped get contraband inside state prison walls.

Criminal charges were filed in 2014 against 26 state correctional officers, most of whom were accused of helping bring in contraband. Fisher said 23 of those cases are being prosecuted.

"When we identify employees interacting with STGs (security-threat groups) in any unprofessional manner, they are either terminated and/or criminally charged if applicable," Fisher said.

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