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Divide and conquer: 3 tactics for combating gang leaders

Compiled from recent interviews with gang experts across the country


(AP photo)

By Luke Whyte

There’s no doubt that a well-tuned inmate classification system is of paramount importance to the handling of all specialized prisoner populations. And in few cases is this more important then when dealing with prison gangs.

This was the focus of the presentation given by Lt. Joe McNamara, a gang specialist at California’s Riverside Country Sheriff’s Department, during a May 23 workshop at the 2010 American Jail Association conference in Portland, Oregon.

After the presentation, Corrections1 sat down with Lt. McNamara to discuss gang classification and management. Here are the highlights of that interview, along with some other good suggestions on gang management presented in past C1 exclusives.

Build a network of intelligence
Gang leaders don’t work all alone, they have a whole network of intelligence and communication functioning both in and outside of our facilities used to conduct business. Thus, in order to combat with them, correctional professionals need a stronger network of their own.

“Each facility should have a (Gang/Intelligence) team that focuses heavily on intelligence gathering through the use of informants, staff and other means,” McNamara said.

This team should “develop sources of information by engaging in conversations and interviews with suspected gang inmates; photograph graffiti, gang inmates and the tattoos they have; respond to situations and incidents that would require intelligence resources; review all incoming and outgoing mail identified by staff as gang material and monitor inmate telephone conversations in regards to gang activity.”

However, in order for a gang unit’s presence to be effective, their network of intelligence must be as strong as the network of intelligence used by the gang leaders they are combating. This means all staff members need to be involved in the process.

In an April 2010 interview, Chief Michael Tidwell of Orange County Corrections Department (OCCD) in Florida said that, a couple of years ago, OCCD realized that, despite their internationally-recognized gang unit, they still didn’t have a good understanding of what (and who) their prison gangs were really affecting.

“Our gang unit would be told of a gang issue in one unit,” Tidwell said. “They would identify the persons involved, remove them and then issue a report. That would be that.”

“We readjusted the program and developed a Security Intel Unit. This unit is made of veteran COs who question inmates (gang-involved or not), gather intelligence and then vet it.”

Now, when OCCD hears of gang activity in one unit, they still investigate and identify the persons involved. However, rather than reacting quickly to smother the individuals, they gather intelligence on “their tentacles across other units,” Tidwell said. “We then focus on connectivity.”

That is a well-functioning network of intelligence.

Know and respect your enemies’ influence
“Prison gangs have authority over street gangs,” McNamara said. “This includes imposing taxes on street gangs. Most street gang members aspire to become prison gang members.”

Not only does the power of prison gangs over street gangs strengthen and financially support their criminal activities, but it poses a direct threat to public and staff safety. And with recidivism rates at nearly 70 percent in many states, this risk is only growing stronger.

The key to prison-gang dominance over street gangs is the new, young inmates who turn to gangs for protection and connections when they become incarcerated, writes Joan Petersilla, a professor of criminology at the University of California, Irvine in a report titled Understanding California Corrections. With this “lifetime” commitment to gang, these members bring their connections, skills and hostile attitudes back to their communities when they are released.

Not only does this pose an increased risk to the public, but it also directly endangers correctional professionals.

”Take advantage of your right to have your personal information made confidential and opt out of programs for law enforcement with public database internet search engines,” McNamara said.

It’s important that correctional staff not only use their network of intelligence to identify and classify gang members, but also to better understand the network of intelligence that is working against them.

Divide and conquer
As early as the days of the Roman Empire, leaders have recognized that one of the best ways to combat a growing insurgence is to separate and isolate its different parts and then conquer them one by one. This same technique can be used to separate gang leaders from their followers and undermine their power.

One effective method for achieving this is through the use of a Secure Housing Unit. “The use of this area is key to separating validated (gang) leaders, members, and associates,” McNamara said. “It will also minimize contact with other inmates, individualized recreation and the ability to monitor communications.”

A second method is through the transferring of gang leaders to new facilities. However, McNamara points out that this approach has mixed results. “Sometimes it can stop the issue or it can spread (influence) when you transfer the problem to another facility,” he said. “This needs to be dealt with case-by-case management.”

A third method of isolation is through the creation of Sensitive-Needs Yards.

“These strategies inhibit prison gang influence because active prison-gang members and associates cannot be assigned to sensitive-needs yards,” writes Peterson. “The population in these yards consists not only of gang dropouts, but also victims or targets of gang violence, such as sex offenders, inmates who have testified for the prosecution, and convicted law enforcement officials.

“Sensitive-needs yards have a rehabilitative, as well as a protective, purpose: they are meant to counteract gang members’ racial and ethnic prejudices by forcing integration on inmates.”

Certainly, there are many good techniques for identifying and combating gang leaders. Are there methods used at your facility that should have been mentioned in this article? Tell us about them in the comment section below.

The team of editors and writers is committed to tracking down and reporting on the most important issues and interviews in the correctional field.

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