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Gang intervention in corrections

Conference told the key to understanding why people join gangs has to do with love, respect, and communication

By Joe Serio

Last week, and for the last five years, I hosted the Annual Gang Conference organized by the Correctional Management Institute of Texas (CMIT). The conference, held in Austin, Texas, brings together speakers who view the gang issue from various perspectives. This year we had a former member of the Crips, a former White Supremacist recruiter and propagandist, several police detectives, a state trooper, a prison security threat group officer, and gang members who still have very close ties to that world.

Our audience was made up of adult and juvenile probation officers, police detectives, and school security personnel. Some of the participants had extensive experience, bearing the telltale signs of extensive undercover work. Others were new, getting their first glimpse into a world that relatively few people understand well.

Weeks before the conference, the speakers were instructed to focus on prevention and intervention. What programs exist? What are their track records? How can communities build programs that seem to be enjoying some degree of success in other places? We can talk about gangs, their histories, structures, tattoos, and exploits for only so long. As engrossing — and important — as those topics can be, they are insufficient for designing curriculum and building programs. They fail to get to the heart of the matter.

Interestingly, the same message dressed in various guises was conveyed by every speaker, from gang member to law enforcement officer and everyone in between. The key to understanding why people join gangs, they said, has to do with love, respect, and communication. The lack of these ingredients in young people’s lives pulls them to the only apparent stable source of love, respect, and communication they know in their lives: gangs.

Not surprisingly, the speakers also said that these are the ingredients required for getting young people out of gangs. This should come as little surprise, I suppose. It seems we all want these things. And each of us finds different ways to get them.

Two weeks ago, I had an opportunity to speak with young students who are already in trouble. Some were truants, some on probation, and some fully tattooed gang members. The youngest among them was 10 years old.

When the conversation turned to love, respect, and communication, and that people in middle- and upper-class society want these same things, the students were surprised. When they understood, if for perhaps just a second, that the desires they have are normal, I thought I saw a glimmer of hope flash across some of the faces. I realized that simply taking time to talk with these kids in an honest and straightforward way can be a powerful tool in breaking down barriers and helping them to find their way.

As many of the speakers at the Annual Gang Conference noted, most gang members are tough on the outside and scared on the inside, and in need of love, respect, and communication. If we could find the resources, time, and patience to deliver what is most needed, perhaps the progress we thought impossible will begin to become inevitable.

Dr. Joe Serio is a popular and sought-after criminal justice speaker and trainer. He is currently delivering a series of classes on time management, emotional intelligence, leadership, customer service, and other topics at the Harris County (Houston) Sheriff’s Office Training Academy. Dr. Serio is a featured speaker at SHIELD, Sheriff Institute for Ethical Leadership Development, at the Travis County (Austin) Sheriff’s Office Training Academy. He also speaks at adult and juvenile probation departments as well as police departments.
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