Identifying incarcerated gang members is critical in corrections

Intelligence gathering provides a more informed perspective when monitoring an inmates' contacts and activities in their daily incarcerated lives

Understanding how prison gangs operate is not an easy task. It is very important to identify a gang member upon initial entry into a prison or jail whenever possible.

Having an inmate’s gang affiliation and personality assessment is critical for the safety and security of a prison or jail facility for several reasons:

  • We need to know which gang members have the most influence on our prison population.
  • Knowing inmates' gang affiliation will help us to understand the potential threats.
  • Provides information for security threat group files.
  • Provides information for our classification files.
  • Having information on each gang member's personality through a personality assessment is good security threat information.
  • Knowing an inmate's character traits helps us in classifying an inmate for security and housing needs.
  • We need to know if the inmate has a history of violence.
  • We need to know the gang member's family history and obtain any personal life history we can on each inmate. (Street contact information is extremely important when dealing with gang members.)
  • We need to know if the inmate is an active gang member or a former gang member.

Intelligence gathering can help us monitor inmate activity with a more informed perspective as to the inmate’s contacts and activities in their daily incarcerated lives. Knowing who we are dealing with helps correctional officer staff pick up on warning signs and prevent incidents before they occur. So what tools do we have to gather this important information? Here are a few:

  • Interview the inmate in person; many times the inmate will tell you their gang affiliation.
  • Ask the inmate to share any gang information they are willing to disclose.
  • Ask the inmate what rank they hold within the gang. (Use a security threat group questionnaire as a guide for questions to ask.)
  • Photograph all tattoos on the inmate’s body; tattoos tell a story of the inmate’s life. Research those tattoos for their meaning and history.
  • Ask the inmate what the tattoos mean.
  • External evaluation is a crucial element in building an inmate’s profile. Work with outside law enforcement agencies and share information with them.
  • Obtain the inmate's pre-sentencing record from the courts; valuable personal and criminal history are found in those records.
  • Probation and parole pre-sentence and post-sentence investigations have a lot of good personal and criminal information that should be reviewed and placed in the inmate's prison file.
  • Recording inmate phone calls is a great way to gather intelligence and find new code words.
  • Inmate mail going to and from the inmate can provide valuable information and contain coded messages.
  • Monitoring, recovery and documentation of inmate contraband can lead to good information on gang and drug activity.
  • Monitor inmate’s financial records through Jpay or any other inmate bank accounts your agency uses. Money trails often lead to good information on outside contacts.
  • Obtain copies of the inmate’s jail and prison disciplinary reports. This information is valuable in accessing behavior patterns.

The security threat group officer must maintain good records on all information gathered and always be prepared to share the information with other law enforcement agencies and fellow officers. Intelligence gathering is not effective if we do not communicate with each other. We must unite and link law enforcement agencies together to win the battle against criminal gang activity. Communication keeps information consistent.

Housing prison gang offenders

Gangs and gang members are responsible for a large part of prison violence. When a gang member is identified as inciting violence, introducing contraband, or putting hits out on another inmate or officer, we must take immediate action. We remove them from the general population by placing them in a disciplinary housing unit. We then have the option of transferring them to another prison and keeping them separate from other gang members they are known to be associated with.

Transferring gang members, however, only provides a temporary band-aid. Fellow gang members exist in the majority of our prisons. The transferred gang member will soon resume gang activity at the newly assigned prison.

We also have the option of restrictive housing units used for disciplinary, protective and administrative purposes. Gang members can easily fall into all three of these groups due to rule violations, criminal violations or needing protection from other gang members.

How long should they remain in a restrictive housing unit? Once all threats are reviewed and determined to be diminished and the required sentence is fulfilled then the inmate can be released to the general population in most cases.

Our prisons only have only so much room and few housing options. As correctional professionals, we can only do our best to control gang activity and take immediate action when necessary to protect everyone behind the razor wire. With that in mind, we must use the tools we have to achieve maximum productivity.

Inmate classification

We rely heavily on our jail and prison classification officers to make the right decision on classifying inmates. Classification, in my opinion, is the backbone of our success in maintaining the safety and security of our facilities as well as our hard-working officers on the front line.

In order for classification officers to be successful, they rely on intelligence gathering from other agencies, the security threat group officer’s initial contact information and information from front-line officers. This is why information sharing and communication between inner departments and other agencies is so important.

Classification officers must assess the proper custody level of inmates. They help identify security threat groups, inmates with mental health needs, medical needs and much more. Prison staff and inmate safety rest heavily on the proper classification of dangerous inmates and gang affiliation. Public safety also relies on classification to pinpoint escape risks and properly classify them.

Ranking gang members is a critical part of a classification officer’s job and needs to be a team effort with security and administration involved. Gang affiliation can be as low as zero – never being affiliated with a gang – to as high as five – presently in a gang and is a high-ranking member of a gang. The levels of gang participation by each inmate are very important for all of us to know in order to keep everyone safe.

Also involved in ranking gang-affiliated inmates and any inmate for that matter is identifying the inmates who have been or are most likely to carry improvised weapons, smuggle drugs and cause violence among the inmate population.

We must always remember the importance of teamwork when combating criminal gang activity. Working together makes us all more efficient and productive. Working as a team when we gather intelligence provides the knowledge that allows security to prevail.

NEXT: Why you need security threat group intelligence in your correctional facility

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