The problem of gangs in America, particularly in the western part of the nation has been one of the fastest growing social problems over the past three decades. From the formation of the notorious Los Angeles Crip street gang in 1969 to the present, gang activity has greatly increased. Gang affiliation, gang violence, gang-related crime, and the number of gang members in prison have multiplied numerous times over since very the first street gang came into existence in the late 1920's and 30's. Complicating the problem is the fact that the crips are no longer the only street gang around. There are over two hundred-fifty active gangs in the city of Los Angeles alone. With the rise of street gangs in LA along with the rest of the United States, there has been a parallel injection of gang members flowing into prison systems. With this influx of gang members into prisons, one of society's major concerns is to determine whether it is plausible to reform incarcerated gang members by allowing them to work towards attaining a college degree while they are serving their jail sentences.
It is appropriate that background information be given to gain an understanding of what it is to live in prison. Things to note are gang members are perceived and the conditions in which they live. While in prison, inmates are subject to prison politics, racism, corruption, barbarism, and the misconduct of correctional officers. The life of a gang member is in many ways tougher and more dangerous than if the gang member was on the outside. The biggest reason for this is because there is no refuge or place to lay low until favorable conditions arise. In prison, one must always watch his back, gangster or not. Many gang members search out friends already in prison to ally themselves with so that it is not just the individual that a potential aggressor will pit himself against. Rather it is a group of individuals that carry much more clout and power to harm than one person could ever possess. Thus the gangs that are supposedly broken down on the outside re-form within the walls of prison.
The flow of gangsters became so prominent in LA that in the early 80's county jails created Gang Modules for the most notorious and troublesome gang members. The modules separated gangs by race: Whites, Southside Mexicans, Crips, Bloods, Asians, and other prison gangs in efforts to calm tension, uneasiness, and squabbles between the gangs. The first Crip Module was opened in 1984 following several significant incidents involving crips in the prisons. One crip inmate explained that, "The modules are not the best places to be. Inmates in the modules are denied exercise, meals, visits, and phone calls. For many inmates in the modules the only times that they are allowed to leave their cells are when they are due for a court appearance. Breakfast is usually passed out cold and lunch is generally missed or served with rat droppings. Dinner is the only hot meal of the day and it is commonly spit in or half spilled across the tray.
The evening is always the worse because that is when guys would return from their court appearances and most of them would come back convicted of charges against them. The majority of inmates returning from court are tagged with life sentences or penalized with 10-12 years with 80-85% of the sentence to be served before parole eligibility is granted. This is also the time when word gets back about anyone in the set (the gang) having trouble with rival gangs and who did and who did not participate in the happenings. An ally or comrade from your territory who does not participate is always dealt with immediately. At night we would hear the bloods around the corner taunting us, sometimes rapping to beats created with deodorant bottles or toothbrushes that served as drumsticks. We would respond in the same way and this often lead to death threats amongst one another the following morning in the court tanks. For all the raucous that us crips made we usually encountered the worst scenarios from the sheriffs and the Asians were a close second. I never wanna be back in there."
With this notion of what the prison life is like let us examine the prison demographics that are pertinent when looking at street gangs. The Federal Bureau of Prisons, which consists of 94 institutions across the nation, reports an inmate population of 127,168 persons. This accounts for only federal institutions, precluding county facilities, which would raise this number significantly. When the population is broken down by race, whites account for 58.1%, 38.6% are black, and 1.7% are Asians. 22% is the number of all federal prisoners that are gang members from the inner city, the area that happens to be the hotbed for all gang activity.
There 15 no doubt that the inner city is the most fertile breeding ground for street gangs. And presently, youths appear to be running with gangs at younger ages than ever. It is not uncommon for gangs to welcome eleven and twelve year-olds into their way of life. Welcome is deliberately used diction because contrary to popular beliefs, many gang members are not recruited. Rather the gang members have searched and longed for a place to fit in and be accepted without success. If individuals cannot find the love, acceptance, and encouragement they need for growth as a person in their home environment, the next logical place for many of them to look is in the streets.
Reasons that an individual may not find the emotional ingredients needed for personal growth at home are numerous. Many times inner city residents are on the lower levels of the income scale and parents are busy working to support the family. Having no time for nurturing and raising children, parents are undercut by the streets that draw youngsters into gangs. In other cases, a child may live within a dysfunctional family that is not capable of providing him with the support he needs to grow emotionally and personally. As a result, he looks outside of the home to obtain the love and acceptance he needs. Other times a youngster wants to fit in with who he considers is the in-crowd. Living in the inner city it would not be hard for him to see that gang members are respected and even feared by the masses. He would also observe gang members who always seem to have the nice car with chrome rims and a big wad of money to boot. Thus, a youngster thinks he is missing out on a lifestyle that is rather opportunistic and revered and asks himself what is keeping him from living that way. In most cases, he is willing to live this way even though it is dishonest, immoral, and illegal.
In examining the Federal Bureau of Prisons crime breakdown, particularly types of offenses, gangs are involved in all the major offense categories. Drug offenses account for 52.4%, robberies total 7.5%, 8.1% are firearms-explosives-arson crimes, and violent offenses are 2.2% of total offenses. Each of these offenses is a major component of the gang life-style. And statistics of gang violence are staggering. In 1981, there were 351 gang killings in LA County compared to 771, ten years later in 1991. Of the 771 killings, 207 occurred in the LA County Sheriff's jurisdiction. Of those 207 killings, forty-eight were innocent victims. In 1991,the San Fernando Valley in California saw an average of 3.5 gang crimes per day compared to 2.5 gang crimes every three days in 1981. In 1997-98 over 30% of the crimes committed in San Bernardino were gang related.
The rise of gang crime and violence has created a flow of gang members into prisons at an alarming rate. As an effort to reform gang members various parties have entertained the idea of creating a prison program in which gang members could work towards a college degree while serving out his sentence. For research on this idea I corresponded with mycGu~in, who I will refer to as K.K., an inmate at Chuckawalla State Prison who also happens to be a member of a Samoan Crip gang in San Diego, California.
In observation of the administration in the prison, K.K. felt that there would be a lack of interest on the part of prison administration and or staff to carry out the work needed to teach and conduct classes. It is his experience that the majority of the staff would much rather see the inmates serve hard time than help them work towards a degree. He felt that prison staff would take on a hostile stance towards the idea because inmates would in essence receive a free degree for, of all things, breaking the law. K.K. also relayed thoughts that many gang members would shy away from working towards a degree for the simple fact that they would not want their prison associates to feel as if they were being deserted or left for reasons of inferiority. It is feelings such as these that could lead to the isolation of a gang member and worse yet, bodily damage.
Another point that K.K. made was that many of the inmates, gang members included, cannot fathom ever using a degree on the outside. So many gang members are so deeply embedded into that lifestyle that there would be no incentive in getting a degree because they would never change their lives as gang members. This is probably true for all gang members in prison because being deep into the gang life is what swept them off the streets and into the prison system. Still yet, other gang members do not look into the future as to how a degree will serve them. Many of them are sentenced for extended periods of time including life in prison. And there are still others who are simply concerned with making it to the next day. Working towards a degree would do no good if they were to be stabbed and killed in prison.
In conclusion, it is hard to say whether degree programs would flourish in a prison setting. Although the idea holds potential for positive results, the interaction on the part of gang members is what would essentially determine the success of such programs. However, gauging participation by gang members is hard to calculate, and thus it is unclear if creating such programs would be worth the effort. There will be no way of really telling if the program would work but I guess we will never know until it is done.
MONSTER: The Autobiography of an L.A.Gang Member
by Sanyika Shakur, AKA Monster Kody Scott, Penguin Books, 1993.
Robert J. Lopez. 1Should Young Criminals Grow Old in Prison?' The Los Angeles Times 23 January 1994: A-14.
Jim Keary. "Fairfax Youths Grow Violent.1 Metropolitan Times. The Washington Times 12 September 1995: C-S.
Marsha King. "Age of Violence -- Can It Be Stopped?" The Seattle Times 18 October 1993: F-1