In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Prison Gangs and Subculture

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Prison Gangs and Prevalence
  • Prison Gang Culture and Development
  • Prison Gangs Internationally
  • Street and Prison Gang Connection
  • Race, Gender, and Prison Gangs
  • Prison Gang Behavior
  • Interventions Aimed at Prison Gangs
  • Reintegration and Recidivism of Gang Members
  • Current and Anticipated Future Trends

Criminology Prison Gangs and Subculture
David Pyrooz, Meghan M. Mitchell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0168


The prison gangs and subculture literature concentrates on the causes and consequences of gang and subculture behaviors and processes in incarcerated settings, as well as the movement into and out of these settings. Lyman 1989, p. 48, (cited under Prison Gangs and Prevalence) defined a prison gang as an “organization which operates within the prison system as a self-perpetuating criminally oriented entity, consisting of a select group of inmates who have established an organized chain of command and are governed by an established code.” Among prisoners, there is a clear in-group/out-group distinction between those who are in gangs and those who are not. But the subcultural norms and values associated with gangs are not confined or limited to these groups. As we elaborate on below, however, while there is a great deal of cultural heterogeneity within prisons, gangs are often the dominant cultural presence in prisons, despite rarely comprising a majority of the prison population. The state of the literature on prison gangs and subculture is uneven. We know a lot about how gang membership is correlated with prison misconduct, but there is no national estimate of the prevalence and frequency of gangs and gang members in incarcerated settings. A great deal of attention has been directed toward the importation of street culture into prison settings, but less is known about how prison culture in turn migrates into street settings. Although vast, the literature on prison gangs and subculture is not nearly as extensive as the literature on street gangs and subculture due in part to the challenges associated with studying gang activity in prisons—access, scheduling, secrecy, codes, etc. There is little doubt that prison gangs are the source of considerable misconduct and present serious challenges to the management of prisons, which is why numerous strategies have been employed to control and suppress gang activity. This bibliography covers a range of topics on prison gangs and subculture, highlighting the resources and key contributions to the literature for policymakers, practitioners, researchers, and students to gain a better understanding of past, current, and anticipated trends.

General Overviews

Contrary to the extensive amount of information available regarding street gangs, there is much less information available regarding prison gangs. Whereas the National Gang Center houses a great deal of information related to street gangs, their behaviors, and evaluations of gang responses, based on their annual surveys of law enforcement agencies, there is no such complementary site for prison gangs. Moreover, there are only a handful of publications that comprehensively review the prison gang literature and make broad statements on the impact prison gangs have on the inmate subculture and prison operations. The book Crouch and Marquart 1989 traced the development of the Texas prison reform and documented the emergence of prison gangs. This book demonstrated how the changes in administrative policy that removed the building tender system resulted in the development of prison gangs and increased power granted to those members. Decker, et al. 2013 does not focus on prison gangs, yet this research synthesized existing gang research and organized the review around what is critical to understanding gang behavior and process: individual, micro, and macro levels of explanation—analogous to studying prison gang members, gang interactions, and prison environment. Camp and Camp 1985 conducted a national evaluation of state and federal prisons to determine the extent of prison gangs and to evaluate how prison officials identify and control gang members. This research identified approximately 114 gangs with over 12,000 inmates, noting that, membership in the gang was a result of street gang alliances prior to incarceration. Despite only 50 percent of the sample having procedures used to identify prison gangs, the most common suppression techniques were moving or transferring an inmate or using segregation. Griffin, et al. 2013 not only summarized the existing literature on the development of prison gangs, their behaviors in prison, and the interplay between street and prison gangs, but it also related the reliance on penal policy and incarceration with the emergence of prison gangs. Additionally, this research demonstrated how administrative control techniques have changed from informal processes, relying on the building tenders to suppress misconduct, to formal policies, where security threat groups (STGs) are recognized at the state and federal levels. The reliance on jacketing (i.e., the official documentation of membership in a prisoner’s file), segregation, and inmate transfers for suppressing prison gangs is discussed in Fleisher and Decker 2001. This publication also calls for improved data collection strategies regarding prison gangs and increased collaboration between correctional agencies and researchers to aid in reintegration success. See also National Gang Research Center and US Department of Justice.

  • Camp, George M., and Camille Graham Camp. 1985. Prison gangs: Their extent, nature, and impact on prisons. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice.

    One of the first national surveys of administrators in state and federal facilities. This is a good introduction to the issues associated with gangs in incarcerated settings and this work is a staple in subsequent studies related to gangs in prisons.

  • Crouch, Ben M., and James R. Marquart. 1989. An appeal to justice: Litigated reform of Texas prisons. Austin: Univ. of Texas Press.

    A book that traced the history and importance of the Texas prison reform on the development of gangs. Specifically, this book will provide the reader with an understanding of the legal and operational changes in Texas prisons, a state that now has the largest prison population in the United States.

  • Decker, Scott H., Chris Melde, and David C. Pyrooz. 2013. What do we know about gangs and gang members and where do we go from here? Justice Quarterly 30:369–402.

    DOI: 10.1080/07418825.2012.732101

    This review takes stock of gang research over the last twenty years. The authors organize their review around levels of explanation that can be applied equally to prison gang activity; namely, individuals (i.e., gang and non-gang prison inmates), the micro context of prison gang activity and interactions, and macro-structural arrangements and conditions in prison and the penal state.

  • Fleisher, Mark S., and Scott H. Decker. 2001. An overview of the challenge of prison gangs. Corrections Management Quarterly 5:1–11.

    This article discussed common administrative prison gang control strategies (e.g., documentation, segregation, lockdowns, and transfers). This article would be helpful for readers to understand some of the complications related to suppressing prison gangs.

  • Griffin, Marie L., David C. Pyrooz, and Scott H. Decker. 2013. Surviving and thriving: The growth, influence and administrative control of prison gangs. In Crime and crime reduction: The importance of group processes. Edited by Jane L. Wood and Teresa A. Gannon, 137–156. New York: Routledge.

    This article provided an overview of the development of prison gangs and administrative control policies used to suppress gang activity. This work documented many of the important contributions to the prison gang literature including building tenders, identification of gang members, and the use of security threat group policies.

  • National Gang Center.

    A website containing multiple research summaries on gangs, evaluations of anti-gang programs, and publicly available analyses of national databases. This website also provides national statistics and resources that are continuously updated and generated in a user-friendly, searchable format.

  • US Department of Justice.

    One of the few governmental webpages that is specific to prison gangs. Although limited in the evaluations of prison gangs, this website contains basic information on prevalence of prison gangs and has some images used to distinguish various gang members.

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