My friend Joel Warner, writing for Westword, explores some positive programs organized by inmates to deal positively with the problem of gangs in Colorado prisons, and it is a big problem.
As in many other states, Colorado prisons are now home to a dizzying patchwork of gangs, often but not always delineated by ethnicity. African-American prisoners have the Bloods and Crips, plus other, less extensive gangs like the Gangster Disciples and Almighty Vice Lord Nation. Among white prisoners, there is the Aryan Circle, the 211 Crew and other white-supremacist gangs. And Mexican-Americans and other Latino-Americans often join Norteños, Sureños, Los Primeros Padres and Los Aztecas. The volatile mix has led to tense prison environments where looking at the wrong guy, saying the wrong thing or even just singing the wrong song can trigger a riot. While the DOC’s parole and inmate population dropped nearly 10 percent between 2011 and 2015, prison fights, inmate assaults and other markers of violence are on the rise.According to the DOC, there are now more than 8,000 gang-affiliated inmates and parolees in Colorado divided between at least 135 gangs. That means that roughly one out of every four people in the state prison system is labeled as being in a gang. And there are now more gang members in prison than there are total DOC employees.
Gangs have become so widespread that research suggests they have evolved into a major and vital part of the prison ecosystem.
As usual, Warner's fact rich narrative provides context and puts a human face on the issue, while leaving you with some hope that maybe this problem isn't as insurmountable as it seems. Gangs, like black markets, arise from simple supply and demand in the context of how American prisons are managed:
“Suppression strategies that isolate gang leaders or gang members have failed to stop gang activity because it ignores the fact that prisoners have a demand for gangs,” says [college lecturer David] Skarbek. “Prisoners want to be safer, so they turn to gangs. Prisoners want drugs and order in the underground economy, so they turn to gangs. There are demand-and-profit opportunities for people to provide these services, so when you remove one ‘entrepreneur’ and the demand remains, new people will step into those profitable roles.” . . .
[Inmate] Watkins wrote up an alternative on a piece of notebook paper, one he called the “Gang Awareness Program,” or GAP. The idea was to teach inmates that there were things in their lives — their family, their community, their religion and their career goals — that were more important than gang affiliation, that would help them shift from a culture of blame and retaliation to one of responsibility and hope. The most crucial, and most groundbreaking, part of the proposal was that participants would be selected from the existing prison gang leadership, and they wouldn’t have to renounce their gang ties in order to join the program. Watkins wanted to have participants focus on productivity and creative endeavors rather than destructive habits and violence.
Critically, after years of working with the Department of Corrections to implement the program it worked:
Soon GAP’s impact was being felt throughout the facility. In the chow hall, Bloods and Crips and 211 Crew members started breaking bread together. GAP’s co-creators even persuaded prison administrators to transfer several of the state’s top prison gang leaders, including 211 Crew founder Benjamin Davis, to AVCF so they could be part of the effort.
“All the Mexicans, blacks and whites were kicking it. There were no fights, and we were learning,” says Dotson. “Nobody has ever been able to do that.” According to [Inmate Dotson, Watkins and several outside experts who communicated with AVCF staff about the program, the number of gang-related incidents at the facility dropped to nearly zero.
In time, early successes eroded, but it worked. And, a program called iLIVE designed for facilitate re-entry into society also made progress.