Published: Feb. 27, 2020 By

An unprecedented study reported in a new book from a CU Boulder professor pulls back the curtain on prison gangs

One twentysomething member found his way to the Aryan Brotherhood seeking belonging. 

Moving from one sleepy town to another as a military brat, he’d never encountered gangs before and always imagined he’d joined the Marines someday. But when he landed in jail instead, he found comradery among one of the most violent prison gangs in the country.

David Pyrooz

David Pyrooz

Another Latino man joined the Mexican Mafia to “help his friends” during what was known as “The War Years”—a 21-month period in the mid-1980s when 52 Texas inmates died amid inter-gang clashes. It would be decades before he left gang-life behind.

Then there was the inmate who joined the Peckerwoods, an all-white gang, at age 19 for protection. Race riots were escalating in the wake of a highly publicized murder of a black man by white supremacists on the streets of East Texas.

As he revealed to his interviewer: “It’s hard in here for a white guy.” 

These are just three of the hundreds of candid life stories compiled and analyzed for David Pyrooz’s new book, Competing for Control: Gangs and the Social Order of Prisons. At a time when deadly prison violence is creeping up again, and gangs—which constitute 15-20% of the prison population—are playing an important role, the book constitutes the most comprehensive study ever of gang life behind bars, all told by members themselves.

“We don’t really know much about prison gangs,” says Pyrooz, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder and a faculty associate with the Institute of Behavioral Sciences. “There are media reports, shows like Gangland, and reports from prison officials. But missing from the picture is: What do the gang members themselves say?”

To find out, Pyrooz and the book’s co-author Scott Decker, a professor of criminology at Arizona State University, spent nine months inside the imposing brick walls of two of the oldest prisons in Texas, interviewing 802 inmates—about half of them gang members.

All were on the brink of release, with as little as 48 hours of their sentence to go. Fifty were in solitary confinement, some shackled in chains throughout the interview.

Pyrooz, Decker and a team of graduate students sat for hours across a cold concrete table or plexiglass barrier, asking about how gangs organize and govern, who joins and how, and what it takes for someone to get out.

 “For a lot of them, it was really cathartic to talk with us, an opportunity to get things off their chest,” recalls Pyrooz, who greeted each interviewee with a respectful handshake and often broke the ice with a friendly question: What are you most looking forward to eating when you get out? 

“The number one thing I want to do is treat them as a human being, not a prisoner,” he says.

Funded by the National Institute of Justice, the project yielded a host of discoveries about what goes on inside the country’s 2,000 prisons and debunked many long-held stereotypes. Among them: that such a study isn’t possible.

“The common belief is that inmates in general won’t talk to outsiders and that gang-members are even more tight lipped,” says Decker. “We found neither of these to be true.”

The researchers found that about 50% of prison gang members first join up after they arrive in jail, often seeking protection, cultural identity or belonging.

Gang membership appears to be shifting, they also found, with membership in top-down Security Threat Groups, like the Aryan Brotherhood and Mexican Mafia, waning while membership in more loosely knit clique-like gangs grows. 

“Prison gangs do not rule prison or the street with an iron fist as once was the case,” says Decker.

But they are still recruiting aggressively, using violent hazing rituals to convince prospects to commit crimes or beat members of other gangs. In return, the gangs seldom provide the protection new members expect.

According to the study, gang members are actually far more likely to be victims of violence than non-members.

And oftentimes, those disappointed members do walk away.

Whether it’s inside of prison or outside of prison, you have to understand gangs in order to be able to respond to them.”​

“This idea of blood in, blood out is a myth,” said Pyrooz, noting that most men who joined a gang in prison left it before they got out. “They are promised protection and companionship, but they end up with stab wounds and brothers who snitch on them. Eventually they realize they’ve been sold a bill of goods.”

The book’s release comes at a time when, after a long period of declining homicide rates in prison, they’ve begun to tick up again.

Just this month, the U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation into four Mississippi prisons, after gang-related violence led to more than a dozen deaths, including some suicides.

Chronically low wages for prison employees, combined with lack of needed programs for the incarcerated could be playing a role in the crisis, says Pyrooz, who believes more funding should be dedicated to helping prevent inmates from getting into gangs while in prison and making it easier and safer for them to get out.

“If the prison system itself would step up and provide some of the things they are looking for, there would be less need for them to affiliate with gangs,” he says. 

He hopes the study serves as a good first step for understanding a population that has long been an enigma. And he hopes it draws the attention not only of prison administrators but also of parents and politicians who live far from the prisons he studied.

“Eventually these guys are going to get out. They are going to become your neighbors. Their kids are going to attend your schools. They are going to enter the workforce. The question is: Do you want them to leave on better or worse terms than when they arrived?,” he says, noting that gangs are serious problem in the Colorado prison system as well as communities, especially the Denver metropolitan area. 

“Whether it’s inside of prison or outside of prison, you have to understand gangs in order to be able to respond to them.”