A CU professor goes inside America's prisons to study gang life.
Seated inside a windowless, soundproof room at the county jail in Fresno, Calif., David Pyrooz was getting nervous.
Across from him sat a gang member awaiting trial for murder, his slick-bald head tattooed with a devil’s horn above each temple. His eyes were darting, a sign that — as Pyrooz’s professors had warned — the interviewee might be growing impatient.
Pyrooz, then a 22-year-old criminology student, glanced at the button on the wall he’d been instructed to press in case of trouble.
The inmate spoke: “You know, you have to hold that button for two seconds before someone will come.”
“I remember thinking ‘A lot can happen in two seconds,’” Pyrooz said. He paused, reestablished eye contact and asked the next question.
Fast forward 12 years and Pyrooz, an assistant professor of sociology at CU Boulder, has interviewed hundreds of gang members in correctional facilities and on the streets, searching for insight into how some people manage to avoid or escape what he calls “the snare” of gang life, while others succumb to it and suffer lifelong consequences.
His research comes at a time when 33,000 violent gangs with 1.4 million members are active in the United States and gang violence — though down from its 1990s peak — still plagues cities like Denver and Chicago, where 50 percent of homicides are gang-related. The Trump administration has named one gang, MS-13, “one of the gravest threats to American public safety.”
Pyrooz, with several high-profile papers newly published and the largest-ever study of imprisoned gang members in the works, hopes his research can prevent youth from joining gangs and help veteran members escape. His colleagues say the work could also shed light on the power of groupthink and its hold over all of us.
“I have always been fascinated by social groups whose collective power is greater than the sum of their individual parts,” said Pyrooz, a married father of two young children. “We all like to think our accomplishments come from individual merit, but so much of our success is driven by the people in our environment. If it weren’t for the gang, things might have turned out differently for a lot of these guys.”
Dodging the Snare
Pyrooz grew up in California in the 1990s, splitting his time between his dad’s house in the Bay Area, where the Norteno gang ruled, and his mom’s house in the Central Valley, Sureno turf.
By 6th grade, he was noticing groups hanging out by their cars, rap music booming, gang signs flashing. Roadside buildings were emblazoned with graffiti.
By high school, some of his friends were in gangs.
33,000 violent gangs with 1.4 million members are active in the U.S.
Instead, he made salutatorian and landed a scholarship to California State University, where he volunteered to help a criminology professor with research at the local jail. Those first interviews fed his curiosity about what makes “us” and “them” so different — or whether we really are.
“I was struck by how, in many ways, these guys behind bars were not much different than me or my friends,” Pyrooz said. “They just got caught doing something, and once they got into that web that is the criminal justice system, they had a hard time getting out.”
Later, during doctoral studies at Arizona State University, Pyrooz explored a question few others had: How does joining a gang as a teen — as 8 percent of U.S. adolescents do — impact life later on for the gang member?
He found sobering answers: Joiners were 30 percent less likely to earn a high school diploma, 60 percent less likely to earn a college degree, more likely to be unemployed as an adult and lose tens of thousands of dollars in potential earnings — and 100 times more likely to die by homicide.
One subsequent study, subsidized by the Google Ideas think tank, explored how gangs use the Internet. (To brag about their exploits and keep tabs on other members, but generally not for recruitment, it found.) Another looked at similarities between gang members and domestic terrorists (not many, he found).
“What David has done that few others have is place gang membership in the context of what came before it and after it,” said Scott Decker, foundation professor of criminology at ASU. “That kind of understanding is critical when it comes to thinking about how to address this problem.”
The Art of the Interview
Before arriving at CU in 2015, Pyrooz taught at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, a.k.a. “Prison City U.S.A.,” because of its seven correctional facilities.
The closest was a 10-minute walk from his office. He’d often watch newly released inmates file out, ready to start a new life, and wonder how they would do.
There, he and Decker embarked on a monumental project. They began interviewing 800 inmates, half gang members, half not, 48 hours before they were released, then followed up with them 30 days and nine months later.
The project, still going, has been both gratifying and emotionally taxing, Pyrooz said.
He begins each interview by shaking the inmate’s hand, a gesture that — for someone who has not experienced human touch for months — can go a long way toward establishing trust and rapport. He breaks 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 another human being, not a prisoner,” he said.
Then the stories pour out: A six-figure-salary businessman who landed in prison for a white-collar crime and joined the Mexican mafia for protection. A member of a motorcycle gang who got in trouble for fighting, landed in jail and took up with the Aryan Brotherhood. A young man who, at 18, fell in love with a 16-year-old girl. When the relationship went sour, her mom called the police. He was charged with statutory rape, went to prison, joined a gang, and never left.
Especially hard to hear are the stories of fathers who missed their children’s lives and of inmates in solitary confinement, whom Pyrooz talks with through a mesh wall.
“You just see a lot of lost potential,” he said. “You go home at night wondering what these guys might have been doing if they weren’t behind those bars. You also wonder: Are they really ready to get out?”
His research has already produced some key conclusions.
First, it’s important to keep kids out of gangs, as 90 percent of juvenile crimes are committed in groups, and membership’s long-term consequences are grave.
Second, the way kids spend their time, and with whom, matters.
“Working to keep kids busy and monitor their activities, particularly the friends with whom they hang out, along with instilling in children good moral values and coping skills, are the ways in which we can keep youth out of gangs,” said Pyrooz, with a nod to his own attentive parents.
You see a lot of lost potential.
Many inmates he’s interviewed ultimately left their gangs, pulled away by the attractions of other groups comprised of wives or girlfriends, children and grandchildren, employers and friends.
“The stereotype is that these guys are violent predators with zero empathy for other people,” Pyrooz said. “Some of that is true, they have done some very bad stuff. But they still love their kids and want to see their families be successful. If you look at them at one point in time, they may look like the worst person out there, but even that person can change.”
Photos by Getty Images/Jan Sochor/CON