Prison Threat Groups

Prison Threat Groups





Prison Threat Groups


Prison threat groups, popularly known as prison gangs, are criminal organizations operating within the penitentiaries and correctional facilities. Known for their violence, the groups started developing in the 1960s and 1970s as inmates banded together to protect each other from rival groups and other predators within the system. Skebark (2012) argues that these groups serve a beneficial purpose for their members and other prisoners as a form of extrajudicial governance within the inmates’ societies. Interestingly, once the groups become large enough to command respect and control over the system, they turn into predators themselves preying on weaker and unprotected inmates. Because of the manner in which they operate, prison threat groups pose serious security concerns for the United States. The groups regularly exert their influence outside the correctional facilities as they work with other gangs operating in the outside world (Skebark, 2012). These connections allow them to participate in the trade of illicit items and substances such as drugs and weapons. One of the largest and most powerful prison gangs in the United States is the Aryan Brotherhood. The gang started in the California State Prison System. It has since spread to cover various regions of the US. An analysis of the Aryan Brotherhood’s history and nature can shed light on the threat posed by prison groups and indicate various ways in which they can be mitigated.

Defining Prison Threat Groups

According to Knox (2012), Prison threat groups (also called security threat groups) refer to an entity comprising of more than two people that is involved in threatening or disruptive activity that may include gang behavior and violence. These groups normally have members affiliated to the same gang, who share a common extremist ideology. Normally, their ideologies as well as their activities pose serious threats to security both inside and outside the prison system. Sometimes, prison threat groups combine to form gangs (DeLisi, Berg & Hochstetler, 2004). Knox (2012) explains that a prison gang is a group consisting of more than two people that engages in criminal activity known to all members of the group and operates primarily within correctional facilities. Prison gangs usually operate in secrecy, using intimidation and violence to control the environment as they primarily target non-members (Delisi et al., 2004). Some these groups are unique in that they originated from prison. Entities such as the Black Guerilla Family and the Aryan Brotherhood are examples of pure prison gangs as they started inside American prisons but soon expanded their operations beyond the correctional systems (Knox, 2012).

History of the Aryan Brotherhood

The Aryan Brotherhood (AB) is a white supremacist prison gang that started in 1967. The Federal Bureau of Investigation traces the beginning of the AB to a prison gang that existed in San Quentin (California’s state prison) during the 1950s and 1960s. The Blue Bird Gang existed to protect white inmates, but the members soon realized the need to form a stronger organization to oppose powerful gangs that African-American and Mexican prisoners had formed. Accordingly, the Aryan Brotherhood was formed in San Quentin in 1967 with the founding concept of the members being bonded until their deaths (Atkins, 2011).

The membership of the Aryan Brotherhood was initially very limited. A person wanting to join the organization had to be white and part Irish to qualify. Additionally, the member needed to be strong enough to contribute to the gang’s needs. Eventually, the gang transformed into a white supremacist group. Accordingly, the gang adopted a name that indicated their ideology along with the clover, because it is a symbol of Irish people. Other symbols that the gang uses include the numbers “666” and the swastika (Aryan Brotherhood part 1 of 1, 1982).

After reducing the requirements that it had of prospective members, the Aryan brotherhood grew exponentially over the 1970s and 1980s. This growth started inside the California state prison system, where the gang soon involved itself in the trade of narcotics, controlled gambling and contract killings. Following this growth, federal authorities attempted to curb the development of the group by transferring members of the gang to prisons in other states and parts of the country. However, this move proved to be detrimental to the government’s intentions as the transferred members succeeded in spreading the ideology and reach of the gang in their new prisons. Eventually, the AB started to spread its influence outside the prisons system, with members committing racist crimes in the outside world (Atkins, 2011).

Threat Posed by the Aryan Brotherhood

Prison threat groups typically contribute to much of the violence witnessed inside American correctional facilities in different states. As one of the oldest gangs in the prison system, the Aryan Brotherhood is responsible for a sizeable amount of violence in American prisons, as well as limited criminal acts outside the penitentiaries. The Aryan Brotherhood’s operations are centered on activities such as the drug trade, the control of gambling activities, inmate prostitution and the carrying out of contract killings. Through such activities, prison gangs try to gain control of the prisons in which they are. The Aryan Brotherhood also furthers its interests by forming convenient alliances with other security threat groups inside correctional facilities. Most of these alliances are formed with other white supremacist entities so that the group can move towards accomplishing its ideological targets. In addition to this, the group also shares an alliance with the Mexican Mafia, as they both share a common enemy in various African-American prison gangs. This alliance has also helped the AB to further its interests and operations in the thriving drug trade inside and outside America’s prisons (Aryan Brotherhood part 1 of 1, 1982).

The threat posed by the Aryan Brotherhood also emanates from the structure and size of the group. Analysts claim that one of the worrying aspects of the Aryan Brotherhood is the fact that it is well organized and structured. The AB initially operated as a democracy, with all members contributing to the decision-making process. However, the growth of the group soon made the system cumbersome, resulting in the formation of a council that resembled that of the Italian Mafia (Atkins, 2011). This council decides on all-important decisions that the group needs to make and has facilitated a shift in the group’s activities from racist-inspired crimes to profit-making activities. Over the last two decades, the AB has grown steadily inside and outside America’s prisons. The group currently has approximately fifteen thousand members who carry out its activities inside and outside correctional facilities. However, the entire leadership of the Aryan Brotherhood remains behind bars (Atkins, 2011).

Mitigating the Menace of Prison Threat Groups

The sheer size and number of prison threat groups in correctional facilities in the United States has made them a serious security risk for both inmates and law-abiding citizens outside the prisons system. According to Fleisher and Decker (2003), prison threat groups account for up to fifty percent of violence inside correctional facilities despite making up only three percent of the inmate population. This implies that the elimination or control of such groups is the key to reducing violence inside prisons.

One popular method used to mitigate the threat of prison gangs is segregation. In Texas, a system of segregation was installed in 1985, where known gang members were kept in their cells for twenty-three hours every day and only released for one hour to allow recreational activities. This system effectively kept the gang members away from each other and ensured that there was a reduced risk of violence between the prison gangs. Within five years, segregation had seen inmate violence reduce to manageable levels (Fleisher & Decker, 2003). A milder form of the segregation technique has seen only the gang leaders kept away from the general prison population for prolonged periods. Prison authorities carry out this isolation through various methods such as the transfer of group leaders to different institutions, with some being kept in constant circulation. Through this method, the leaders have difficulty passing down instructions and the magnitude of the gang’s operations is significantly reduced (Fleisher & Decker, 2003).

The development of information technology has also allowed prison authorities to control threat groups by tracking gangs, members and their activities. Correctional facilities now keep comprehensive databases of prisoners that detail their affiliations. For instance, the city of New York tracks members by taking digital photos of their appearances including tattoos, scars and other marks that can help identify the inmate and determine his or her affiliation. The authorities then enter this information into a database that law enforcement bodies and other correctional facilities can access (Delisi et al., 2004). These databases have significantly improved the accuracy of information shared regarding prison threat groups. Regular updates ensure that the authorities are aware of new members and gang markings making it possible for them to track the movement and activities of the threat groups (Fleisher & Decker, 2003).

Effectiveness of the Mitigation Measures

To evaluate the success and failures of these measures, prison authorities compare violence statistics from the period before they took the action to those from the time after. Surveys and interviews with prison guards and employs of the correctional facilities also help to indicate the level to which various measures have been successful. Following the decline in prison violence in Texas, authorities sought to find out whether segregation was effectively ending the threat groups. According to Fleisher and Decker (2003), interviews with prison officials in Texas revealed that segregation was not a complete solution because there was still occasional violence between inmates. The officials claimed that violence could still occur within the segregation units, especially if inmates were instructed by their leaders to attack a person. An additional disadvantage of this measure is that it costs a lot of money to keep the prisoners in segregated units. Most prison officials agreed that a better solution required the correctional authorities to come up with a better management system as a way of dealing with the threat groups (Fleisher & Decker, 2003). The creation of a database was a much more effective way of dealing with prison threat groups. The fact that prison threat groups shroud themselves in secrecy means that the authorities have always have trouble dealing with them. Through the database, authorities are able to share intelligence information, therefore keeping each other well informed on the growth and spread of the groups. For this reason, the database has proven to be an effective tool for managing prison gangs (Fleisher & Decker, 2003).


Prison threat groups started emerging in the 1960s and 1970s and have since grown to become significant security concerns for authorities. Their growth and spread over the last few decades has seen them spread their influence outside the prison walls as they engage in various criminal activities in the civilian world. The Aryan Brotherhood is a good example of an influential prison gang that operates both inside and outside prison. Primarily a white supremacist group, the AB involves itself in a dearth of criminal activities such as drug trafficking, inmate prostitution, contract killing and gambling. Because of the threat posed by Prison Threat Groups, authorities have developed various measures to help curb their reach and influence. One measure that is popularly adopted has seen gang members placed in segregation to keep them away from each other and their leaders placed in isolation. Authorities have particularly subjected the AB to this form of action as the group’s leaders are all currently in indefinite isolation. However, this technique has failed to stop the activities of prison threat groups. Another popular measure involves the collection of regular data concerning the gangs such as tattoos and markings that help authorities identify the growth and spread of the groups. This measure is far more effective as the authorities are finally able to stay informed about gangs and their activities.





Aryan Brotherhood part 1 of 1 (1982). Retrieved from

Atkins, S. E. (2011). Encyclopedia of right-wing extremism in modern American history. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.

Delisi, M., Berg, M. T. & Hochstetler, A. (2004). Gang members, career criminals and prison violence: Further specification of the importation model of inmate behavior. Criminal Justice Studies, 17(4), 369-383.

Fleisher, M. S. & Decker, S. H. (2003). An overview of the challenge of prison gangs. Correction Management Quarterly, 5(1), 1-9.

Knox, G. W. P. D., & National Gang Crime Research. (2012). Problem of Gangs and Security Threat Groups (STG’s) in American Prisons and Jails Today: Recent Findings from the 2012 NGCRC National Gang/STG Survey. United States of America.

Skarbek, David (2012), Prison gangs, norms, and organization, Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 82(1), 96-109.


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