The Hardest Time

Gang Members in Total Institutions

Authored by: David C. Pyrooz , Meghan M. Mitchell

Handbook on the Consequences of Sentencing and Punishment Decisions

Print publication date:  August  2018
Online publication date:  August  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138608931
eBook ISBN: 9780429466380
Adobe ISBN:


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Gangs remain a vexing problem in contemporary prisons. The threats to security and order posed by gangs have required correctional officials to devise and implement solutions. While the pains of imprisonment have led commentators to remark that inmates serve “hard time,” the unique correctional gang policies and practices could render the prison experience for the affiliates of gangs as the “hardest time.” The purpose of this chapter is to document the collateral consequences of incarceration for gang members. We describe the differential treatment of gang members in prison, focusing on restrictive housing practices and programs to facilitate gang exit. Based on a 2016 survey completed by 39 state prison systems, we report two sets of findings. With regard to restrictive housing, we found that the placement of gang members in restrictive housing for administrative purposes is increasingly rare. However, it appears that prison system policies allow for near-perfect behavioral substitutes for gang status as a pathway into restrictive housing. With regard to treatment programs, most prison systems do not have a program in place to facilitate leaving gangs. Among those that do, renunciation and debriefing were the most common, which may be prohibitively risky for gang members. The programs for the remaining prison systems were tied to restrictive housing—either diversion at intake or step down upon placement—that entail incentives and programming across multiple stages over fixed time periods. It is possible that the policies and practices applied to the affiliates of gangs may have had unintended consequences, perhaps strengthening gangs, prolonging gang involvement, and hindering reentry success. These conclusions remain speculative at this point, owing to the lack of sustained research on gangs, prison, and reentry. We conclude by discussing the continued need for qualitative and quantitative research to examine if and how the prison experience for gang members diverges from non-gang members, and what role correctional policy and practice play in this dynamic.

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