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Behind the Walls: An Expert Discusses the Role of Race-based Gangs and Other Extremists in America's Prisons

NCJ Number
Intelligence Report Issue: 108 Dated: Winter 2002 Pages: 24-27
Date Published
4 pages
This article presents an interview with Mark Pitcavage, an expert in the phenomenon of prison gangs.

This article begins by briefly describing the emergence and proliferation of race-based gangs in our prison system. Mark Pitcavage, the fact-finding director for the Anti-Defamation League, is interviewed about his study entitled, “Dangerous Convictions: An Introduction to Extremist Activities in Prisons.” Pitcavage explains that prison gangs offer protection, money, and drugs for their members, although protection is the key to recruiting new members. Gang activity began to proliferate following the desegregation of the prison system in the 1960’s. Gangs have flourished in larger State and Federal prisons where inmates tend to serve longer terms for more serious offenses. When asked about the first real prison gang, Pitcavage explains that as long as we have had prisons, there have been prison gangs. He notes that the Aryan Brotherhood, formed in the 1960’s in San Quentin, has evolved into a powerful nation-wide crime syndicate. Gang ideology has taken a back seat to criminal activities that include drug trafficking, protection rackets, prostitution, extortion, and witness intimidation. When asked about the link between incarceration and politicization, Pitcavage explains that prisoners have a lot of time on their hands and are desperate for stimulation. Ideological readings and acquaintances within prison help fill the void and also offer a rationalization for the crimes they have committed. A sense of personal empowerment also comes from joining a gang and embracing its ideology. Pitcavage also discusses the ways in which gangs outside of prisons recruit members within prisons by writing letters and sending propaganda to inmates. In conclusion, Pitcavage notes that prisons are dangerous places, whether inmates are affiliated with a gang or not.