How Race-Based Prison Gangs Evolved into Criminal Enterprises


If white supremacist prison gangs were involved in shooting public officials in Colorado and Texas, experts tell NPR that would be part of a larger pattern of prison gangs extending their reach. “Increasingly, these prison gangs are spilling out onto the streets,” says Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Pete Simi, a criminologist at the University of Nebraska Omaha, says, “Their reach beyond the prison has tended to be relatively minimal, but that has started to change. With so many people circulating in and out, you’re seeing that with gangs of all races and ethnicities.”

Like a number of racially based prison gangs, the all-white Aryan Brotherhood of Texas started 30 years ago in response to changing prison conditions. Texas prisons in the 1980s were ripe for racially based gangs to form. In response to a court decision, facilities underwent enormous changes, says James Marquart, a criminologist at the University of Texas at Dallas. Texas prisons previously employed minimal staff and a trusty system, with dominant inmates managing cellblocks and living areas. A court found this arrangement unconstitutional. “You had to replace those strong inmates with correctional officers, and an authority vacuum developed,” he says. Terry Pelz, a criminal justice consultant and former Texas prison warden, said, “The gangs went from protecting themselves in prison on racial lines to evolving into criminal enterprises.”

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