Inside out: The challenge of prison-based criminal organizations

Gang members who are also inmates pose for a photograph at a prison in Quezaltepeque, on the outskirts of San Salvador June 2, 2012. The relentless tit-for-tat murders between El Salvador's two largest street gangs - "Calle 18" and "Mara Salvatrucha" - made the country the most murderous in the world last year after neighboring Honduras, also ravaged by gang violence. That was until Garcia, from the Calle 18 ("18th Street") gang, along with elders from the Mara Salvatruchadeclared an unprecedented truce that authorities say has cut the homicide rate in half in just four months. Picture taken June 2, 2012. To match Feature SALVADOR-GANGS/ REUTERS/Ulises Rodriguez (EL SALVADOR - Tags: CRIME LAW CIVIL UNREST) - RTR34YC6

"Inside Out: The Challenge of Prison-Based Criminal Organizations" by Benjamin Lessing (report cover)In Central America and Brazil—and even in the United States—prison gangs have evolved from small predatory groups to sophisticated criminal organizations with the capacity to organize street-level crime, radically alter patterns of criminal violence, and, in the extreme, hold governments hostage to debilitating, orchestrated violence and corruption.

In this paper, Benjamin Lessing argues that prison gangs present three distinct problems for policymakers. First, many typical responses to prison-gang activity have unintended and deeply counterproductive consequences. Second, it is unclear that reducing incarceration rates or improving prison conditions would neutralize the authority that prison gangs have accumulated as a result of mass-incarceration policies. And, finally, it is not clear that reducing prison-gang authority would produce positive outcomes.

The paper begins with background on contemporary prison gangs. Lessing then goes on to present findings of research into the link between state law-enforcement and carceral policies and prison gangs’ capacity to project their power on the streets in California, El Salvador, and São Paulo, Brazil. He follows with a discussion of the ways in which prison gangs use this capacity as a bargaining chip. The paper concludes with three core challenges and several policy recommendations to address them.