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.