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.
Assistant Professor, Political Science - University of Chicago
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.