The History, Origin and Evolution of Prison Gangs

and Security Threat Groups (STG)

Known for violence 

Historically, disruptive activities in prisons by small, affiliated groups of inmates are not a new phenomenon.  But the number, type and nature of these groups has changed dramatically since the early 1960’s.  Many of these groups originated in prison in response to geographic, ethnic, racial or ideological influences and as they grew, they evolved to include both institutional and community components.  In some cases they emulated the philosophy and structure of groups already present in society.  In the intervening years, gang-related activity has created increasingly severe management problems in the institutional setting as well as for the law enforcement community in general.

Law enforcement personnel began to systematically monitor these group activities in the 1970’s – about the time correctional administrators began to see their disruptive influence.  Working together, their initial attempts were to identify only gangs which had some semblance of formal structure – a constitution, by-laws, mission statements, or some identifiable tenets guiding their activities.  However, with experience, staff began to realize that even less well-organized groups could still pose significant threats to the security and orderly running of an institution.  Many of these smaller groups occupy the fringes of various conceptual and organizational frameworks – most notably ethnic, religious, or social organizations.  Nevertheless, they have demonstrated that they can constitute a threat to prison security and public safety.

As a result, it became increasingly evident that the term “gang” did not fit every type of individual or organization and the concept of security threat group (STG’s) was developed to better describe these other types of inmates.  This term conveys the reality of day-to-day life in prisons and in the street – that even small organized groups of offenders can create serious problems and that there are  sound management reasons for monitoring their activities, even if they are not formally organized in a “gang” structure.

Throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s, prison gangs focused primarily on uniting inmates for self-protection and the monopolization of illegal prison activities for monetary gain.  They combined the philosophies and practices of street gangs and more traditional crime families.  At about the same time, some gang rivalries began to develop, fostering predatory and violent behavior.  As the groups became more formally organized, command and control structures were established to strengthen the ability to carry out group goals. 

Most gangs recruit along racial and ethnic lines and while actual membership is limited to males, most groups rely to a certain extent on the cooperation and assistance of wives, girlfriends, and other women.  In many cases, actual gang members pose less of a management problem than individuals who are in the process of seeking formal gang membership – who are referred to in many circles as “wannabes.”  While in recruit status, these individuals are responsible for a large number of violent acts as they attempt to impress members with their ability to be ruthless and supportive of the groups activities.

Other gangs of a more specifically militant and “political” orientation also emerged in prisons in the 1960’s.  In addition to advocating the overthrow of the government, they also adopted a “standard bearer” mentality, wherein they viewed themselves as liberators of oppressed peoples.  While their underlying political beliefs were not a prison management issue, their actual conduct did create serious management problems.

In the 1980’s, many gangs also extended their influence beyond the prison environment to include the community, and developed alliances (albeit selective and wary) with each other.  These affiliations were motivated by the desire to divide illegal prison activities, to maximize drug profit and to avoid violent confrontations which adversely affected each gang’s individual power and profit bases.  Groups may still be rivals, but they do “business” across racial, ethnic, political, and geographical boundaries on a regular basis out of financial self-interest.  An example of cooperative  gang relationships can be found in the Mexican Mafia and the Aryan Brotherhood.

Most gangs have developed enemies.  An example of an antagonistic relationship is found in the Mexican Mafia and the La Nuestra Familia.  Importantly though, the identification of alliances (in one prison or prison system) between various gangs and STGs does not necessarily mean that these inmates are compatible with a group or gang with the same name in another State or the Federal Prison system.  For example, in Arizona or Texas, an Aryan Brotherhood member is not automatically recognized as a member of the Federal prison system’s Aryan Brotherhood organization, and vice versa.  Members of the Mexican Mafia which originated on the west coast are not necessarily compatible with the Texas Mexican Mafia (Mexikanemi).  The entries on this page referring to “associated” organizations should only be used as guidelines, since affiliations between gangs can change over time.

In this age of high technology, gangs often use sophisticated electronic equipment and otherwise sound business principles to circumvent prison security, as well as to conduct illegal business in the community.  This makes them even more difficult to manage and control.  (Cellular telephones are now a major problem in most prison systems)

To compound these problems, during the late 1980’s and into the 1990’s, prisons were flooded with an assortment of street gang members – Sureños, Norteños, Crips, Bloods, Satanists, Marielito Banditos (a small segment of Cuban immigrants) and white supremacists group members.  Each of these groups represents distinct concerns for prison administrators, but among them, street gangs in particular began to establish themselves as a source of even more serious management problems.  With built-in alliances and organizations from their street gang experiences, a highly territorial nature, ready reliance on violence, and intricate communications system – including graffiti, rap, and “flashing” of hand signals – street gang members are extremely difficult to monitor and control in prison.



Robert Walker

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