Why do youth join prison gangs?

Youth join gangs for different reason, the common denominator of which, we can safety say, is disaffection —profound identity loss they are looking to regain through the power of a peer group.

Reasons might go as follows:

  • Tired of being picked on
  • Looking for respect and power
  • Want a support system (someone to "have their back")
  • To some youth, especially in an exceedingly isolated and restricted setting like detention, gangs can provide all of the resources needed for survival. "The gang . . . becomes a mechanism for surviving deprivation and trauma . . . "
  • Youth seek the caring and attention that a gang can provide them — a surrogate family, in other words. More often than not, juveniles most vulnerable to gang life come from broken homesp; many have never had a solid sense of internal belonging and safety.
  • Some want to make money. Don’t ever think that there is not money and dope in juvenile prisons. We just did a clear-out at my facility. We found several hundred dollars, as well as cigarettes and marijuana.
  • Some grow up in a neighborhood where gang life is the only life, and now in youth facilities this behavior is reinforced. Most have some real or imagined problem at home that makes them prefer the street thug life. As their drug addiction or appetite for power grows, their problems in youth prisons become worse because correctional officers and administrations don't have adequate resources to cope with these powerful impulses, both psychological and physiological.

Gangbangin and dope slangin

Was the life that I was gave.
From the womb of a lonely Mother,
To the streets I was made.
— Unknown Author

I can remember when the first youth gang started at my facility just a few short years ago. We laughed and it and trivialized it. I often look back at the good old days and think, "If we would have taken a stronger stance then, we would not be dealing with the problems we have now." 

The "Yoda" as it was referred was our first gang and those forward thinking youth initiated a flood of gang mentality that now has infiltrated every institution in Ohio including the adult system and it all started here. When you hear the name, Felons” or “HB’s” you really don’t think about much but those rival gangs led to our first major disturbance inside our fences.

Our violent gang members have become so interwoven inside our facility that they honestly believe that they run the institution, and in some cases, they do.

They will attempt to intimidate and seduce correctional officers as well as manipulate and confuse daily operation within our facility. The gangs desire to conduct internal criminal business and carry out hits on rival gang members will often disrupt the operation of the school and has led to many institutional lockdowns and searches for contraband. If you would ask, “Do they run the facility?”  I would have to think about that for a while.

Our youth are so violent and aggressive that they are not amiable to any sort of treatment we strive to supply. They will tell you that when they get out they will go right back to thugging and banging because that is real and tangible to them. What you offer as reality and corrective change does not fit into their idealism and is disregarded as soon as you spit it out. They truly believe that chaos and criminal behavior is how they are supposed to act, excel and perform. For them to victimize you and your property brings no response from their conscious as it reflect no guilt. They hold absolutely no respect for you or what you have. As a matter of fact, what you have actually belongs to them if they can get it, at whatever cost and means.

How do you combat that type of thinking and mentality?  Our gang members have no fear of consequences in striking a correctional officer who does not give in to their demands. We have brought in countless anti gang speakers and held counseling and thinking for a change sessions that have had no effect.

We have locked down the gang leaders at our supermax building in a type of, “Cut the head off” thinking over and over again, to no avail. As it pertains to stopping the gang activity at our facility all I can say is that it it’s a work in progress. We make two steps forward and then take three steps back. My advice to other correctional officer is this, do not delay what is happening, start early on profiling and document everything related to gang activity and strive to understand the mentality and mindset of the gang affiliation within your facility. If you get behind the curve, you will never catch up.

About the author
Tracy E. Barnhart is a Marine combat veteran of Desert Storm/Desert Shield. Upon leaving the Marines in 1992, he became a police officer with the City of Galion, Ohio PD. Barnhart was the youngest officer to attain the rank of Staff Lieutenant and established a productive community-oriented policing program. Barnhart then left Galion to become the Chief of Police for the Village of Edison, Ohio where he continued his effective community education programs. Barnhart attained his Ohio Peace Officers Training Commission as a Unit Instructor teaching several law enforcement and correctional courses at the state academy.

In 2000, Barnhart left law enforcement to start a career with the Ohio Department of Youth Services in juvenile corrections at the Marion, Ohio Juvenile Corrections Facility. The Marion Juvenile Correctional Facility is maximum security male correctional facility housing over 320 with over forty beds being super maximum security lock down capable. Barnhart deals with male felony offender’s ages 16 to 21 with violent criminal convictions and aggressive natures.

Tracy has a wonderful wife of over ten years, Nikki and three children Bailey, Aaron and Elise, who take up all his spare time. He spends as much time as he can training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu at Shawn Chitwood’s in Lexington, Ohio and continues to advance so that he can train others in current officer survival techniques.

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