Gang's are so powerful at Stateville maximum-security prison in Joliet, Ill., that they control entire cell blocks, run a profitable drug trade, corrupt guards, and gain unsupervised interviews with wardens, experts and officials say.
The growing influx of gangs - whose members account for 77 percent of inmates at Stateville and more than half of the 36,000 inmates in Illinois - has turned the overcrowded Illinois prison system into what one state gang prosecutor calls "a powder keg."
Illinois illustrates in the extreme how gangs, already a widespread scourge on US streets, are now emerging across the country as the biggest security threat for US prisons, the experts say.
"Gang members now create the majority of problems within the institutions," says Dale Welling, executive director of the National Major Gang Task Force.
The number of gang members incarcerated nationwide mushroomed by two to four times between 1985 and 1992, as dozens of new laws imposing tougher sentences for drug and other gang-related crimes helped swell the US prison population to 1.5 million, federal surveys and academic studies show.
"Gangs are a growing problem in all major correctional systems throughout the country," concluded a panel of prison experts in a report published this month by the Illinois Department of Corrections.
The challenge is most daunting in states with big cities and established gangs such as Illinois, California, New Jersey, and Texas. In most states, only a small fraction of inmates are known gang members.
But where their numbers are large and concentrated, such as in Illinois, where prisons are now filled at 140 percent of capacity, gangs flourish by offering both protection and mutual gain, according to Ira Silverman, author of "Corrections: A Comprehensive View."
In Illinois, for example, prison leaders of Chicago-based "supergangs" such the Vice Lords and Gangster Disciples have exerted "great control over gallery and cell assignments through intimidation," according to a recent official review. Gangs dominate inmate organizations, and some gang members paint their cells with gang colors and insignia.
Gang leaders have enjoyed special privileges such as wearing expensive jewelry and personal clothing. They also have gained elevated status through private meetings with wardens, who have relied on the gang chiefs for intelligence. Such meetings have fostered "a sense of distrust" between guards and prison administrators, the review said.
Critics say such compromises by prison authorities tend to strengthen the power of gangs over members and, especially, non-gang members.
"The prison system made a determination that in an effort to keep the lid on things in a crowded system, they had to make some accommodations," says state Rep. Thomas Dart (D), chairman of a House panel looking at prisons. "Allowing a gang leader to wear his personal clothes ... escalated to the point where gang leaders could assign whole galleries of prisoners, [and] have access to phones and wardens," he says.
The most serious way in which gangs undermine prison security is through running illicit drug-smuggling and distribution networks, Representative Dart and other experts say. Big profits from prison drug sales give gangs cash they can then use to corrupt low-paid prison officers.
In a recent, striking example, Larry Hoover, the reputed leader of the Gangster Disciples (GD) gang, was recently convicted of running a large cocaine enterprise from a state prison. "[Hoover] operated one of the biggest drug enterprises in the country, more efficiently in the prison system than on the outside," Dart says.
During Mr. Hoover's trial, one Stateville prison guard testified how he and other guards earned from $500 to $1,000 a day smuggling drugs into the prison for gangs.
"Every gang had someone [a guard] working for them in the visiting room" where drugs were exchanged, the guard testified. "If I blew the whistle, my life would be in danger."
To curb the widespread influence of gangs, experts agree prisons must do a better job identifying and tracking gang members. In addition, they say prisons should impose stricter policies to divide gang members and eliminate special privileges.
Most important, some experts say, is to offer incentives such as well-paid and productive jobs, educational opportunities, and decent living conditions to discourage inmates from active participation in gangs.
Such incentives are especially needed in maximum-security prisons, where concentrations of gangs, gang crime, and violence are usually highest, Dr. Fleisher says. Yet he says many states rely instead on lock-downs - in which inmates are kept in their cells - and physical force to control maximum-security inmates. Illinois maximum-security prisons, for instance, have nearly doubled their lockdown time since 1991.
"If you had inmates who wanted to go to work ... you wouldn't be locking down the prison," says Fleisher.