Novel attempt to curb prison gang violence

Arizona sends prison gang leaders out of state to isolate them. But will it work?

Inmates who try to run a gang in Arizona's prisons are getting themselves run out of state.

In a novel experiment, the state Department of Corrections is shipping prison gang leaders to other facilities across the country where they'll find themselves in the racial minority.

The aim: to curb one of America's most persistent causes of violence behind bars.

Transferring gang leaders "makes it very, very difficult - because of time and distance - for them to effectively become involved in any command and control of organized gang activities in our prison system," says Arizona Department of Corrections director Terry Stewart.

Gang violence remains one of the most stubborn problems for corrections officials at all levels, and if it proves successful, Arizona's nascent program could end up being duplicated by other states across the country.

Prisons began to bulge with gang members when states enacted tougher laws for gang-related crimes in the mid to late 1980s. But getting them off the street did not necessarily curtail their activities and, in many ways, their numbers - and power - grew inside prisons. Many inmates who hadn't previously been exposed to gangs were recruited and, after serving their sentence, allied with the gang outside prison walls.

Today, officials say, prison gangs are more prevalent and visible than ever. While gang problems exist at every level - federal, state, and county - they tend to be less severe at the federal level because of the government's willingness to move prisoners from one location to another more freely.

Moving prisoners more freely is what Arizona hopes to achieve.

The idea seems to be unique to Arizona, says James Turpin, legislative liaison for the American Correctional Association. But he wouldn't be surprised if other prisons are trading hard-to-manage inmates and getting rid of gang leaders in the process.

Old laws, new solutions

Booting prisoners across state lines is a twist on a law that was created, in part, to make life easier for inmates. Under the 1934 Crime Control Consent Act, states were authorized to form interstate compacts so they could send inmates to their home states to be closer to their families. Now the law is serving a duel purpose.

Arizona is considered to have one of the worst prison-gang problems in the nation, comprising mostly Hispanic and white supremacist gangs such as the Aryan Brotherhood, Border Brothers, and Mexican Mafia.

The severity of this problem was manifest last year in the alleged assassination plot of Mr. Stewart by members of the New Mexican Mafia, says Mr. Turpin. The murder never took place and the case against the three gang members was later thrown out after the star witness refused to testify. But the case highlighted an already-sensitive issue in Arizona prisons, and caused officials to consider new solutions.

Since 1997, Arizona inmates identified as gang members have been given the option of renouncing their membership and becoming informants or moving to 23-hour lockdown. Arizona uses informants - correctional employees as well as inmates - to determine which prisoners pose the biggest threats and which should be shipped out of state.

To ensure that the inmates aren't a problem in their new locations, the department picks states where they'd be hard-pressed to form new alliances. That means a white supremacist would likely end up in prison system where the majority of inmates were black or Hispanic.

That strategy dumfounds civil libertarians who believe putting white supremacists with minorities will only exacerbate tensions in the new location. They also are troubled by the role race plays in the selection process.

"The fact that they're using race as a basis [for picking the new prison] needs further examination," says Kara Gotsch, with the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona.

One gang expert doubts whether the program will actually cut down on criminal activity.

Those who are moved "get to a new institution that has little or no gang members," and then form a new gang, says Robert Walker, founder of Gangs OR Us, an Internet consulting firm.

A white supremacist will have even more incentive to cause trouble in a place where he feels he needs protection, says Mr. Walker, who ran the anti-gang program for South Carolina's Department of Corrections.

Regenerating problem?

Other critics believe that once the leaders are removed, new leaders will crop up to replace the ousted ones. "Gangs will only regenerate if they lose a leader. There's always someone waiting in the wings," says Donna Hamm, head of Middle Ground, an Arizona prisoners advocacy group. She calls the program a "red herring. It has absolutely no impact on the gang problem."

But Stewart defends the program. "I noticed a difference after I sent out the first one. I had [gang members] standing in line saying, 'I don't want to go out of state. Let me tell you what I know.' "

His wardens report that their yards are easier to manage now that the first five ringleaders have been relocated. As for creating a new breed of gang leaders, he adds, they will be inexperienced and easier to deal with. "It is an unfortunate fact that someone will step up to take their place," he says. "It's a continuing fight."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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