Prison Gang and Drug Investigations: An Ohio Approach

By Wilkinson, Reginald A.; Delgado, Anthony | Corrections Today, April 2006 | Go to article overview

Prison Gang and Drug Investigations: An Ohio Approach


Wilkinson, Reginald A., Delgado, Anthony, Corrections Today


Prisons are caught between two worlds. In theory, prisons are a world of their own, where individuals who cannot function in society are sent. The fence, figuratively and literally, is the dividing line that keeps these worlds separate in order to create a structured environment where detainees are able to accomplish the ultimate goal of rehabilitation. However, the reality is that the outside world is constantly influencing the environment inside the fence. As a result, correctional systems struggle to find a balance while accomplishing their mission of facilitating rehabilitation and protecting society.

One of the biggest challenges for prison staff is maintaining control of gangs. They are constantly attempting to manage what they can through a variety of techniques. The problem with identifying a gang is that correctional staff are often restrained by their own very definition of what constitutes a so-called "gang." The main elements in most gang definitions include: gang name, bylaws, common association and criminal activity. Within the prison setting, gangs are even more dynamic. Inmates are commonly joined together by factors such as city loyalty, race or even on which side of the prison they reside. Networks are also formed through what inmates have to offer other inmates. The common element between traditional and loosely formed gangs is illegal activity.

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Illegal activity often requires a certain level of organization and assistance from the outside world. Staff continually struggle to regulate the many forms of contraband entering the facility. Drugs are one of the more lucrative items smuggled into the prison. The introduction of drugs into a prison can be as simple as a family member or friend bringing them in on a visit or through an authorized package. On the other hand, it can be a sophisticated network of people conveying and supplying the product, with a distribution group of individuals responsible for selling and collecting payment. In either case, a certain level of organization must exist on both sides of the fence.

Drugs are just one example of items smuggled into prisons. Illegal items can include a vast array of contraband. Every item smuggled in, one way or another, brings in negative elements of the outside world and compromises security. Each time someone is able to bring in a form of contraband undetected, deficiencies are highlighted. Every time a staff member brings contraband in or out, no matter how small, the division between staff and inmates diminishes. Further complicating the issue of contraband is the constant flow of inmates in and out of prison.

Each activity the gang participates in brings it closer to its ultimate goal of economic control. As is the case with their street counterparts, prison gangs strive to control the prison economy. As gangs get more organized and their membership increases, they tend to participate in more illegal activity and control a larger portion of the prison population.

ODRC Overview

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) manages an inmate population of more than 45,000. Within this population, there are more than 6,400 identified security threat group (STG) members, representing 14 percent of the total inmate population. The average annual increase for the past three years for identified STG members is less than 1 percent. High-security prisons average between 18 percent and 23 percent of identified STG members. Maximum-security prisons in Ohio average between 20 percent and 34 percent. These percentages indicate two things about STG members: they are more likely to have committed violent crimes and received a longer sentence, thus resulting in higher security during initial placement; and while incarcerated, they are more likely to engage in illegal activities leading to security-level increases.

In Ohio, the average prison stay for an offender is 2.

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