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Tackling Prison Gangs: A Priority for 2012?

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The deaths of 31 inmates in Mexico’s Altamira prison this week once again illustrate the horrors of gang related violence in the country’s jails.  The bloodbath reportedly erupted after members of one drug gang invaded a section of the prison dominated by another. Earlier in the week two prisoners were killed in Costa Rica’s largest prison apparently as a result of gangs on the outside settling their scores on the inside.

The presence and activities of organised gangs is one of the most challenging problems facing prison administrators not just in Latin America but in many jurisdictions around the world.  Over the last year, prison systems as far apart as India and Canada, South Africa and the Philippines, Australia and Denmark have sought to introduce measures to cope with gang problems.

Gangs in prisons are not only   responsible for acts of lethal violence against prisoners and staff, but for corrupting the way many prisons are run and orchestrating serious criminal activities beyond the prison walls.  Without effective measures to respond to gangs, prisons are unable to provide safety, security, control or justice. In many countries, the wholly inadequate staffing levels mean prisoners have little choice but to join a gang in order to obtain some measure of protection.

The extent and nature of gang problems in prisons of course reflect and often exacerbate what is happening in wider society, where at worst gangs can exercise greater control and demand stronger allegiance than the forces of the state. The roots of gang activity may lie in drug trafficking, in extreme political or religious views or in ethnic background.

The answers to the broader problems of gangs lie well away from prisons. A non criminal approach to drugs as recommended last year by the Global Commission on Drug Policy (which included former U.N. chief Kofi Annan and past presidents of Mexico, Brazil and Colombia) would make perhaps the biggest difference. Social, education and economic policies which offer decent prospects for young people and minimise exclusion are likely to provide   the best way to stem the recruitment of gang members.

But in many countries, the answers are seen in increasing enforcement. From next week, in the UK courts will be able to impose gang injunctions against 14- to 17-year banning them from associating with friends or wearing certain colours. A breach of the ban could lead to a custodial sentence. Proposals to extend the length of prison sentences for offenders who are gang members are also being considered. Such approaches could make gangs a bigger problem in UK prisons than they already are.

There is in any event a special duty on prison administrators the world over to try to develop solutions to the gang problems which are manifested in places of detention.  They have a duty to protect all prisoners, to uphold the rule of law and contribute to the reduction of crime.  But although gang problems exist to a greater or lesser extent in all parts of the world, there is currently a limited exchange of perspectives among those working in justice systems to deal with them. Although there is some sharing  of  experience   among police forces, those working in prisons and corrections have less opportunity to reflect on their practice with peers from other systems and to  learn about differing approaches.

Among the very practical issues that face prisons are these: whether gang members should be accommodated apart or together? What efforts should be made to encourage prisoners to shed their gang affiliations? How can staff be protected from threats or inducements which are made by gang members? How can gang violence be reduced in prisons? What work should prisons do with agencies in the community to help to resolve the problem?

There are no easy answers and approaches based simply on repression or military force – seen most starkly in the invasion of Pavon prison in Guatemala in 2006 – can inflame rather than resolve the problem.

There is a strong case for questions about the best ways of addressing gang related activities in prisons to be raised.  In 2012 Justice and Prisons plans an international forum for the exchange of lessons and good practice in limiting the growth of, and damage caused by, gangs in prison.

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