Several different people “in the know” have told me that Texas prisons were much more dangerous in the 1980’s and most of the 1990’s than they are these days. Of course, that’s not to say today’s Texas state prisons are the model of safe and humane incarceration. However, the Texas prison of 1990 is quite a stark contrast to the prison of 2015. Back then, the prisoners ran the prisons, and prison gangs were often at the heart of the struggle for power and control within the ranks of the prison population at nearly all of the TDC (Now TDCJ) units.
A very high percentage of young inmates in the 1980’s and early 1990’s joined gangs. Many joined more out of necessity than anything else. Being in a gang meant protection first and foremost, but it also came with a sense of acceptance and belonging. The prison gang often replaced the “family” some inmates never had, and in other cases, the gang replaced the family that had become completely estranged from the inmate. Inmates who joined any of the major gangs pledged a lifetime loyalty that was seen as inviolate. In other words, one simply does not leave the gang…ever.
In the late 80’s and early 1990’s, mostly in response to the blistering critiques of Federal Judges and experts on prisons, (see for example Ruiz v. Estelle, 503 F. Supp. 1265 (S.D. Tex. 1980 ) TDC began cleaning up the mess, and the state slowly began taking back some control. The proactive practice of housing gang members in administrative segregation (Ad Seg) proved to be a very effective long term deterrent. The practice of separating and isolating gang members continues through today, and it is widely believed that this single change has dramatically curtailed offender on offender violence throughout TDCJ. Less violence translates to less need to feel as if one needs protection, thus less motivation to join a gang. Moreover, the prospect of spending the remainder of one’s time in Ad Seg also makes gang recruiting efforts far more difficult.
In my years of going to prisons and interviewing prisoners, I have met and represented both current and former gang members before the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. Aside from a general observation that Ad Seg is a terribly inhumane and psychologically damaging way to force anyone to spend long periods of time incarcerated, one thing is unequivocally clear to me; being an active member of a prison gang at the time of a parole review has an enormously detrimental effect on one’s chances of making parole. Stated another way; being a confirmed gang member makes parole far less likely.
Fortunately, there is a path available for inmates who are members of recognized gangs, also known as Security Threat Groups. It’s called GRAD, which is an acronym that stands for Gang Renouncement And Disassociation. The only way “out” for those assigned to administrative segregation solely because of their gang association is to voluntarily renounce their membership with TDCJ officials and then begin the GRAD program. GRAD is more appropriately called a life changing process, rather than a “program”. It takes nearly a year to complete the formal program, and the wait to begin in a GRAD class is approximately two years. So, it’s a three year or more journey to finally become a “former” gang member. Any suspected gang activity by the offender during those three years results in immediate removal from GRAD. However, for gang members who are sincere in their desire to begin a new life and break free of the gang lifestyle, this program is out there waiting for them.
The GRAD program, once it has formally begun, consists of three phases that last a total of nine months. After two months of in-cell tutoring, participants are moved to less restrictive housing and exposed to a classroom curriculum that includes life skills and cognitive intervention training, GED preparation and classes in anger management.
TDCJ has thousands of confirmed prison gang members out of a total population of over 150,000. Some estimate that gang affiliation exists for as much as 10% of the prison population. There is always an ongoing effort by prison officials to identify gang members and remove them from the general offender population, in large part because up to 40,000 people are sent into TDCJ by the court system each year, and many of those people have never been in the prison system, so there is no prior intelligence on that person’s possible gang activities. Consequently, the prisons have Gang Intelligence Officers who are always keeping their ears and eyes open in order to confirm as many gang members as possible. TDCJ makes these gang identification efforts a very high priority.
Gang members belong to rigidly structured organizations such as the Texas Syndicate, Aryan Brotherhood and the Mexican Mafia. It seems one’s racial and ethnic background are the starting point for determining what group, if any, a person may have joined. These groups are reputed to be involved in organized criminal activities, both inside and outside of prison. GRAD is the only path out of Ad Seg besides parole or completely discharging one’s sentence. Interestingly, TDCJ does not presently identify any African American gang as a security threat group. Thus, members of the “Crips” or the “Bloods” are not isolated from general population like members of hispanic and white gangs. I’m not really sure why, but I would be curious to find out the answer.
Upon graduation, GRAD offenders are typically moved to a new prison and returned to the general prison population. This is not without risk. Former gang members have told me on more than one occasion that going through GRAD makes them a target of retaliation at the hands any current gang member from their former gang that TDCJ has failed to properly identify and isolate. Therefore, all graduates of GRAD have even more incentive to make parole than inmates who have never been in a gang.
Prison gangs remain a problem for the Texas prisons, as well as the penal institutions of other states and the federal system. However, TDCJ has made the control of gangs and gang violence a high priority for over two decades now, and these efforts have undoubtedly resulted in safer prisons.
As a parole attorney, I can unequivocally attest that sincere participation in GRAD is seen as a positive sign by Parole Board Members and Parole Commisssioners, although it is a mistake to assume that GRAD participation alone will be the determining factor for the parole decision. It is, however, more accurate to say that active gang participation may well be the single biggest impediment to gaining a favorable parole decsion.