In American society, “gangs” are considered one of the greatest evils to exist. Whether we are talking about drug-gangs, prison-gangs, or “neighborhood “street-gangs," there are many programs aimed at reducing the influence of gangs in the communities where gangs are most visible. In the United States today there are upwards of 33,000 street gangs [FBI]. Gang affiliation in prison qualifies the prisoner to be locked up 23 hours a day in a one-man cell. The gang-affiliated prisoner is so threatening to prison officials; any policy claiming to increase prison safety is promoted and implemented, regardless of the overall effect on the prisoner. This is cruel and inhumane punishment, yet it is practiced in prisons all across the country. Isolation, “cell-extraction,” increasing sentences through the use of “Prison Courts,” are but a few of the tools used by the private prison system to “keep a lid” on the prison, and guarantee the safety of correctional staff and inmates [Rudolf].
Yet at what price to the American notion of individual liberty? Many of those in jail wait months and sometimes years, to work their way through the court system .One of the first statements the accused felon makes is to “waive his right to a speedy trial.” The majority of inmates use public offenders and “plead” guilty in agreements with the DA’s office that guarantees sentence recommendations to the judge. These sentences can be viewed as extremely harsh, or extremely lenient depending on one’s position regarding drugs in the United States. Mandatory sentencing, Three-strike laws, the parole system, all serve to fill America’s prisons to full capacity. These prisoners are overwhelmingly drug-offenders. Either drugs were the focus of their crime, or their crime was related to the drug culture.
Gangs are nothing new in the United States. They existed in old Europe as far back as the 17th. Century and those established gangs immigrated to America with the people. Of course if one was to consider how far back the existence of gangs actually goes, then gangs can be considered as old as civilization itself. Using present-day definitions of what constitutes a gang, we could almost call pre-civilization, hunter-gatherer groups: "gangs." For America, the ancestor to today’s gangs began in New York and flourished in post-revolutionary times [Howel].
Gangs have members from every age group. Most members join the gang when they are adolescent. This has been true of gang membership throughout the centuries. Gangs recruit its members when they are young, and those members develop the same kind of loyalty to their gang as other children have for their own families. For many youth, the street gang is their family. For these children joining the gang puts one on the fast-track to prison. Gangs cross the divide between prison and communities. A street gang can have all its leaders incarcerated and still function as a criminal enterprise. With smuggled cell phones, gang-affiliated inmates are able to relay the orders of the leadership to the members without any problem. In California alone in 2008, over 1300 cell phones were confiscated [National]. Cell phones in prison can be a real danger to society. When people who have already used threats and extortion against others have uncontrolled access to the outside world, things like ordering assassinations, or directing the criminal activities of a gang are accomplished with little or no problem.
In America today the threat of street gangs is very real. Law enforcement lists gangs as one of the major problems facing low-income communities. While the reality of gangs is viewed as a problem, the fantasy of gangs means big money for entertainment companies. Big budget Hollywood movies bring in millions to the studios that produce them. Movie studios have found that violence sells. In fact, violence outsells sex and nudity [Dolan]. The entertainment industry has used violence to sell movies for decades. Going back to the 1930’s when “Gangland” style movies made famous by James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart; became popular and the studios could count on profits from films that portrayed the gangster as the central figure in the films. Not all portrayals were negative. Sometimes the gangster was portrayed as a victim of society, rather than a deviant within the society. The same is true today. In film and television, gangsters are prevalent. Every year the major studios release movies aimed at African-American communities that include portrayals of gangs and others who use violence as a method of income. Many of the “Hip-Hop” artists that are promoted by established entertainment companies have come up from the “Gangster” lifestyle. Rather than that being seen as a detriment to the artist’s career, it is seen as benefit.
Nowhere in the United States are gangs more visible than in South Central Los Angeles, California. In cities such as Bell, Paramount, Inglewood, El Segundo and Long Beach, street gangs have taken over the towns. According to police, “The County and City of Los Angeles is the ‘gang capital’ of the nation. There are more than 450 active gangs in the City of Los Angeles. Many of these gangs have been in existence for over 50 years. These gangs have a combined membership of over 45,000 individuals [LAPD].”
These varied facts about gangs in the US can only give us a small glimpse of the problem. However, it is important for the average American to be aware of the gang situation. This author feels that the one action that could completely disempower gangs and other criminal enterprises is the complete decriminalization of drugs. Drugs are the number one source of income for gangs. Illegal drugs are the number one cause of gang violence. It may be hard to imagine drugs being legal, but if we want to stop the violence associated with drugs, if we want to decrease the prison population; then we have to treat drugs as a medical issue and take law enforcement out of the equation.
Dolan, Eric W. "Study Finds Violence In Movies Likely To Increase Profits, While Sex or Nudity Likely to Decrease Profits." PSYPOST. UK2 GROUP LTD, 15 Jan. 2010. Web. 3 Dec. 2012.
FBI. "Gangs - They poison our streets with drugs, violence, and all manner of crime." The FBI - Federal Bureau of Investigation. U.S. Dept. of Justice, 1 Nov. 2012. Web. 1 Dec. 2012.
33,000 violent street gangs, motorcycle gangs, and prison gangs with about 1.4
million members are criminally active in the U.S. today. Many are sophisticated
and well organized; all use violence to control neighborhoods and boost their
illegal money-making activities, which include robbery, drug and gun
trafficking, fraud, extortion, and prostitution rings. We’re redoubling our
efforts to disrupt and dismantle gangs through intelligence-driven
investigations and new initiatives and partnerships.
Howel, James C., and John P. Moore. "History of Street Gangs In The United States." National Gang Center. Bureau of Justice Assistance/ US Dept. of Justice/Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, May 2010. Web. 1 Dec. 2012.
LAPD. "Gangs." Los Angeles Police Department Online. Los Angeles Police Department, 3 Dec. 2012. Web. 3 Dec. 2012.
National Institute of Justice. US Dept. Of Justice, 1 Aug. 2011. Web. 2 Dec. 2012.
Rudolf, John. "California Prisoners Join Hunger Strike To Protest Solitary Conditions." The Huffington Post [New York] 9 July 2011: n. pag. Web. 1 Dec. 2012.
. "The hunger
strike is not a protest against overcrowding, however, but against the
treatment of offenders who are segregated from the general population due to
gang affiliations or crimes committed in prison."