My department, like departments and agencies around the country, struggles when it comes to dealing with the dangers and management problems presented by security threat groups (STG's). STG's are disruptive and are among the most difficult populations to manage. In my department, STG members are twice as likely to violate institutional rules as non-STG offenders. There's no question that they are a headache.
Part of the headache is coming up with strategies for management. Some larger departments have opted for segregating STG members indefinitely. Other departments offer treatment programs with varying degrees of success.
Still others, typically smaller departments and agencies, do what they can in terms of information gathering and discipline, but the bulk of their management is taking a hope-for-the-best attitude because they lack the funds and physical plants to do more than that.
I have heard rumbling though, from around the country. I've heard stories of administrators and department heads who espouse, perhaps, the single worst idea when it comes to managing STG populations: Let's sit down and deal with their leadership.
If the very idea of sitting down at a table with gang leaders to ask for their help isn't enough to make you at least a little uneasy, the obvious reasons why this is a bad idea should.
Going to gang leaders and asking them to help reign in their people makes the undeniable statement that our management philosophy has failed. It tells those inmate leaders that the plans we implemented and the structures we put in place to prevent the gangs and their members from adversely affecting the safety, security, and tranquility of the facility did not work. If they had worked, then we would not be resorting to coming to the gang leadership, hat-in-hand to ask for their help. They know it, and we should know it.
Such a tactic reveals a weakness. Not only are we telling them our plan failed, we're telling them that we lack the creativity and understanding to come up with "Plan B." Asking for their help tells them we put all our proverbial eggs into one basket, and when that didn't work we had nothing in reserve. Revealing this to the offender population puts us at more of a disadvantage. They can't help but ask, "If they planned this poorly for managing the population, what else have they planned poorly for?"
The greatest threat in this plan, however, comes in the form of relinquishing control to offenders. The STG leaders already maintain control over their own membership. There's little we can do to change that. By inviting them to the table to ask for their help in managing the population, we offer them the ability to control numbers outside their own membership numbers. Hell, we're sanctioning it.
We have a legal, and even a moral obligation to protect our non-STG offenders from being victimized by the gangs that operate inside our perimeters. With few exceptions, the bulk of our populations are not affiliated with security threat groups. We should all be aware of how gangs maintain order within their ranks. We teach that it is one of the negative aspects of membership. It's violence. If the leadership uses violence to keep its membership on like, why would we believe that they would not do the same to keep non-members in line?
Even if all we’re asking is that they keep their respective groups in line, we are sanctioning the victimization of our offender population.
Large institutions and small facilities alike face one similar realization every day; we are outnumbered. It is a daily struggle, especially in light of budget crunches and staffing shortfalls, to maintain control of our institutions.
Part of the reason we are able to do so is that our populations believe we will do what is right to protect them. In order to protect our staff, our populations, and even the communities around our facilities it is absolutely imperative that we maintain control. We cannot effectively do that when we sit down with STG leaders and give that control over to them.
We are the ones the good men and women of our respective cities, counties and states have entrusted with managing our facilities. To consider utilizing STG leaders to help us do that violates that trust, and only serves to make our jobs more difficult, and our institutions more dangerous.
About the author
Christopher L. Jones is a Correctional Officer and Security Threat Group Intelligence Officer with the Iowa Department of Corrections, working at the maximum security Iowa State Penitentiary, the oldest operational penitentiary west of the Mississippi. He has been with the department for just short of 8 years and has worked with all levels of custody within the IDOC, including 5 years in the Clinical Care Unit, a 200 plus bed unit special needs unit located on the ISP campus. In addition to his work at ISP, Chris also teaches Security Threat Groups for the IDOC at their Pre-Service Academy.