Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Criminal Justice


David C. Brotherton

Subject Categories

Criminology | Criminology and Criminal Justice


Gangs; Prison Gangs; Prisons; Street Gangs


One misconception in gang research is the assumption that the terms prison gang and street gang are organizationally and ideologically synonymous. Although in the minority, some researchers suggest that prison gangs are qualitatively and quantitatively different from other gangs (Fleisher & Decker, 2001). Utilizing 30 in-depth semi-structured interviews, this study assesses the effect of environment on the emergence, organization, and ideologies of prison and street gangs. The findings identify key differences between the 'free' society where gangs emerge and the captive societies where prison gangs emerge. The primary difference was the level of formal and informal control exerted over individuals within each environment.

This analysis presents a comparative model of prison and street gangs. The model illustrates similarities and differences across major aspects of each type of organization, including membership, leadership, ideology, conflict management, and relationships with authority figures. Gang membership and leadership structures in prison are rigid and not susceptible to the changes common amongst street gangs. Both prison and street gangs can be explained using a critical subcultural theory that focuses on their need for survival, a key component of their ideologies. However, the emergence of prison gangs is greatly affected by the need for extralegal governance that arose from the weakening of formal governance structures.

Environments also affect how gangs manage conflict. Violence and crime in the street gang is chaotic while prison gang violence and crime is controlled by gang leaders due to a mutual need for violence reduction within correctional facilities. Lastly, while street gangs experience an antagonistic relationship with law enforcement as a result of formal policies such as stop and frisk and informal policies such as harassment of identified gang members, prison gangs have a complicated relationship with correctional staff that is determined by the type of correctional officer present in a facility. Respondents identified a typology of correctional officers that illustrates this complicated relationship.

The findings from this study are used to develop a new definition of the term 'gang' derived from the gang member narratives. Policy suggestions and directions for future research are discussed.