Jun 17, 2010 | Publications

The Geneva-based Small Arms Survey’s 2010 Yearbook focuses on a variety of issues relating to gangs and armed groups. One of the report’s findings with direct relevance to SSR is what the author calls “the danger of dungeons” (also the title of the report’s sixth chapter).

The chapter’s principal author, Benjamin Lessing, uses case studies from prison gangs in the US, Brazil, South Africa, and Latin America to demonstrate that corrections policies towards gangs often have broader public security consequences.  Likewise, law enforcement policies aimed at incarcerating gang members may actually strengthen gangs.

In many of the case studies, gang leaders were able to use their position in prison to project power outside of the facility’s walls, sometimes coming to dominate the outside drug trade. In Brazil, the Comando Vermelho (CV)—originally a prison gang—has dominated the drug trade in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas since the early 1980s. It is “precisely this ability to project power that transforms prison gangs from a ‘corrections’ problem into a threat to public security in general.”

The chapter highlights the dangers of segregating prisoners by gang affiliation. Due to violent confrontations between rival gangs, segregation has been used in Latin America, Brazil and around the world. In most cases, segregation does have short-term security benefits, but at the same time it “[gives] imprisoned gang leaders control over inmate life, effectively turning prisons into gang recruiting and training centres.”

Policing and prosecution strategies designed to weaken prison gangs—especially hard-line or mano dura approaches—“have unintended, hidden, or long-term consequences that end up helping gangs thrive.” The author illustrates how many seemingly straight-forward law enforcement strategies are actually double-edged swords. Increased incarceration “can inadvertently strengthen prison gangs,” because though it may have a deterrent effect on some criminals, it may also perpetuate a gang culture where incarceration is expected or even welcomed. It also augments the prison gang’s coercive ability over members on the outside, through the threat of re-incarceration.

It is clear from the chapter that “from a public security perspective, putting criminal actors in jail is in many ways the beginning, not the end, of the problem.”