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Gangs in prison: The nature and impact of gang involvement among prisoners

Catch22’s Dawes Unit took advantage of its links with HMP Thameside, where Catch22 deliver a gangs service, to explore gang association in custody. This report is launched today, 19 November, along with an article in Guardian Society.

19 November 2014

Not until recently have researchers and policy makers started to ask questions about the nature and impact of gangs in UK prisons. The dearth of research in the UK exploring this issue has made effective policy and practice difficult to develop and this report was intended to build the evidence base.

The research was carried out in HMP Thameside, a London-based prison where Catch22 have an embedded gangs service. We used in-depth interviews with gang-involved prisoners and prison staff to understand how these prisoners make associations in custody, and the impact this has on the prison regime.

Our findings show no evidence that gang-involved prisoners are simply re-creating gangs within the prison. However, there is a loose territoriality in the way many of these prisoners build relationships and allegiances in prison. We found that more entrenched prisoners tend to be far more hostile and territorial; forming alliances with one another in opposition to those they deem ‘enemies’ from ‘rival areas’. This can create conflict in the prison environment, with competition for status, respect and reputation. Gang-related conflict readily escalates, as increasing numbers of prisoners become involved to show ‘loyalty’ for one another.

However, we discovered clear ‘teachable moments’ in prison; those moments where prisoners may be questioning their gang involvement and may be ready to leave the gang. These moments were particularly strong among prisoners struggling to maintain relationships with fellow gang members, leading them to question the value of these relationships and their involvement with the gang.

The research identified several points at which prisons can intervene to address gang involvement among prisoners and reduce the negative impacts of gangs on the prison environment. It showed that prisons have a clear role to play in the rehabilitation of gang-involved prisoners to encourage gang exit upon release back into the community.

Key components of the prison gangs service

Key components of prison gang service

We presented the report at an event including prison governors, senior prison staff, police officers and policy makers. Speakers Jeanne Bryant, Deputy Director at HMP Thameside, and Nick Pascoe Deputy Director Custody (Greater London) NOMS both agreed that prison presented key ‘teachable moments’ for working with prisoners.

These findings and the work of the HMP Thameside gangs project have allowed us to create the ‘Catch22 approach to managing and addressing gang involvement in prison’, a specific model for prisons working with gang-involved prisoners. This approach is already having a positive impact in HMP Thameside with levels of violence more than halving after the service was implemented.

If you would like more information or are interested in working with Catch22 in prisons, please contact