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

A teenage boy and a teenage girl stand in a graffiti-covered underpass. He shows her something on his phone.

The Dawes Unit was a specialist unit within Catch22 that addressed the harms caused by gangs and youth violence, bringing together research, policy and practice. The service produced a range of research, which addresses the problems caused by gangs and explores how best to prevent gang involvement and support those looking to exit. This publication is part of that output.

Recent years have seen an increase in policy focus on the issue of gangs in prison, and emerging research exploring the issue. Research exploring gangs in prison in a UK context is, relatively, in its infancy. But there is evidence to suggest that the more extensive US literature – which describes the presence of highly-structured, hierarchical gangs exercising substantial control over the prison regime – is unlikely to apply in the UK. The existing UK evidence base instead points to looser ‘collectives’ of prisoners formed dynamically in response to the conditions encountered in the prison environment. The evidence relating to the impact of these collectives in UK prisons has thus far been inconclusive. Whilst policy and practice to tackle gang involvement among prisoners has begun to be developed in the UK, there is limited available evidence relating to effective techniques and approaches. It is suggested that rehabilitative approaches may prove effective and there has been recognition among UK policy makers of the need to take a multi-pronged approach to the issue, with emphasis on intelligence-gathering, information sharing, enforcement and rehabilitation.

The overarching aim of this research project is to build upon the existing evidence relating to gangs in custody to support the further development of policy and practice in this area. Specifically, the research aims to explore:

  • the nature and impact of gang involvement among prisoners
  • how custodial establishments can reduce gang involvement among prisoners and respond to the negative consequences arising from gang involvement in custody.

The key findings in this study relate to the nature and strength of gang allegiances in prison; the impact of gangs in prison; and managing gangs in prison and encouraging gang exit.