Prison gangs seen as a source of friendship

The tendency for prisoners to support prison gangs is based on beliefs that gangs are supportive, well-ordered and protective, and consist of friends.

This is the finding of a study conducted by Professor Jane L. Ireland and Christina Power from the University of Central Lancashire and Ashworth Research Centre, Mersey Care NHS Trust. The findings are presented today (18 April) at the British Psychological Society Annual Conference held at the Grand Connaught Rooms, in London (18-20 April).

They suggest that gang membership may be sought out in prison as a source of support and friendship, although ultimately such membership does not appear to protect against victimisation.   

The researchers examined gang membership and disruptive and aggressive behaviour in 423 adult medium- and high-risk male prisoners, who came from three Canadian prisons. The researchers found that the tendency to support gangs and actually being a member of a gang was associated with aggression and other disruptive behaviours, a finding consistent with previous research in the area.

Contrary to what would be expected, it was found that gang members were more likely to be victims. It was also found that the tendency to support gangs was based on beliefs that gangs were supportive, well-ordered and protective, and comprised of friends. Surprisingly, economic advantage did not seem to play a role in the tendency to support gangs.           

Professor Ireland said: "This study goes beyond previous studies as it focuses on the tendency to support prison gangs as well as self-reported gang membership."  Professor Ireland emphasised the conclusions about gang membership and victimisation stating: "The findings suggest that gang membership may not protect against victimisation."

One possible explanation Professor Ireland suggests for this is that the engagement of a prisoner in aggression towards other prisoners may simply raise the risk for becoming a victim themselves. An alternative explanation is that victims become involved in prison gangs as a source of support which, as a consequence, leads to their involvement in being aggressive to others as part of an expectation of gang membership. 

Professor Ireland points out that recognition of gang members as victims has not been discussed in prisoner-related research and points to the need for further research to identify which explanation accounts for the relationship between gang membership and victimisation.