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The History of Prison Gangs

Neffertia Tyner, Janell Blanco
  • Author
    Neffertia Tyner

    Neffertia received her B.S. in Psychology with a minor in Diversity Studies from Michigan Technological University and her M.S. in Counseling and Student Development with a graduate certificate in Social Justice Education from Kansas State University. Neffertia has 5 years of experience tutoring middle school to college-aged students in reading and essay writing, working as a writing coach, and instructing student success courses.

  • Instructor
    Janell Blanco

    Janell has an MBA, a Master's in Education, and a BS in Public Safety Management.

Prison gangs have been a fact of life in the penal system for a long time. Explore the types of gangs, including their history and how they are formed. Updated: 02/02/2022

What Are Prison Gangs?

Prison gangs are defined as criminal organizations that have originated and are operated from the penal system. Even though prison gangs mainly operate in correctional facilities, they can continue their operations outside of the penal system. The general structure of a prison gang consists of a select group of inmates and is governed by a shared code of conduct. These gangs are typically organized across racial or ethnic lines and are said to be more powerful within state correctional facilities than federal prisons. According to the United States Department of Justice, prison gangs play an important role in the transportation and distribution of narcotics for drug trafficking organizations.

Prison Gangs: Historical Background

Developing in the 70s and early 80s, prison gangs have become one of the largest criminal organizations in the country. Prison gangs have spread across the country over the years through transfers and rearrests made in other jurisdictions. It is speculated that if an inmate is transferred or rearrested and sent to a facility where their former organization exists, the inmate will try to recreate the organization and structure that gave them their identity while they are incarcerated. The FBI has stated that there are about 33,000 active violent gangs operating in the U.S. today. This number includes street gangs, motorcycle gangs, and prison gangs. Due to the ongoing racism and racial tension in many correction facilities, prison gangs normally have strong racial or ethnic connections among their members. In the 1985 report from the U.S. Department of Justice, prison gangs at the time had the highest presence in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and California.

Types of Prison Gangs

Prison gangs are defined as criminal organizations that are formed in the penal system and operate within the prison facilities of the United States. Each gang has established symbols and ways members indicate they belong to that gang. These prison gangs were established at various prisons during different decades, and gangs are still present in the prison systems today.

Let's look at some prison gang statistics before we move along.

  • 230,000 incarcerated individuals belong to a prison gang.
  • There are approximately 52 active gangs in the prison system, including the six nationally-recognized gangs.
  • Each of the 50 states have prison gangs.
  • California and Texas having the highest number of individuals involved in prison gangs.
  • In 1996, prison gang violence increased by 400%.

Let's now take a closer look at the six recognized prison gangs in the United States penal system.

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Prison Gangs Names: Types of Gangs

The National Gang Intelligence Center (NGIC) has reported that gang membership has been on the rise due to an increase in drug trafficking opportunities, collaborations between different gangs, and aggressive recruiting tactics. The 33,000 active gangs in the U.S. can be separated into four types of gangs.

  1. Street Gangs: Street gangs pose the greatest threat in drug trafficking-related instances. They are known for the production, distribution, and transportation of narcotics such as cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines. The most notorious street gangs are Bloods, Crips, and MS-13. Street gangs can be locally and nationally recognized.
  2. Prison Gangs: Prison gangs generally have fewer members than street gangs and can be extensions of active street gangs. These gangs have also been known to play a large role in drug trafficking. Well-known prison gangs are the Aryan Brotherhood, Nuestra Familia, and the Black Guerilla Family.
  3. Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs: Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, or OMGs, typically pose a lower threat than street and prison gangs. Their main operations include drug trafficking, weapons trafficking, and violent crime. Popular OMGs are Mongols, Outlaws, and Pagans.
  4. Organized Crime Gangs: Organized crime gangs operate on a much larger scale than the average drug trafficking organization. These groups are known to be involved in business enterprises and government offices. A few organized crime gangs include the Italian, Jewish, and Russian Mafias.

Black Prison Gangs


Black prison gang, the Gangster Disciples logo

Black prison gang, the Gangster Disciples logo


  • Black Guerilla Family: The BGF gang was founded in 1966 by Geroge Jackson and W. L. Nolen in the San Quentin State Prison in California. The group was founded with the purpose of addressing racism within the prison at the time. The BGF made its entrance into violent crime after the attempted murder of lawyer Fay Stender in 1979. Over the years, the group has tried to rebrand itself as an organization looking to achieve prison equality and the reduction of prison-related violence. The Black Book was then created and used to promote a more positive outlook on life and include self-help material for prisoners. The BGF is known to be allied with the Bloods, Crips, and Nuestra Familia. Their rivals include the American Mafia, La eMe, and the Serbian Mafia.
  • United Blood Nation: The United Blood Nation was founded by Omar Portee, also known as O.G. Mack, in 1987. After Portee's arrest in 1993 for attempted murder, he was sent to the Geroge Mochan Detention Center, which was dominated by Latino gang members. The detention center was said to be a dangerous place for Black and African American prisoners. Portee's idea was to combine the independent Black and African American gangs into one new set of the Bloods. With majority approval, the United Blood Nation was created. The gang is known to be actively involved in drug trafficking, armed robbery, and prostitution rings. Allies of the gang are the Bloods, Nine Trey Gangsters, and One Eight Trey. Known rivals are MS-13 and the Latin Kings.
  • Folk Nation: Founded by Larry Hoover in 1974 in an effort to strengthen the Black community in southern Chicago, the group lent aid, support, and protection to struggling organizations. The Folk Nation's main rivals are People Nation; and both groups have been known to fight for control over the city of Chicago. While not as strong as it used to be in earlier years due to affiliated gangs dropping out of the alliance, Folk Nation is still prominent in drug trafficking, homicide, theft, burglary, and extortion.
  • People Nation: Created in 1978 to counter the actions of Larry Hoover and the Folk Nation, the People Nation was founded by the Black P. Stones, Latin Kings, and Vice Lords. People Nation started in prison and eventually expanded to the streets of Chicago, which caused the initial clash with Folk Nation. Throughout the 1990s, many affiliated gangs broke away from the People Nation alliance to become neutral parties or form new alliances. The organization is still pretty large, with more than 150,000 active members. Their known criminal activities include racketeering, battery, assault, drug and firearms trafficking, and prostitution.

Mexican Prison Gangs


An example of a Mexican Mafia prison gang tattoo

An example of a Mexican Mafia prison gang tattoo


The Six Recognized Prison Gangs

Nationally, there are six major prison gangs that are recognized. The six gangs are the Aryan Brotherhood, Black Guerilla Family (BGF), La Nuestra Familia (NF), Mexican Mafia (EME), Neta, and Texas Syndicate (TS).

1. Aryan Brotherhood

The Aryan Brotherhood started in the San Quentin prison in California in 1967. The gang is made up of white males. Initiation into the group comes from other members, and members are required to make a life-long commitment.

From 1975 to 1985, there were 40 homicides in California prisons and jails committed by AB members. AB members, suspects, and associates in the federal prisons were responsible for 26 homicides. Three of the victims from 1978 to 1992 were staff members. Along with the violent attacks on other inmates and prison staff, AB members are known to distribute contraband, such as drugs and cell phones, throughout the prison system.

The Aryan Brotherhood gang is symbolized by any of the following symbols:

  • Cloverleaf
  • Initials ''AB''
  • Double lightning bolts, referencing the murderous Schutzstaffel organization (or SS) in Nazi Germany
  • The numbers ''666''

Aryan Brotherhood members use any combination of the previous symbols along with the state name in the tattoo to symbolize belonging to the gang. An example of an Aryan Brotherhood tattoo is pictured, which incorporates the swastika, the ''AB'' initials, and the state name of Texas.

Aryan Brotherhood

2. Black Guerilla Family

BGF was founded in San Quentin in 1966 by George Jackson, who was a former Black Panther. The BGF gang members are symbolized by the initial ''BGF'' or a dragon overtaking a prison or a prison tower.

The BGF gang members are black males, and they recruit street gang members when they become incarcerated. In order to be a member of the gang, the members have to pledge to stay in the gang for life or take a death oath.

BGF members are considered a danger to law enforcement and political officials because one of their reasons for existence is to overthrow the United States government. The BGF gang works well with the La Nuestra Familia gang, and their rivals include AB and EME.

3. Mexican Mafia (EME)

In the late 1950s, EME was formed at the Duel Vocational Center, a center for troubled youth, in California. The gang was formed by the youth members of another Los Angeles gang. The members of the gang are male Mexican American and, more broadly, Hispanic Americans. The EME gang members value their wives and girlfriends as the females are a major part of the drug transportation and financial transactions of the gang.

Symbols that represent the Mexican Mafia include the Mexican flag with an eagle or a snake tattooed in or near the flag. A tattoo of a black hand print or the letters ''EME'' tattooed on the inmate's body also signify affiliation with the gang.

EME members are considered violent. The members of the gang use murder as a way to gain respect or as a way of disciplining a member who has violated the gang's rules. The EME will provide protection to gangs that are considered allies, such as AB and La Costa Nostra, which is a gang not in the recognized six gangs.

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Video Transcript

Types of Prison Gangs

Prison gangs are defined as criminal organizations that are formed in the penal system and operate within the prison facilities of the United States. Each gang has established symbols and ways members indicate they belong to that gang. These prison gangs were established at various prisons during different decades, and gangs are still present in the prison systems today.

Let's look at some prison gang statistics before we move along.

  • 230,000 incarcerated individuals belong to a prison gang.
  • There are approximately 52 active gangs in the prison system, including the six nationally-recognized gangs.
  • Each of the 50 states have prison gangs.
  • California and Texas having the highest number of individuals involved in prison gangs.
  • In 1996, prison gang violence increased by 400%.

Let's now take a closer look at the six recognized prison gangs in the United States penal system.

The Six Recognized Prison Gangs

Nationally, there are six major prison gangs that are recognized. The six gangs are the Aryan Brotherhood, Black Guerilla Family (BGF), La Nuestra Familia (NF), Mexican Mafia (EME), Neta, and Texas Syndicate (TS).

1. Aryan Brotherhood

The Aryan Brotherhood started in the San Quentin prison in California in 1967. The gang is made up of white males. Initiation into the group comes from other members, and members are required to make a life-long commitment.

From 1975 to 1985, there were 40 homicides in California prisons and jails committed by AB members. AB members, suspects, and associates in the federal prisons were responsible for 26 homicides. Three of the victims from 1978 to 1992 were staff members. Along with the violent attacks on other inmates and prison staff, AB members are known to distribute contraband, such as drugs and cell phones, throughout the prison system.

The Aryan Brotherhood gang is symbolized by any of the following symbols:

  • Cloverleaf
  • Initials ''AB''
  • Double lightning bolts, referencing the murderous Schutzstaffel organization (or SS) in Nazi Germany
  • The numbers ''666''

Aryan Brotherhood members use any combination of the previous symbols along with the state name in the tattoo to symbolize belonging to the gang. An example of an Aryan Brotherhood tattoo is pictured, which incorporates the swastika, the ''AB'' initials, and the state name of Texas.

Aryan Brotherhood

2. Black Guerilla Family

BGF was founded in San Quentin in 1966 by George Jackson, who was a former Black Panther. The BGF gang members are symbolized by the initial ''BGF'' or a dragon overtaking a prison or a prison tower.

The BGF gang members are black males, and they recruit street gang members when they become incarcerated. In order to be a member of the gang, the members have to pledge to stay in the gang for life or take a death oath.

BGF members are considered a danger to law enforcement and political officials because one of their reasons for existence is to overthrow the United States government. The BGF gang works well with the La Nuestra Familia gang, and their rivals include AB and EME.

3. Mexican Mafia (EME)

In the late 1950s, EME was formed at the Duel Vocational Center, a center for troubled youth, in California. The gang was formed by the youth members of another Los Angeles gang. The members of the gang are male Mexican American and, more broadly, Hispanic Americans. The EME gang members value their wives and girlfriends as the females are a major part of the drug transportation and financial transactions of the gang.

Symbols that represent the Mexican Mafia include the Mexican flag with an eagle or a snake tattooed in or near the flag. A tattoo of a black hand print or the letters ''EME'' tattooed on the inmate's body also signify affiliation with the gang.

EME members are considered violent. The members of the gang use murder as a way to gain respect or as a way of disciplining a member who has violated the gang's rules. The EME will provide protection to gangs that are considered allies, such as AB and La Costa Nostra, which is a gang not in the recognized six gangs.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are some names of prison gangs?

There are six nationally recognized prison gangs in the United States. The six more prominent gangs are the Black Guerilla Family, Aryan Brotherhood, La Netas, Nuestra Familia, Mexican Mafia (La eMe), and Texas Syndicate.

How many prison gangs are there?

There have been 52 prison gangs identified in the United States. Of the 52 prison gangs, only 6 are nationally recognized.

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