WALLA WALLA -- There are gang members in prison and gang members out of prison, but not a lot of interaction between the two.
"In conversations with the Walla Walla Police Department, they don't feel there is any significant connections," between gang members in the local community and those in Washington State Penitentiary, said Superintendent Steve Sinclair.
Prison visitor records also "don't reflect that families are relocating and setting up residence locally," to be with gang members who are at the penitentiary, Sinclair said. "We didn't find a direct correlation between (gang members) and families moving here."
In corrections nomenclature, gangs are known as "significant threat groups" or "STGs." According to the Dan Pacholke, state Department of Corrections deputy director of prisons, about 20 percent of the 16,000 people incarcerated in the state prison system are documented gang members.
Pacholke said a breakdown of how many inmates below to any particular gang isn't available. "It's a very wide variety," he said. Members include Latino gangs such as the Norteos, Sureos and Mexican Mafia, black gangs such as the Crips and the Bloods and white gangs such as the Aryan Brotherhood.
Since 2008, as the result of a program aimed at reducing gang violence within the prison system, the penitentiary was designated as the place where members of "significant threat groups" would be incarcerated.
The program has caused about a 5 percent reduction per year in gang-related violence throughout the system, Pacholke said. But the drop is not uniform throughout the system, with some institutions recording very low rates and others higher rates, such as WSP where there was an upswing in incidents of inmate-on-inmate assaults and assaults on staff.
In response to those incidents, Sinclair said prison officials have developed a combination of tactics that pair sanctions with a program of incentives to reward good behavior. The program has been showing results, he said, but "this is an inexact process and we're early in the process."
In general, prisoners identified as active gang members are segregated to try to avoid allowing the group dynamics that lead to violence. But "there's no one right answer on how to manage this problem," Sinclair said. "There's no silver bullet."
Ultimately, he said it boils down to individual choice.
"Our primary approach to handling these offenders is based on their individual behavior," he said. "We don't take the approach that 'I know you are affiliated with that (gang), so I'm going to treat you a certain way.' It's based on individual behavior."
If a person in prison decides he wants to severe his gang ties, corrections staff would work with that person to have him located away from gang members. But, Sinclair noted, in his experience "peer pressure tends to make it difficult.
"Ultimately, that's an individual choice and we'll encourage it as much as we can," he said.
Another tactic is being able to offer prisoners opportunities for rehabilitation. These range from being able to complete basic education to gain their GED to taking vocational training so they can find employment after their release.
"Hopefully, for us, we're just a bus stop, not a destination," Sinclair said.
Andy Porter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8318. Check out his blog at blogs.ublabs.org/randomthoughts.