Should prison gangs ever manage correctional facilities?

Most correctional authorities see gangs as disruptive and detrimental to the smooth running of penal institutions, so considering whether gangs should be involved in prison management seems almost absurd.

In the Philippines, however, the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor), which oversees all prisons, has come to unofficially endorse their role in a shared-governance model.

While this shared responsibility opens the way for crime and corruption, there are also many positive spinoffs surrounding gang activity that should be examined more closely, rather than ignored.

Prison gangs are typically engaged in drug trafficking, loan sharking, prostitution, gambling, murder, robbery/theft, rape, kidnapping and extortion, some of which reaches beyond prison walls.

Their behaviour is also characteristically violent, where intimidation and domination tactics, such as verbal, physical and sexual assault, are commonly used.

As a result, gangs are said to worsen the conditions for inmates and are thought to be harmful to rehabilitation by reducing a prisoner's chances for successful reintegration back into society.

In Philippine prisons, a cash economy thrives, which is largely sustained by a lucrative drug market controlled by gangs.

In the Maximum Security Compound of Manila's New Bilibid Prison (NBP), where our primary research is based, a number of gang leaders serve as protectors for big-time drug dealers.

With large amounts of money generated from drug sales outside and inside of NBP, some gang members have re-created their luxurious lifestyles they had prior to incarceration.

This setup has replicated the inequalities inherent in Philippine society, where the more resource-endowed inmates enjoy unbridled luxuries, while resource-depleted inmates are merely pawns in the power-struggle among inmate leaders and corrupt personnel. 

The Philippine penal management model, which depends on gangs, has arisen from a lack of resources given by governments to BuCor.

BuCor has inadequate and over-crowded facilities, is crippled with insufficient and under-trained staff and lacks operational resources to provide enough material necessities, security and rehabilitation programs needed by inmates.

For those studying correctional reform, none of this should be a surprise. But, this is where our studies differ. 

Despite the usual negative images portrayed about gangs, we have discovered many positive aspects surrounding gang membership that are commonly overlooked.