Gangs a constant worry in juvenile detention facility

Anyone involved in the corrections aspect of the criminal justice system knows that gang activity is a way of life in prison. Inmates, particularly men, who enter a prison often find themselves involved in a gang for sheer protection on the inside. Many of them already had gang ties on the streets, and those ties simply strengthen behind bars.

That phenomenon is expected in the adult prison system, but in juvenile jails it’s much more subtle. The youths don’t generally boast about their gang affiliation, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Eric Gallon, the facility administrator at Cypress Creek Correctional Facility, said the maximum-security juvenile jail is a hotbed for gang activity. When a new inmate enters the Lecanto facility, Gallon said his staff consults with the Department of Juvenile Justice to find out if the youth has any history of gang activity.

That information can be helpful in determining which cell to assign the inmate.

Naturally, he said, they try to keep members of rival gangs away from each other. “It’s a danger to the kids and the staff as a whole,” he said.

The staff must also be trained to recognize gang symbols, signs and gestures the inmates might use to communicate with each other and declare their affiliation with a certain gang. “The way they stand, the way they hold their hands, all that,” he said. “They communicate with their hands.”
Gang members also announce their affiliation by wearing certain types of clothing. For example, Gallon said a pair of red athletic shoes symbolizes the Folk Nation gang.

Inmates’ families are allowed to provide the inmates with sneakers, but not if the brand, color or style has any known gang meaning.

“This thing runs deep,” he said. “You’re going to have gang-affiliated kids. You just can’t let them affiliate in your facility.”

When a guard sees a Cypress Creek inmate displaying a gang symbol, Gallon said it is stopped it immediately. “That type of behavior is not allowed here, but it’ll never go away,” he said. “They just change the signs. Things change so often within the gang community. You think you have a handle on it, then it changes and you have to learn it all over again. It’s really difficult to stay on top of things.”

Accomplishing that means regular staff meetings so Cypress Creek employees can share their observations with each other. Even with those meetings and all the precautions, Gallon said his staff has to deal with knowing that violence between rival gang members could erupt at any time. “It’s a big concern because it can happen if you’re not cognizant of what’s going on,” he said.

Gallon said he thinks parents and the community should be more knowledgeable of gang symbols because once a youth has joined a gang it’s extremely hard for the individual to get out.

“They need to realize what’s going on,” he said. “I see gang graffiti all over the county when I drive around and I think to myself, I bet most people don’t know what this means.”

In an effort to share his staff’s knowledge, Gallon invited the public to a gang forum at the facility this week.

Christi Stevens