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One in 6 Ohio inmates belong to gangs

More than 16 percent of all Ohio prison inmates are affiliated with violent gangs like the Aryan Brotherhood, the Crips and the Bloods, according to a report issued Tuesday by a state prison watchdog group.

Prison officials as of Jan. 2 have linked 8,272 of Ohio’s nearly 50,000 current inmates to “security threat groups,” or STGs. In March, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction cracked down on gang membership with a new policy, but the state legislature’s prison watchdog said its impact is unclear.

Of the 8,272 inmates identified as belonging to gangs, prison officials classify 6,896 as passive members, 699 as active and 677 as disruptive, according to Tuesday’s report by the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee.

Officials of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction say gang members are disproportionately responsible for a wave of violence that has plagued state prisons in recent years. “It’s a lifestyle of violence,” said Vinko Kucinic, the department’s STG coordinator. “That’s what they do. They want power. They want to control things.”

Gang membership is highest in the state’s toughest prisons: 55.6 percent at the “supermax” Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown and 46.6 percent at the maximum-security Southern Ohio Correctional Facility at Lucasville, according to the report. Those prisons’ populations are partly made up of gangster convicts who were sent there from lower-security prisons as punishment and for greater control. Officials say gang leaders in those prisons often control gang activity in lower-security prisons and even in the outside world.

The dead suspect in the March 19 murder of the Colorado prisons chief was a member of a white supremacist prison gang, and suspicion has fallen on the Aryan Brotherhood in the recent murders of a Texas district attorney and his assistant.

The report said three in 10 inmates at both the Lebanon prisons have gang affiliations, while a mere 0.7 percent of the prisoners at the women-only Dayton Correctional are in gangs. All three of Ohio’s women’s prisons have low gang membership. The Lebanon prisons are considered Level 3 or close security, a step up from medium-security and one down from maximum-security.

Gang membership has become a serious problem in Ohio prisons, and Corrections Director Gary Mohr sent all 50,000 state inmates a letter last May saying it wouldn’t be tolerated, especially in lower-security prisons. Yet Tuesday’s report shows even low-security prisons continue to have significant gang problems, with membership as high as 23 percent.

Kucinic said gang membership is just one factor in an inmate’s security classification, which is mostly based on behavior. With some exceptions, gang members in low-security prisons tend to be passive. The state’s new three-tier prison system is intended to allow disruptive inmates to work their way down to less-secure prisons over time with good behavior, he noted.

Joanna Saul, executive director of the inspection committee, said her staff routinely hears complaints from inmates that they have been victims of assault, extortion and robbery by gang members.

“STGs operate by preying on other inmates,” Saul said. “That’s how they do their work — through fear and intimidation.”

Saul said the 16.6 percent gang membership noted in Tuesday’s report compares to 18 percent in a similar report in January 2012. That report said 9,255 inmates were identified as gang-affiliated, nearly 1,000 fewer than this year. But “you can’t say it’s decreased because it’s under a new classification system,” Saul said.

The committee’s report said “prison gangs generally engage in criminal activity to promote power, wealth and prestige. Common activity includes assaults on staff and inmates; drug, tobacco, cell phone and contraband trafficking; extortion and cell robberies; gambling and operating ‘stores,’ selling accumulated contraband.”

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