June 24, 2018
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As gangs gain traction in Maine, prison braces

By Heather Steeves, BDN Staff

WARREN, Maine — To prepare for the possibility of housing more gangsters, Maine State Prison officials are writing new guidelines to help identify which prisoners belong to gangs.

Currently there is no way of knowing how many gang members are in Maine State Prison. The prison doesn’t officially record what gangs exist in the system or which prisoners might be affiliated with them.

But based on what Maine Department of Corrections Security Director Gary LaPlante has seen, about 50 prisoners belong to gangs. Compared to other states, he said that’s not much — it’s about 6 percent of the prison population.

The identification system is being developed at a time when Maine is gaining gang members, according to the FBI.

According to the FBI’s 2011 Gang Threat Assessment, Maine has up to 4,000 gang members — all congregated in southern Maine. That’s up from zero in the FBI’s 2009 version of the same report.

Prison officials have heard that some inmates already affiliate with gangs.

“The Aryan Brotherhood is probably the dominant gang. White-supremacist type of gangs are more dominant in numbers in Maine,” LaPlante said. “We have a couple others, but people might not recognize them. Like, we have one called Tango Blast, a [gang] out of Texas.”

After the white supremacist groups, the Crips and the Bloods are tied for the second most popular gangs in the prison, LaPlante said.

Within the entire corrections system in Maine, most major gangs make an appearance, according to LaPlante’s research. He has identified 12 gangs in the system. The rest of Maine has about nine major gangs, according to an FBI report.

But all of these numbers are just from observations. By the end of this year, LaPlante will have created a system to verify gang affiliations so the prison can classify men and create some sort of database. He figured each man must meet at least two criteria to be labeled as a gangster. Tattoos, self-identification and court records that link inmates to gangs might be criteria the corrections department would judge from.

This information could be used in myriad ways, including how housing decisions are made for inmates. For instance, if the prison knows one inmate belongs to the Crips, administrators might not house him in the same building as an inmate affiliated with their rival gang, the Bloods.

“For us [gangs] could be a security threat. These folks could find an avenue to get drugs within the facility — and like what a drug dealer does on the streets, a drug dealer on the inside does similar things. … Drug trafficking is an issue and we do everything we can to avoid that in our facilities,” LaPlante said.

The new prison identification system and policies on gangs should be completed by the end of 2012. Meanwhile, one Maine legislator is working on mandating a similar identification system for police agencies across the state.

Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, wrote legislation asking all law enforcement agencies in Maine to create “uniform criteria for the recognition of criminal street gang activity and identification of criminal street gang members.” The bill also requires that information be shared among law enforcement agencies.

The Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition opposes the bill because it does not see gangs as a threat to the state.

“M-PAC [opposes] any aspect of the use of the word gang, or the escalation of identifying purported gang members,” said Judy Garvey, co-coordinator of M-PAC. “In working with hundreds of inmates over many years, we see forms of group affiliation over and over again, but to date have not encountered a so-called ‘gang member’ in or outside of prison. Those on the outside and inside of prisons say this is not a problem for Maine.”

The advocates also worry that police will wrongly identify people as gang members because of their tattoos, hand gestures and other symbols.

“Gangs are telling their members, ‘Go to Maine,’” said Eric Berry, president of the Maine Gang Task Force. To illustrate how desirable the state is to some criminals he cited a YouTube video that shows a young man talking about how “nice” Maine prison is.

Maine is particularly attractive to gangs because currently there is very little competition. Also, drug prices here are much higher than the rest of New England, so gang members can get a higher profit for the same product, Berry said.

Volk’s bill, LD 1707, has a public hearing scheduled before the legislative panel on Criminal Justice and Public Safety beginning at 10 a.m. Friday, Jan. 27, in Room 436 of the State House.

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