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Cover Story

Working Gangs From Inside Prison

Started just over two years ago at New York's infamous Rikers Island prison, the project uses an extensive database, networking and shared assignments.

May 01, 1999  |  by Shelly Feuer Domash

In the past decade, a dramatic increase in the number of gangs — and their members — has occurred throughout the United States. Virtually no state is immune as statistics indicate that 95 percent of the larger cities and 88 percent of the smaller communities throughout America are experiencing a growing number of gang-related and often violent crimes.

Correspondingly, as many law enforcement agencies responded to this problem by initiating a model program at the fabled Rickers Island facility — and it is one they say, that can be used by other corrections departments elsewhere, benefitting law enforcement agencies throughout the country.

A Department Responds

Officials in the New York City Department of Corrections have responded to this problem by initiating a model program at the fabled Rikers Island facility — and it is one they say, that can be used by other corrections departments elsewhere, benefitting law enforcement agencies throughout the country.

In March 1997, the NYC Department of Corrections formed a Gang Intelligence Unit (GIU). Soon after, they installed an enhanced "Superbase" computer program that compiled all of the department's security risk group information into one database. The system was so successful that outside agencies who were made aware of the information, began to work with the department to gather intelligence for their own investigations.

There began the foundation for a growing liaison and networking project among corrections and area aw enforcement agencies that is lauded by officials and officers alike. Most significantly, the program is working.

"I think one of the most important parts of the whole thing that happened is that never in the history of New York City did the Department of Corrections ever work with outside agencies for investigative purposes," said Bernard B. Kerik, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Corrections.

"Now it is done on a daily basis," he told POLICE.

The New York City Department of Corrections is one of the largest municipal jail systems in the country and averages a daily population of approximately 19,205 inmates, many of whom are incarcerated at Rikers Island.

Rikers Island

Rikers Island comprises 10 major jails with a combined capacity of more than 16,000 inmates. There are six borough jails: one in Manhattan, one in Queens, two in Brooklyn and two in the Bronx. They have a combined capacity of approximately 4,000 detainees who are awaiting trial.

Inmates who are seriously ill or who require psychiatric observation are held in prison wards that the NYC Department of Corrections operates in Elmhurst General Hospital, Kings County Hospital and Bellevue Hospital.

According to the New York City Department of Corrections, they average a daily inmate population of 19,205, more inmates than the prison system in 32 states and one of the largest in the nation.

"We run through the prison system about 130,000 inmates a year, on the average, so there is no reason why we shouldn't have the largest database on the criminal histories of gang members," Commissioner Kerik said. "When the New York City Police Department or the FBI were conducting investigations, prior to the creation of our intelligence unit, the investigation stopped once the person was in the system.

"That is no longer the case. Their investigation cannot only continue, but in several cases in the last year we have been primary factors in the NYPD and the FBI completing their investigations as a result of the information that comes from within our system," he added.

"Security Risk Groups" Targeted

At the present time, according to Deputy Warden Emmanuel bailey, who heads the Gang Intelligence Unit (GIU), approximately 55 officially titled "Security Risk Groups" (SRG) are being tracked with the system at Rikers, including major national gangs such as the Latin Kings, the Bloods, the Crips, and the Neatas. The GIU is also tracking groups that are affiliated with organized crime and narcotics.

"Some are not the traditional street gangs. Some are drug gangs," bailey said, adding that NYPD has helped them by adding a box on their arrest form. The box is checked if the arresting officer finds that the suspect is affiliated with any type of SRG. A fax is sent to the GIU unit on a 24-hour-a-day basis that details any security risk group members who have been arrested.

"We pass that information on to our facilities and, in turn, it is up to our facilities to also identify any security risk group members. Some may be recruited while they are in here," said Deputy Warden Bailey.

Detailed information cards are supplied to every correctional officer in order to keep track of these groups. Every officer is instructed to fill out the cards and the SRG information is entered into the computer.

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