BOISE -- Police and prosecutors have gotten aggressive with gang members around here and are sending them to prison, but gang activity continues. Some members successfully get out of a gang in prison and don't go back. But others get even more involved with gang activity, and some inmates join while incarcerated.
Gang leaders in prison continue calling shots
The problems inside the prison can impact the community outside the fence. The Idaho Department of Correction says some incarcerated gang members are still finding ways to call the shots on the outside and most will eventually be released.
"Most of the street gangs are actually controlled by their leaders that are inside the prison system," Deputy Warden Tim Higgins said.
Idaho's prisons do have different programs and ways to try and deter gang activity and stop gang leaders from the inside. With some inmates, those programs work, but it's impossible to stop all of the activity.
20 percent of inmates are gang members
Every male convict in Idaho comes through the Reception and Diagnostic Unit, or RDU, at the medium-security prison in Kuna. It's where the IDOC decides where someone will serve their time and who they'll be placed with. The decision depends on a number of different factors, including gang involvement.
The IDOC says 20 percent of prisoners are also gang members, who are responsible for the majority of assaults against other inmates and staff.
"From our standpoint, it's about 20 percent of our population that presents about 80 percent of our problem," IDOC Director Brent Reinke said.
Idaho's decision to integrate gang members
To combat the gang problem, Reinke explains Idaho uses an uncommon philosophy: Integrate the gang members. Gang members are housed with other non-gang affiliated inmates and can be placed in the same units as rivals. Prison officials say integration breaks up the power a gang might have by housing members of the same gang together.
"We believe that's a very important element in keeping our facilities safe. These people are going to be living together on the streets. They can live together behind the fence," Reinke said.
"If you intermix opposing gang population, you always run the risk that they're going to fight," Higgins said. "But if you separate them out into Sureno units, Norteno units, and this and that, they become so powerful that we lose control of those units." [Then] it's not our staff that tell the inmates what they're going to do and how they're going to do it, it is that gang leader that decides whether that gang is going to comply or not comply. So you lose power. You lose control."
Inside maximum security prison
If prisoners prove they can't or won't live together, they may be brought to the Idaho Maximum Security Institution. They live isolated, outside only an hour a day. Even outside, they are in individual cells, enclosed by metal fencing. The other 23 hours a day, including meal times, are spent inside a small cell. They are escorted in restraints if they need to go anywhere.
Even with all of the precautions, there are still gang problems inside the maximum security prison.
"How do we deal with it? We have absolutely zero tolerance for gang behavior," Higgins said.
Higgins, a recognized gang expert, says they prosecute gang members for the same crimes inside prison as they would outside, gathering evidence just like any other law enforcement team.
"We track very carefully all evidence we have of somebody's gang involvement," Higgins said.
Inmates make weapons, send gang messages from inside
At IMSI, there is an evidence room filled with envelopes of gang evidence. Officers collect stabbing and slashing tools, called "shanks". Inmates find ways to make shanks out of everything from eyeglasses to toothbrushes to pieces of the beds. They conceal them and will use the tools against others.
"They'll stab somebody as many times as they possibly can," Higgins said.
Officers also confiscate anything that has gang references, like elaborate artwork, to stop members from representing affiliation or passing messages.
Inmates also have developed a communication system while in isolated cells. They write messages on pieces of paper, roll them up, and tie a string or piece of bed sheet to the small scrolls called 'kites'. Inmates will throw the kite under their door, where another inmate will hook it and pull the message in. Officers work to stop the communication, sometimes blocking the space under their cell doors.
Some inmates join gangs while in prison
So despite efforts to stop gang activity inside prison, it still happens, and many inmates even join gangs while in prison. Some gangs, such as the Aryan Knights and Severly Violent Criminals, originated or developed in Idaho's prison system.
"If you take a kid who's kind of fantasizing about becoming a gang member, and you expose him inside of a prison system to a hard core thug, what you get coming out the other side is a hard core gang member," Higgins said.
A former prison gang member we're calling "Tyler" says many people join gangs in prison for protection, and once in a gang, prison can be almost like a gang bootcamp.
"You ain't got nothing else to do, you know what I'm saying? Sitting around in your cell all day, all you're doing is plotting on how to become a better leader, how to become a better gang member. Be more violent," Tyler said.
Some experts call this concept "warehousing". It's like storing the gang members in prison, where they're essentially training, then releasing them back into the community.
Most inmates will eventually be released
"You need to remember that about 97 percent of these folks come back home at some point in their lifetime," Reinke said.
Higgins said many gang members will do something on the outside to end up right back in prison again.
"The typical life of a gang member is in and out of the prisons," Higgins said.
It's a cycle that experts and ex-gang members say has to be broken earlier, not in prison.
"It's something we have to look at city by city, neighborhood by neighborhood because by the time they make their way into prison, it's very deeply embedded," Reinke said.
Prosecutor: Supression is only one step toward stopping gangs
Prosecutors say they often see the same people cycling in and out of courtrooms, in and out of prison. While supression is working to a degree, they say intervention and prevention need to be part of the process.
"When people come out of prison, often they have even more gang experience and they're more savvy in the ways of the gang than when they started, so when they get out they can be that much more dangerous to the community if they go right back where they came from," Canyon County Deputy Prosecutor Ellie Somoza said.
"In order to go forward and prevent gang crime from really taking a hold again, at least in Canyon County, and to prevent it from further spreading in Ada County and other parts of the state, I think resources need to be devoted toward education, toward training, toward intervention, towards transition," Somoza said.
Somoza says when gang members are released, they're often going back to the community where they were committing crimes, where their old gang and rivals still live.
"So one of the concerns always is even if you've changed your life, even if you've done something, wanted to make a change to turn your life around, all those people will still drag you back in," Somoza said. "A rival can still spot you on the sidewalk and decide to pull a gun on you. And so what's really missing is the ability to relocate, to reeducate, to provide them will services that will really get them moving in a different direction."
To see more about how other states deal with their prison populations, and how that impacts Idaho's gangs, watch the KTVB.COM exclusive video below.
Prevention and Intervention: