Gang's are so powerful at Stateville maximum-security prison in Joliet, Ill., that they control entire cell blocks, run a profitable drug trade, corrupt guards, and gain unsupervised interviews with wardens, experts and officials say.
The growing influx of gangs - whose members account for 77 percent of inmates at Stateville and more than half of the 36,000 inmates in Illinois - has turned the overcrowded Illinois prison system into what one state gang prosecutor calls "a powder keg."
Illinois illustrates in the extreme how gangs, already a widespread scourge on US streets, are now emerging across the country as the biggest security threat for US prisons, the experts say.
"Gang members now create the majority of problems within the institutions," says Dale Welling, executive director of the National Major Gang Task Force.
The number of gang members incarcerated nationwide mushroomed by two to four times between 1985 and 1992, as dozens of new laws imposing tougher sentences for drug and other gang-related crimes helped swell the US prison population to 1.5 million, federal surveys and academic studies show.
"Gangs are a growing problem in all major correctional systems throughout the country," concluded a panel of prison experts in a report published this month by the Illinois Department of Corrections.
The challenge is most daunting in states with big cities and established gangs such as Illinois, California, New Jersey, and Texas. In most states, only a small fraction of inmates are known gang members.