There are those who join gangs while in jail for what they perceive as protection. Getting “jumped in” is not all it takes, either—new recruits must show their loyalty and “put in work,” gang slang for committing violence against a rival.
“If the head of the set says pop off on this guy, you better pop off on him or someone’s gonna pop off on you,” says Lundquist, using gang lingo for shooting, which in jail means a shanking. Until they’re made official gang members, they’re “food,” he adds. With such a mentality, it’s not hard to see why his team refers to gang members as “internal terrorists” for their ability to spread fear.
Although gangs have a tendency to bolster their ranks when behind bars and many inmates leave worse than they came in, some also decide they want to go on the straight and narrow when they’re inside. Occasionally, despite all of the lies, there are moments of truth from the gang inmates—if the fights they get into don’t speak for themselves.
“Guys do reflect on their lives and see how bad it is,” says Eddie Callahan, an officer with the Gang Intelligence Unit in Nassau’s jail, while seated inside Acting Sheriff Mike Sposato’s office along with colleagues. “They look back and only see death,” sometimes breaking into tears, Callahan says, describing how one gang member said he ran out of room on his back for tattoos of the names of his friends who were killed.
“I talked to somebody the other day who said he dropped his flag,” meaning he quit the gang, says Callahan. But that doesn’t always mean their past won’t come back to haunt them. “Just because you’re so-called ‘out’ doesn’t mean that violence still isn’t going to happen,” he says.
Still, having been labeled a gang member doesn’t always mean an inmate has no hope. “Most of these guys, when you ask them if they’d do it all over again, they say no, it’s not worth it,” Lundquist says, adding that parental instincts often kick in for those with children out there beyond the razor-wire fence.
“Once you talk to them, you realize they have the same concerns,” he says. “They’re worried about their family, they’re worried about their girlfriends being able to pay the rent—a lot of them would like to get out of the gang life.”
Some gang members don’t want to be rehabilitated into contributing members of society and consider living in a 6-by-9-foot cell just another harsh fact of life. They instead become more effective criminals by learning from their new neighbors. For these hardcore gang bangers, there is little jailhouse gang investigators can do beyond bleed them for intel that they can share with detectives on the street.
“Their information has a very short shelf life,” says Callahan. He estimates crews change their code words and colors every 3 to 6 months, which makes the reports that they issue each day on gang members who are being released and gang investigator conferences all the more important. “Sometimes it frustrates us more that there’s not enough hours in a day,” says the tireless investigator, the type to send work-related e-mails from home at 3 a.m.
These jail investigators are reluctant to name specific inmates or share case details for fear of glorifying certain gang members—and thereby adding to their reputation—but in interviews with these officers during recent tours at the jails in both counties, they said their findings often reveal inmates that are far less threatening than their status suggests.
The biggest misperception, says Lundquist, is “that all these guys are tough guys, because they’re not. It’s much harder to stand alone.” Same goes for those who are on the “worldwide lineup,” or those who are recognized as being an “original gangster,” or among the gang’s leadership.
In Nassau, those inmates who have reputations as bad-asses often disappoint as well. “When you pull them out and talk to them, they’re very respectful,” says Callahan. Some almost seem nice enough to be considered a friend, were they not on opposite sides of the law, he adds.
But for those who are being sent from jail to an upstate prison, even the head of a local set becomes a small fish in a big pond.
“Those are the major leagues and then these are the minor leagues,” says Vinnie Focazio, another gang unit officer in Nassau’s jail. Gang members looking to maintain their lifestyle join bigger gangs in prison.