Erik Kriss, spokesman for the New York State Department of Correctional Services, downplays the influence of gangs among the approximately 60,000 inmates in New York State’s 67 prisons.
“We do have an advantage over the county jails,” Kriss says. “If we have a half-dozen guys coming in from Nassau and we know they’re affiliated with rival gangs, we have a huge prison system,” suggesting that each inmate could be sent to a separate prison hundreds of miles away to avoid having them join forces during their extended stay.
“We don’t accept or tolerate gang activity, but we do recognize that [gangs] are a reality,” he says, adding that there are disciplinary measures for those who do something to show that they are a gang member.
But with prison inmates disciplined 1,193 times so far in 2009 for violating anti-gang rules—which can include receiving a letter with gang references or drawing a gang-related symbol on one’s shirt—it doesn’t look like anyone is asking for permission.
For those gang bangers who don’t spend the majority of their criminal careers locked up, but instead opt for trying to start over as a law-abiding citizen, life on the outside can sometimes be as constricting as being back in the cell.
“It’s hard for these guys because invariably they go back to the same neighborhoods, same friends,” Lundquist says. “If you live in a certain area you can’t help but be close to these guys.”
Sometimes the gang life quickly catches up with them and they wind up dead. “You feel bad, you just spoke to the guy and his life was cut short for something stupid,” says Nassau’s Focazio.
But there is help out there.
“You can’t minimize it, because at any time it can happen,” says Kevin Robinson, a case manager for the nonprofit Education & Assistance Corp (EAC) in Hempstead, which hosts the twice-weekly Council of Thoughts and Actions, a support group for those trying to get their lives on track. “It’s just a false pretense that [gang members] can’t get out,” he says of gangs, in between helping a line of men with paperwork following a recent meeting.
An ex-con himself who has rebuilt his life since he got out four years ago, Robinson is a testament to the work done by his organization: helping find jobs for recently released inmates and having them enrolled in job-training classes. Groups like his buttress the work that parole officers do to keep ex-felons in check and probations officers do for misdemeanor offenders.
And business is booming. The same day as Roosevelt Day, a Youth Summit at Timberline Park in Brentwood was held with anti-gang messages touted; this followed several shootings at the park over the summer.
Leonard Jeffries, Jr., a professor of African-American studies and political science at the City College of New York, one of the speakers in Roosevelt, says the hands-on approach works best. “We have to get right to the playgrounds, into the streets, where the young people are, because they’ve been pushed there,” he says.
But for the dozens of anti-gang groups on LI that focus on post-incarceration rehabilitation in addition to reaching out to the youth before they go down the wrong path, it is a monumental task they face. The goal is similar to getting an addict in rehab before they change their minds. “We have to get these guys as soon as they get out of jail,” says Bishop J. Raymond Mackey, pastor of Tabernacle of Joy in Uniondale and HEVN’s founder, adding that an ex-gang member once walked straight to his Baptist church from jail.
“I was fortunate in my situation, I’m not walking away with any physical scars, but I am walking away with mental and emotional ones from things I’ve seen,” says Daniels. “One of my friends was shot dead in front of me.”
Despite his hardships, which started with being one of four children raised by a single mother, Daniels is not tempted to return to the guaranteed high-pay world of drug dealing. But he does still describe the Bloods as a positive organization at its core.
“I’m not defending gangs, I’m going against the things that they’re doing,” he says as he tries to reconcile being an anti-gang advocate who talks of a misconstrued history of one of the nation’s largest street gangs. “I just want them to stop what they’re doing and do what they were intended to do,” which, he says, is to be community organizers, as the founders intended decades ago, and not drug dealers and murderers.
Regardless of his seemingly conflicting worldview, Daniels, HEVN and the dozens of similar anti-gang violence organizations across Long Island have their work cut out for them.
This is part 2 of our special series Gangs of Long Island.
Tags: Bishop J Raymond Mackey, Bloods, Cover Story, Crips, Eddie Callahan, Education & Assistance Corp, Erik Kriss, Gangs, Help End Violence Now, Kevin Robinson, Leonard Jeffries Jr., Melvin Daniels, Nassau Jail, Steve Lundquist, Suffolk Jail, Vinnie Focazio