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Psychological Profile of a Gang Member.

Editor's Note: The ideas expressed in this article are those of the author's and not necessarily those of the county of San Diego or its departments or agencies.

I am a senior clinical psychologist with the county of San Diego and have worked more than 20 years at Juvenile Hall in Sam Diego, at the Juvenile Ranch Facility in Campo, Calif., and most recently at the Camp Barrett Youth Correctional Center in Alpine. Most of my clientele have been juvenile gang members of nearly every ethnic background. This article is based on my clinical experience.

Family History of Gang Members

Many inner-city kids become gang members, especially in high-crime areas such as barrios, housing projects and poor neighborhoods, but there are gangs in the suburbs as well. Families of gang members are usually chaotic and dysfunctional, with the father either absent or distant. Often, other family members and relatives are or have been gang members and have been incarcerated. However, there are many families in which not all siblings become gang members. Gang members typically come from disadvantaged families in which there is little parental supervision, inadequate or incompetent parenting, and neglect.

There may be histories of abuse and domestic violence in these families and some of the roots for the gang members' lack of respect for women may stem from an early, violent family background of the father being abusive to the mother. Many gang members become fathers very early in order to prove their pseudo-adulthood, masculinity and dominance. Ten to 20 percent of the author's clientele are fathers.

Anger and Low IQ Typical

Prospective gang members grow up with gangs around them in their neighborhoods. Their families have been involved with crime and gangs and their friends are gang members. They have gone to the same school, lived on the same block and have grown up together. Gang membership almost seems endemic in these areas but as mentioned, there are gangs in the suburbs, too.

The young male gang member has early developmental and family problems and then, when he goes to school, he does poorly, especially behaviorally. He typically has a low IQ (modal IQs are typically in the 80s), has poor reading skills and does poorly academically. He develops serious behavioral problems and often is a "bully" in school. He is not able to stay in a mainstream school and usually ends up being suspended, expelled or transferred to an alternative school (such as a continuation school or a court school). Gang members bring their gang problems to the schools and disrupt the learning environment.

Male gang members are angry young people who project much of their anger regarding their absent fathers at all authority and society. They become dropouts and develop odd and asocial subcultures to compensate. With their "homeboys," they develop a power base -- the gang. Underneath, they feel inadequate, inferior, and angry and they want to get back at others for dealing them a bad hand (i.e., no fathers in their lives and inadequate mothers). They are unsure of themselves but feel more security in numbers and the protection and cohesiveness of the gang. The gang gives them an identity, a reputation and feelings of belonging and interpersonal closeness.

Out of their anger, gang members become aggressive and they fight and take pride in being ruthless and violent. They continue to seek status, affiliation and companionship, which increasingly are provided by the gang rather than the family. They gain a reputation by committing violent crimes and move their way up the gang hierarchy by the number of crimes they commit against rival gangs and by the violence of these crimes. Gang status also is heightened by the amount of time they have been incarcerated and the tougher settings to which they have been sentenced (i.e., California Youth Authority). They want someday to become "Original Gangsters" or "OGs," a goal among some of the black gang members, or "Veteranos" among the Hispanic gang members. Once they become OGs or Veteranos, they can let underlings and less-renowned gang members take their places and do the work of the gang.

Gangs as Social Groups

Most of the gang members' time is spent with other gang members hanging out, cruising and partying. Many drink alcohol (mostly beer) and some use drugs. They feel they have to defend their territory and their reputations and seek revenge for violence against their gang or an intrusion into their territory. Gang violence usually occurs between gangs of similar ethnic backgrounds; some of it can be territorial and some of it can be related to defending the honor and name of the gang and retaliating for earlier violence. Gang violence also is the result of challenges from other gangs and from a whipped-up group loyalty in which most members are the followers of a few entrenched hard-core gang leaders.

The gang becomes the center of most activity and the source of support and affiliation. It becomes gang members' primary social group. Female gangs act as companions who may be used to carry weapons or in other ways. Gang members like to feel they have power in numbers and to think they are "deep" (meaning they have many in their set). Feelings of inferiority and inadequacy are hidden by bragging, bravado and provocation. Many are manipulated by older, more sophisticated gang members. They feel that others do not understand them and that everyone is hostile toward them. They have social deficits, rude manners and limited verbal skills. Many become dangerous and violent. They become impulsive, explosive and fight with little or no provocation. Some may have underlying dysphoria that is projected as anger, aggression and violence.

Turning Gang Members Around

In spite of their bad backgrounds and negative peer pressure, gang members still have choices along the way about continued gang affiliation. Often, only after years of incarceration and some maturity, and frequently a relationship with a woman and with their children, they do exercise better judgment and make better individual choices. Many develop work habits while incarcerated and later are able to find and keep employment. Some go back to school.

When one understands the psychology of the gang member, correctional interventions and programming then can follow.

Ronald J. Maki, Psy.D., is a senior clinical psychologist with the county of San Diego's Juvenile Forensic Services, Children's Mental Health Services. Health and Human Services Agency.
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Author:Maki, Ronald J.
Publication:Corrections Compendium
Date:Apr 1, 2000
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