The U.S. Department of Justice recognizes a prison gang as a criminal organization founded in the penal system and operates within correctional facilities throughout the country.

In most cases, each of these gangs has developed a hierarchy and is governed by a particular code of conduct. Nuestra Familia and Aryan Brotherhood are among the most highly structured gangs, while Mexican Mafia is less formalized.

Once established, a prison gang almost always gets involved in criminal activities outside prison. For example, prison gangs control the distribution of narcotics inside correctional facilities or play the intermediary in drug-trafficking activities outside the jail.

They are more prominent in the state penal system rather than in federal correctional facilities. Although the members are likely fewer compared to street gangs, let us not forget that the United States incarcerates a substantial proportion of its citizens, with around 1.5 million people imprisoned at any given time.

Tens of thousands of them are members of some of the most notorious prison gangs in the United States.

Juárez Police Department

10 Barrio Azteca

Most active in Texas prisons, Barrio Azteca is powered by around 2,000 known members. Not all of them are actually in prison; outside of the state’s penal system, the gang has a prominent presence in southeastern New Mexico and southwestern Texas.

They are known to have been involved in all sorts of dangerous illegal activities, including robbery, extortion, kidnapping, arson, auto theft, and burglary.

However, the gang’s primary source of income is drug trafficking, specifically by smuggling heroin and cocaine from Mexico to the United States for distribution inside and outside prisons.

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9 Black Guerrilla Family

George Lester Jackson, the radical African-American activist who was convicted for armed robbery in 1961, played a vital role in the Black Guerrilla Family’s birth while serving his time in San Quentin State Prison. The gang remains active and has expanded its activities outside prisons as well.

Today it has around 1,000 identified members and many more associates. Black Guerrilla Family is a highly organized gang with a clear hierarchy, including a central committee and supreme leader.

It operates mainly in Maryland and California, raking in money from drug trafficking and violent crimes.



United States Department of Justice

8 Dead Man Incorporated

A predominantly white organized crime enterprise, Dead Man Inc. took shape between the 1980s – 1990s in the Maryland Department of Corrections. A co-founder named Perry Roark was a close associate of the Black Guerilla Family.

Roark was rejected as a full member, yet he received permission to start an organization to unite white inmates.

Initially, Dead Man Inc. worked for Black Guerilla Family, but the former begun operating as an independent organization over time. Members of Dead Man Inc. have been known to be involved in murder-for-hire and drug distribution activities.

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7 Ñeta

Like other prison gangs in the United States, Ñeta also originated inside the penal system and expanded its operation outside.

It was formed in 1970 in the Río Piedras State Penitentiary, Puerto Rico. There are around 6,000 members in the United States and about 13,000 more throughout the world.

Members of Ñeta are reportedly involved in burglary, witness intimidation, money laundering, extortion, assault, home invasion, drive-by shooting, and auto theft. The gang’s primary source of income is the distribution of powdered and crack cocaine.

Public Domain

6 Hermanos de Pistoleros Latinos

Hispanic prison gang known as the Hermanos de Pistoleros Latinos came to the surface in the 1980s in a place near Laredo, Texas. While originated in the United States, the gang also operates in Mexico.

It keeps close ties with the Mexican drug cartel and is involved in large scale drug trafficking, including marijuana and cocaine into the United States.

In July 2006, some known Hermanos de Pistoleros Latinos and several non-members were involved in a home invasion located in McAllen, Texas, from which they stole 15 kg of cocaine.

Orange County Register

5 Public Enemy Number One

A “white power” prison gang Public Enemy Number One (sometimes referred to only as PEN1) has chapters all over the United States, mostly in the south and both coasts. It originated from Long Beach but is now based in Southern California.

The California of Justice once described it as one of the fastest-growing and most powerful gangs both inside and outside the penal system.

Like many other white power gangs, PEN1’s main activity and source of income are methamphetamine sales.

United States Department of Justice

4 Mexican Mafia

La Eme, also known as Mexican Mafia, has anywhere between 500 – 600 full members added with at least 1,000 associates.

It was formed in 1957 by Hispanic street gang members who were incarcerated at a California Youth Authority Facility, which has now become a state prison in Tracy. La Eme is now mainly comprised of former members of Southern California street gangs.

Their criminal operations include illegal gambling and prostitution inside prisons, as well as drug trafficking. Many members have a close connection to Mexican cartels.

Utah Department of Corrections

3 Nazi Low Riders

White supremacy gang Nazi Low Riders operates mostly in the Pacific and Southwestern regions, both inside and outside the penal system.

When the gang was still new in the 1970s, a small number of Latinos were allowed to join in (despite the gang’s white supremacy ideology) and put on the front lines in drug trafficking activities. It is a close ally to Public Enemy Number One.

Most members have a history of street gang activities, such as drug abuse and trafficking. They have also been involved in armed robbery, murder and attempted murder, money laundering, and witness retaliation.

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2 Mexikanemi

The Texas Mexican Mafia, or Mexikanemi gang, was formed in the 1980s in Texas prisons. It is a well-structured crime organization and estimated to have 2,000 members; most are Mexican-American or Mexican nationals living in Texas at the time of their incarceration.

Members reportedly traffic large quantities of controlled substances, including heroin, marijuana, ecstasy, methamphetamine, and powdered cocaine.

Mexikanemi obtains the drugs from Mexican cartels. Also, it maintains a close relationship with the Mexican paramilitary organization.

ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

1 Aryan Brotherhood

The notoriously violent Aryan Brotherhood is estimated to have 20,000 members in and out of prison.

It is an organized Neo-Nazi prison gang/crime syndicate founded in 1964. Aryan Brotherhood is a close ally to La Eme because both share a common enemy, the Black Guerilla Family.

 The FBI estimates that while Aryan Brotherhood members only make up less than 1% of the United States’ prison population, the gang is responsible for 18% of murders in the federal prison system. Texas prisoners who were denied entry into A.B. made their gangs known as Texas Aryan Brotherhood.

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