Edmonton

Alberta street gangs recruit with false promises, new study concludes

Dispelling the myth that gang life promises money, status and respect is the best way to help Alberta youth escape criminal lifestyles, according to a new survey of street gangsters.

'The promise of drugs, the glamorous lifestyle, women, fun, excitement and money'

One-third of study participants who said they had already left their gangs mentioned children and family as reasons for leaving. (Canadian Press)

Dispelling the myth that gang life promises money, status and respect is the best way to help Alberta youth escape criminal lifestyles, according to a new survey of street gangsters.

University of Alberta sociologist Jana Grekul led a research team that interviewed 175 current and former gang members in correctional centres across the province.

Grekul wanted to know if Alberta prisons are "breeding grounds" for gang recruitment, and how some members managed to escape criminal life.

More than two-thirds of the study participants were involved in gangs before they were incarcerated.

"There's a promise of all good things, a promise of power and status," Grekul said in an interview Tuesday with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"The promise of drugs, the glamorous lifestyle, women, fun, excitement and money. That's a big part of the recruitment process."

The study,"I've Had Enough: Exploring Gang Life From the Perspective of (Ex) Members in Alberta," was recently published in The Prison Journal.

Most gang members interviewed for the study were involved in low-level street and prison gangs, not large organized criminal organizations such as the Hells Angels.

These are people that are looking for belonging, looking for a sense of identity-Jana Grekul, University of Alberta

Indigenous people were over-represented in the study, with two-thirds of study participants identifying as "Aboriginal." More than half were children of the foster care system, many of whom were actively recruited by fellow inmates or even family members.

More than half of the respondents, who ranged in age from 18 to 48, grew up in the child-welfare system, and stories of childhood abuse, poverty and trauma were prevalent.

"We're talking real disconnections from a strong family structure, and that makes them really vulnerable," said Grekul.

"These are people that are looking for belonging, looking for a sense of identity. People who maybe lack a strong family structure, and the gang promises them that kind of protection.

"Certainly behind bars, protection is a big factor for why people join gangs."

'It's a violent lifestyle'

New members are lured into gangs by promises of money, women, drugs and respect, said Grekul.

But gangs rarely deliver on those promises.

"They quickly realize that it's a violent lifestyle, that their so-called brothers are just as likely to victimize them violently as members of other gangs. Those promises are very empty."

Of the gang members interviewed, 78 per cent claimed they had already left their gangs. Another 14 per cent said they planned to leave.

People who decide to break ties with organized crime are most often motivated by major life events, such as getting married or having children, said Grekul.

Disillusionment with gang life is also a big motivator.

'I've had enough'

"I'm leaving this whole lifestyle behind me," said one former gang member who participated in the study. "I've had enough.

"Basically, I'm sitting in here because of somebody else's stupidity and activities. It's well beyond my comprehension. I just kind of did a few things for them. It just brought me right into their spectrum, you know."

One-third of study participants who said they had already left their gangs mentioned children and family as reasons for leaving.

"[I'm] tired of spending time in jail," said one former gang member. "I don't want to be the bad guy. I have a four-year-old son, so I want to smarten up. 

"In the gang, you know, if they give you a mission you have to do it or you get in trouble with them. And getting in trouble with them is worse than getting in trouble with the cops, because they could have you dead."

'It's a fake way of life'

Ending up in prison can help gang members reform, but more often it only deepens their involvement, said Grekul.

Members who leave often face violent and repeated retaliation, she said. The potential for violence can be especially pronounced in the correctional system, where many are forced to enter protective custody, she said.

Programs that help gang members break ties during their incarceration are essential, said Grekul.

Once they're released, education, employment and mentorship programs are critical to ensure former gang members aren't sucked back into their old lives.

"A lot of them realize in prison that they really want to leave the gang," she said. "But it's really hard to leave when you're in prison.

"So it's really important to have transitional programming to help them make that transition."

Gang members said there needs to be more programming focus on Indigenous youth.

Furthermore, young people need to learn about the realities of gangs from "someone who has lived the life."

"A lot them pointed to education," she said. "Just talking to young kids and letting them know that this life isn't all it's cracked up to be, that these promises are empty."

Of those interviewed, 98 per cent said they would not have chosen gang life had they felt they had other options.

"When you're a kid, you think, 'Oh, gangster, you get money, and respect and whatever else,' " said one former gang member interviewed. "But it's the little details people don't see. There's things you have to do no matter what."

"It's a fake way of life. It's not what it's all made out to be."

Listen to Edmonton AM with host Mark Connolly, weekday mornings at CBC Radio One, 93.9 FM in Edmonton. Follow the morning crew on Twitter @EdmAMCBC.

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