SEATTLE — “A team is where a boy can prove his courage on his own. A gang is where a coward goes to hide,” Mickey Mantle. The need to kill and the lust for violence — two qualities learned, not inherited.
Gangs are a haven for vulnerable young men and women. Older members of the gang act as a brother or mentor figure, teaching the recruits how to protect themselves, how to make money and how to live within the gang. Once a vulnerable young person becomes a member, he or she cannot alter their decision — it is a decision for life with death serving as the only way out.
Despite this knowledge, many young people see death as the only other alternative to gang membership. Without membership, walking to and from school is too dangerous; the protection offered by the gang is necessary to simply live.
On the streets of Los Angeles or El Salvador, gang rivalries produce violence that results in innocent bloodshed, cyclical violence and generations of hatred.
Within major cities worldwide, the prison systems are full of gang members incarcerated on charges ranging from gang activity to homicide. In the last few decades, the United States has seen a significant rise in gang activity which has led to overcrowded prisons and heightened penalties for gang members. However, gang activity does not cease in prison. The “brotherhood” continues, and often increases, inside the prison walls.
How can someone recover or change their life after gang induction and membership? Their entire life broken, due to one poor decision made as a child. The answer? Gang rehabilitation.
“Nothing stops a bullet like a job,” Greg Boyle.
Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, started believing in the power of gang rehabilitation over 24 years ago. Father Boyle and others around the country are giving gang members a second chance in life, by helping them assimilate in everyday society after incarceration. Without guidance, gang members would immediately re-enter gang life upon release and continue their previous life of crime.
Gabriel Hinojos, one of many examples, is a thriving example of the power and success within rehabilitation. At the age of 24, Gabriel, or Spider, decided to visit Homeboy Industries. He had been involved in a gang since he was 12 years of age. At Homeboy Industries, he had his gang tattoos removed and learned vital job skills.
Now, Hinojos has the capacity for a brighter future. He can support his family without living a life of violence. Laura Bush invited him to the White House to illustrate the success of gang rehabilitation accomplished by Homeboy Industries, as well as for him to serve as an example to other gang members.
Boyle stated, “In a city where often men and women plan their funerals and not their futures, hope is a foreign thing … we will, in fact, stand up to the demonized, so that the demonizing will stop.”
Gang rehabilitation must be a part of the process of the incarceration system in order for the cycle to halt.
El Salvador is on the cusp of accomplishing something quite similar. Within many Latin American countries gang activity is so rampant that reintegration does not currently exist within society.
El Salvador’s Anti-Gang Law would encourage gang members to denounce membership of their gang. To apply for these federal benefits, gang members must sign a personal statement expressing their commitment to stop all illegal activity.
The proposal is explicitly directed at “gang members who display a willingness to leave and become rehabilitated, [and]have no pending criminal proceedings in court.” It is also directed at those serving sentences for crimes related to gang membership; to those just out of prison; communities or families who fear for their safety or who — due to certain social conditions — are considered at risk.
In this last case, the government is offering these communities better public spaces, childcare programs, improved public services and the implementation of “community, agricultural, and business” projects.
The person must be fingerprinted and photographed, as well as provide verifiable information about their family and place of residence. The government will develop a flexible rehabilitation program. The program will differ depending on each person. In order not to be kicked out of these programs, applicants must refrain from frequenting so-called “places of risk,” be willing to perform volunteer work that helps the community, and fully complete all the steps required by their rehabilitation program.
The gangs within El Salvador, such as MS-13 and Barrio 18, accepted the terms of reintegration and gang rehabilitation.
Despite the cultural differences, the core value is the same. Reintegration into society is key, in order to stop the cycle of violence. Whether it is federal terms of reintegration as a citizen of El Salvador or learning job skills and removing tattoos, social norms will always prove to be a barrier for former gang members.
Although it may be dangerous, it is vital for gang members to speak out about their success in reintegrating with society. If the rehabilitated vocalize their progress in society, other gang members will feel more comfortable leaving the life of violence behind.
One thing is for certain — judgment and hatred never helped anyone, and gang rehabilitation is a way to combat these emotions.
– Danielle Preskitt