Gangs and groups: the impact on therapeutic processes

Geraldine Ann Akerman (HM Prison Grendon, Aylesbury, UK)



The purpose of this paper is to consider the impact having been in a gang has on being in a group in a democratic therapeutic community (DTC). In particular what characteristics attract (in this case) males to join a gang and or group, and what is the impact on a DTC of having former gang members in it.


The paper is a discussion paper considering the implications of the points raised above. It also includes results of research relating to the “Changing the Game” programme.


The findings result from experience of having worked in the environment, reviewing available literature, conducting research and having managed some of the issues raised. It is not a research paper but does present findings.

Research limitations/implications

This is a conceptual paper which incorporates findings from this author and others on the impact of gangs in a DTC. There is limited research in this area and so much is drawn from findings in other settings.


Little is written on the impact of having been in a gang and the dynamics that introduces in a forensic DTC. Therefore, it is hoped that it will encourage further research in this area.



Akerman, G. (2018), "Gangs and groups: the impact on therapeutic processes", Therapeutic Communities: The International Journal of Therapeutic Communities, Vol. 39 No. 1, pp. 50-58.

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Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2018, Emerald Publishing Limited

This paper introduces the evolution of the gang awareness programme, Changing the Game, at HMP Grendon, describes the context in which the programme ran, and discusses the impact those who have been members of gangs can have on the therapeutic process and the community. The terms group and gang will be discussed and similarities and differences examined.

For many years researchers have studied the impact gang members had on the safety and management of prisons. Griffin and Hepburn (2006) noted that prison gangs can severely undermine the ability of prison staff to maintain a safe and orderly environment. This can result in staff and prisoners believing that officials are not in full control of prisons (Wood and Adler, 2001; Wood, 2006; Wood, 2017). Although Wood et al. (2014) found no association between having been in a street gang and being involved in prison gang activity, they noted social status was an important predictor of prisoners’ involvement in prison gang activity. Wood (2017) highlighted how criminal activities can be continued while gang members are in custody, challenging the belief that once convicted a gang member will stop offending. She described how her research suggested that those in custody continued to be involved in car crime, handling stolen good and burglaries, as well as organising more serious assaults on those in the community or in other establishments. Wood and Alleyne (2010) developed a Unified Theory charting how young people may get involved in gangs and importantly the pathways out, which is the focus of this paper. Camp and Camp (1985) and Fong (1990) described how prison gangs in adult institutions function on the acquisition of money and power, using threats and violence to dominate staff and other prisoners, and such behaviour could clearly impact on relationships and the power balance within a democratic therapeutic community (DTC). Setty et al. (2014) report that gang-involved prisoners are disproportionately more likely to be involved in violent incidents. However, rather than committing acquisitive offences they tended to create hostile, territorial associations, which led to conflict and aggression in the struggle for status, respect and reputation.

HMP Grendon

HMP Grendon was opened in 1962 as an experimental psychiatric prison. Throughout its history it has housed men who have committed a wide range of offences and who have experienced events in their lives which have affected how they view the world, relationships and themselves. It is comprised of five independent DTCs and an assessment unit. Each community houses up to 45 residents and employs prison officers, a Therapy Manager, Forensic Psychologist, group psychotherapists and creative therapists. The DTC provides an opportunity for developing pro-social living and relating skills. Provision of a corrective emotional experience and a safe space in which to develop its residents understanding of themselves, helps them to understand what led them to offend. The programme is explained extensively elsewhere (Genders and Player, 1995; Shine and Morris, 1999; Shuker and Sullivan, 2010) but in brief is an intensive living-learning experience through which the residents are given an opportunity to explore their day-to-day living and how this relates to their offending behaviour. This involves them considering their thoughts, feelings and behaviour in the present day, making links to their past, and gaining a chance to practice alternative ways of managing their responses. It is expected that in this environment a certain amount of behaviour from the past will be evident (known as offence paralleling behaviour, Jones, 2004), and this provides the work for therapy groups but at times this can be problematic. For instance, if alliances are formed which impact on groups and communities this can impede the work being undertaken by others. One such example is that of men who have been involved in gangs in the past (and sometimes in the present) and how this fits with a culture which promotes an equal voice for all and a lack of hierarchy. Pearce et al. (2016) described a DTC as a psychosocial treatment based on a collaborative and deinstitutionalized approach between staff and residents. There is emphasis on empowerment, personal responsibility, shared decision making and participation in communal activity. Some of the DTC principles may conflict with previous experiences of the community member, and so experience dissonance, and unconsciously seek to re-create what is familiar to them from their past.

Groups and gangs in a DTC groups

A group is defined (Forsyth, 2006, p. 3) as “two or more individuals who are connected to one another by a social relationship”. Larger groups tend to be comprised of smaller groups linked together for another common purpose. Thus, it is in the DTC at HMP Grendon. The small group is comprised of 8/9 people, in which all aspects of functioning are explored, including links between past and present behaviour, and anti-social beliefs are challenged, referred to as ‘Offence Paralleling Behaviour (Jones, 2004). They consider attachment patterns, and the impact this has had on current and future relationships. In the large community group (which is comprised of approximately 45 residents and 16 staff members) the business and organisational aspects of the community are discussed, along with a focus on conflict resolution. This also provides the opportunity to demonstrate the ability to manage emotions, and dynamics within and between groups. There are also other sub groups, for instance an art therapy or psychodrama group, groups of a religion, ethnicity, age, area of the country, interests, and these groups can have their own dynamics, all of which is up for discussion. The focus of this paper is on Urban Street Gangs, but it is acknowledged that there may be some overlap with issues relating to Organised Crime Groups, which are generally compromised of adults, as opposed to adolescents (Hallsworth, 2013).


The definition of what a gang is and what its membership entails differs across research. For instance, early research (Thrasher, 1927 p. 144) defined it as “[…] interstitial group originally formed spontaneously, and then integrated through conflict and characterised by meeting face to face, milling, movement through space as a unit, conflict and planning. The behaviour develops a tradition, unreflective internal structure, esprit de corps, solidarity, group awareness and attachment to local territory”. Later, Klein (1971, p. 13) described it as “[…] any denotable adolescent group of youngsters who (a) are generally perceived as a distinct aggregation by others in their neighbourhood (b) recognise themselves as a denotable group (almost invariably with a group name) and (c) have been involved in a sufficient number of delinquent incidents to call forth a consistent negative response from neighbourhood residents and/or enforcement agencies”. Klein emphasised that in addition to the individual seeing themselves as a gang member they should be viewed as such by the wider community. Following concerns that the label of being in a gang was being used too liberally the Home Office (2011 p.17) defined a street gang as, “A relatively durable, predominantly street-based group of young people who:

  • see themselves (and are seen by others) as a discernible group;

  • engage in criminal activity and violence;

  • lay claim over territory (this is not necessarily geographical territory but can include an illegal economy territory);

  • have some form of identifying structural feature; and

  • are in conflict with other, similar gangs”.

Given these diverse definitions, Hallsworth (2013 pp.102-3) commented “the term ‘gang’ is now so nebulous, fluid and elastic that it is randomly applied to just about any group of young people ‘hanging around’”.

Within a custodial setting a gang has been defined as a group of three or more prisoners whose behaviour had an adverse impact on the prison that holds them (Wood, 2006), an encompassing definition. In a DTC having such a group could have an adverse impact on a community, as carrying on a code of secrecy, not exposing any anti-social activities, or challenging negative beliefs conflicts with the values of a DTC. Moore and Vigil (1989) referred to an “oppositional culture” and Lien (2002) reports that those who affiliate themselves with such a gang could view themselves as oppressed by others, and targets of racism and inequality, what social psychologists would call in-group/out-group. Interestingly, when those involved are asked they see themselves as a group of friends who protect and support each other (Geraghty and Akerman, 2017).

Within a DTC the expectation is that new members will learn from those who have been there longer, known as culture carriers, and these senior members of the community would model appropriate behaviour to the newer residents (Genders and Player, 1995). This would not be unfamiliar to a member of a gang who would also have the “elders” modelling to the “youngers” what is expected of them, “soldiers” to do the groundwork and “wannabes” on the periphery (Hallsworth, 2013). Gangs can follow a set of values, expectations and “codes” which new members learn as they progress in the ranks. In therapeutic terms, as a group forms it develops with conscious and unconscious rules, which again are learned through experience rather than made explicit prior to entering the group. In group analysis terms, a group forms a matrix between its members which is comprised of the collective idea of the expectations of its members. Weinberg (2008) discusses this as a “social unconscious”, in that members develop basic assumptions as to what is expected of them in relation to others and share memories of the past experiences. In a DTC one of the main principles is that there is a flattened hierarchy in that each participant has an equal voice, staff and residents alike. This may feel unfamiliar to a former gang member, who may well be used to being the person who makes the decisions and tells others what to do. Other expectations they may have could include that they stick up for each other, they do not “rat” or “grass” on one another, whereas in DTC terms this would be a requirement, what would be viewed as reality confrontation, i.e. pointing out inappropriate behaviour and challenging it.

One of the expectations of a gang member is that they would use violence as a means of preventing themselves from being a victim, and join in with violence to remain included in the gang, and as a means of seeking excitement. Violence can be seen as necessary to achieve the aims of the gang, and the member can become desensitised to its use and impact. It is noted, however (Harris et al., 2011) that there can be similarities in the patterns of thinking about the use of violence between those connected to gangs and other men who commit acts of aggression. Therefore, exploring and challenging these attitudes can help reframe the beliefs, which is the general work of a DTC. As with others who have committed offences, members of gangs could be mistrustful of those in authority, be sensitive to being labelled (and so deny gang affiliation) and need to have positive reasons to want to change their lifestyle. Furthermore, changes such as becoming a father, becoming involved in education, being disillusioned with the lifestyle and the reality of it, can be the catalyst for change, in common with others who have been involved in offending, Wood and Alleyne (2010).

Characteristics of men who have been gang members

Many of the men who apply for therapy at HMP Grendon have experienced traumatic events in their past, not least their own offending. Within the population of HMP Grendon (2015) 50 per cent report having a self-harm history, 52 per cent report a history of physical abuse, 32 per cent report having been sexually abused and 69 per cent report loss of or separation from a primary care giver (Akerman and Geraghty, 2015). Research into those who have been involved in the gang culture indicates that gang membership was significantly associated with post-traumatic stress disorder, psychological distress, including anxiety, depression, numbing, suicidal ideation, paranoia, and psychosis (Beresford and Wood, 2016; Public Health England (PHE) 2015). The PHE report highlights that gang members are at increased risk of a range of mental health conditions for instance, conduct disorder, anti-social personality disorder (86 per cent), anxiety (59 per cent), psychosis (25 per cent) and drug (58 per cent) and alcohol dependence (67 per cent) and depression (20 per cent) suggesting that the pre-existing factors could attract them to gangs and/or be a result of membership. An emotively titled review “Dying to Belong” (The Centre for Social Justice, 2009) presents statistics on the extent of involvement of young people in the gang lifestyle. Up to 6 per cent of 10-19-year olds self-report belonging to a gang (Sharp et al., 2006). Police in London and Strathclyde have each identified 171 and 170 gangs, respectively, and there are between 600 and 700 young people who are estimated to be directly gang involved in the London Borough of Waltham Forest alone. Gangs are most commonly found in areas of high deprivation, crime and family breakdown. In both Manchester and Liverpool around 60 per cent of shootings are gang related and at least half of the 27 murders of young people perpetrated by young people in London in 2007 were gang related (Metropolitan Police Authority, 2009). This of course raises the point that the remainder were not. More recently the extent to which those affiliated to gangs are subject to sexual exploitation is coming to light, and it is noted that few report this or ask for help, either considering it as normal, or out of fear, shame, lack of trust, etc. Berelowitz et al. (2013) described how children as young as 11 were being serially raped. So, although all those involved (in any way) with gangs may not have been victims they would have heard of or witnessed such events, thus leaving them feeling traumatised (Berelowitz et al., 2013).

The Metropolitan Police Authority (2009) conducted research into and noted an increase in “gang rape” (involving between three and eight assailants) from 73 in 2003/2004 to 93 in 2008/2009. They, like others (The Centre for Social Justice, 2009; Smith et al., 2013) concluded that given the lack of consistent reporting and collating of evidence it is difficult to accurately assess the extent of the problem.

The impact gang members can have on democratic therapeutic communities

Dawson (2008) described the impact that gangs have on communities outside of prison, for instance being a driving force of violence crime, and committing a substantial proportion of criminal acts. Such behaviour can be mirrored within a DTC. One of the difficulties facing an ex-gang member in a DTC is the perceived dissonance between “breaking the code” and exposing the aspects of themselves which have thus far remained hidden within the gang membership. The very reason they joined a gang may for instance be to gain a sense of belonging, and if they were to disclose information they could fear being excluded. Furthermore, they could have a further trauma, and expose the unresolved emotions from the past which led them to joining the gang. This can evoke powerful feelings of fear, guilt, shame and grief, emotions which thus far have been guarded against using the macho gang mask. Within a DTC there can be a risk that rivals to the alpha male on a community can come into conflict and the need for dialogue as to the dynamics and the drive behind the behaviour is vital. Short and Strodtbeck (1965) commented that it is not clear how the original hierarchy of status is established, but that the leader does not tend to be aggressive or dominance seeking generally, unless their status is directly challenged. Likewise, in custody the leader is less likely to be evident, instead giving instructions to others, who will trade contraband, carry out assaults, and collect debts. In a DTC it may be that the leader is not challenged by others, and could be voted in to more trusted jobs. If they are moved there can be an unsettled period while a replacement is sought. Figure 1 illustrates the impact gang members can have on a community using a case example.

In a community meeting a discussion evolves about possible compromise on the wing. Some members are vocal and others remain quiet. When John mentions he noticed an odd smell on the landing last night his friend Jack nudges him and encourages him not to speak further. Others in the community join in and speak of their concern. Carl had been calmly looking out the window, seemingly disinterested but then looks briefly at John and then looks away again. It is clear to see how much influence Carl has as an “elder”. A comment is made by staff that there seems to be a good deal of tension on the community but it is not being spoken about and the drug paraphernalia found on the exercise yard has not been mentioned. Within the community meeting there is a wall of silence, followed by diversion tactics, “they could come from any wing” “why are we always accused?” and the subject changes. Later, the landing on the wing is the new briefing room. Carl asks who knows what, who is responsible, tactics are discussed. In the next community meeting views are espoused about how those who speak up would be viewed, Carl’s influence is evident in his exposing of his distaste of “the grass” John, who had spoken on the previous community meeting. The usual “community as method” is temporarily derailed when Jack speaks up again undermining John’s point of view. Aspects of his background (his type of offence, perceived cockiness, and previous admissions) are introduced to distract from what is being discussed. His family are mentioned and how they travelled to visit on Family Day, thus making an implied threat. There is a strong perception that Carl has a hold on the community and how this hold can be broken is discussed. Carl and Jack feign shock that community members could see them in this way. Again, there is silence as they consider John’s family and any threat to them. The community can become paralysed by the hold a gang can have on it. The fear and secrecy go against the basic TC principles. The tension is palpable, and it is evident that some key people are not being challenged. When this happens, it calls for decisive action to preserve the whole community. This generally entails removing one or two residents to free up the hold they have on others. While this is not a perfect solution, as there are still concerns that communication will continue via letters, phone calls, etc., it eases the immediate pressure and generally frees residents up to speak about what has been happening.

How can a DTC help?

A DTC can offer the opportunity to develop understanding of the risk factors associated with gang offending, including; having loyalty to anti-social peers, relationships difficulties; distorted attitudes towards women; difficulties relating to authority; use of violence and weapons; emotional management difficulties, and substance misuse (Geraghty and Akerman, 2017). It can also help see the similarities with others, for instance a propensity to feel defensive and use of attack as a form of protection; missing the excitement that violence and offending provided; and the comradeship, status, respect and feeling of power associated with offending. These can then be achieved through other means. Young et al. (2013) suggested the use of a multiagency approach to help gang members to leave that lifestyle and so the addition of the Changing the Game programme may well serve this purpose.

Changing the game programme

The idea of running the “Changing the Game” programme at HMP Grendon evolved out of a discussion at a conference at which there was a presentation on the impact of gangs at HMP Grendon. Having had experiences, like that described above, where it was not always apparent to staff what dynamics were being played out, the programme helped educate all community members about some of the underlying reasons for behaviour, and so how to manage it. It has run for four years at HMP Grendon and aims to help participants understand why they joined a gang, the impact of it on their psychological and physical wellbeing, and to discuss the trauma involved in membership. Through discussion involving the reasons they joined gangs, how the behaviour in the gangs impacted on them, and explaining the psychology of trauma, the participants develop their thinking, emotional regulation skills and positive self-image. It considers the needs of the “group” (such as sense of belonging, identity), understanding what needs were being met, and constructing alternative strategies. The participants re-visit their experiences in the gang culture and acknowledge how they may have been groomed by older people and how they in turn could have done the same thing. The input and suggestions from the participants, who were experts be experience, helped to inform the evolution of the programme, and enrich its content. Further, when the groups were fedback to the community it helped other residents to understand the dynamics and experience of having been in a gang.

In order to evaluate the efficacy of the programme, data were collected from former participants in a focus group (Geraghty and Akerman, 2017). Participants spoke of how mainstream prisons can provide perfect conditions for recruiting new gang members. Pressure is applied to those who do not wish to comply, including threats being made against their families, not unlike communities outside (Geraghty and Akerman, 2017). The vulnerability of, and difficulties faced by, young offenders’ in particular was acknowledged, and the ways in which gang membership (girls, money, fast cars) is glamorised, and its negative aspects (emotional trauma, fear, anxiety) are downplayed, is acknowledged. Residents suggested ways to try to prevent their involvement in gang activities, including the provision of subjects of interest to them (such as music, art, meaningful employment) to draw them away from this lifestyle but also ensure that they gained a sense of purpose by having to work for it. The residents at Grendon describe being involved in group violence despite not wanting to be. Therefore, the gang culture and violence can become a serious management issue and requires further discussion (Geraghty and Akerman, 2017).

Conversely, prison can also provide a place of refuge for gang members. Some residents spoke of how time spent in prison was a “rest” and allowed them “time to breathe” as it was safer than living life in a gang in the community. The process of “elders” grooming “youngers” through offering money, illegal employment, accommodation and protection both outside and in custody were also discussed. The residents highlighted that this might not always be a conscious process by elder gang members (Geraghty and Akerman, 2017). In fact, they expressed their regret that they had done to others what had been done to others in that regard.

Each resident in HMP Grendon has a six-monthly assessment of progress and works towards treatment targets, and each has a target relating to resettlement. Much attention is given to ambitions and plans for the future. Events such as conferences, visits with a difference (where family members learn about the therapeutic community and residents speak about their progress) and leaving meals provide the opportunity for residents to speak of their hopes and aspirations for the future in a public manner, thus affirming their internal hopes. Maruna (2000) explained that understanding the past and public declaration of future plans helped internalise these. Both the therapy in a DTC and the Changing the Game programme provide such an understanding and in that way, complement each other.

The DTC environment may create anxiety and paranoia initially for those who have been part of a gang, as they tend to question the motives of those offering them support, both staff and more experienced residents. Residents report how they value the opportunity to tell their story without feeling judged. They explained that the negative influence of a punitive prison environment can reinforce the “gang mentality” whereas, providing a safe, boundaried therapeutic space can help ex-gang members to develop trust and dismantle barriers to disclosure. Those involved in the Changing the Game programme described how they found it helpful to have that shared experience and help to educate their own therapy group and wing about the processes involved in gang membership. They note similarities to how other youths have managed their emotions, while also recognising differences too. Those involved in the programme, albeit a small sample, indicated that they thought there was a need to be more creative in the approach to tackling gang crime and the importance of adopting a holistic approach which can address both psychological and societal issues (Akerman and Geraghty, 2016; Geraghty and Akerman, 2017).


This paper discussed how those who have been in a gang can respond in a DTC. While the gang mentality can have an impact on how a DTC works at a given time, once it is identified and discussed the reasons for it can be explored and alternatives sought. There are times when the balance can go too far such that a community is compromised, and it is not possible to challenge others or speak out. This can result in offending behaviour (such as use of mobile phones, drugs, aggression and violence) becoming rife, thus damaging the integrity and safety of a community. This may lead to the need for residents to be removed for the good of the community. Such a decision is never taken lightly. The Changing the Game programme has allowed the discussion to be had in a more open forum and enabled the participants to feel like they are talking to others who understand how they feel. This has been feedback into their group and community and so helped others there to understand. The PHE (2015) report emphasises that novel approaches are required, including the provision of holistic support in young peoples’ own environments and the use of key workers or mentors who can build trusting relationships with young people involved with gangs. Anecdotal feedback, and the research undertaken, supports that the Changing the Game programme achieves this aim.


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Further reading

Metropolitan Police Authority (2008), Youth Scrutiny, Metropolitan Police Authority, 29 May, pp. 54-5.

Wood, J., Williams, G. and James, M. (2010), “Incapacitation and imprisonment: prisoners’ involvement in community-based crime”, Psychology Crime and Law, Vol. 16 No. 2, pp. 601-14, doi: 10.1080/10683160902971071.


If the residents in the therapeutic communities were not willing to share their knowledge, insight and understanding no publications regarding to the work undertaken would be possible. Thanks to all of them for continuing the practice started so long ago by the founding fathers Maxwell Jones, Tom Main and George Rappoport.

Corresponding author

Dr Geraldine Ann Akerman can be contacted at:

About the author

Dr Geraldine Ann Akerman is a Therapy Manager at HMP Grendon. Geraldine is a Chartered and HPCP registered Forensic Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. Geraldine is a visiting Lecturer at the University of Birmingham and Cardiff Metropolitan University. Geraldine was awarded her PhD Degree by the University of Birmingham in 2015, has edited a book on the subject of transforming environments and published papers in the areas of sexual interest, offence paralleling behaviour, ex-service personnel and gangs.