Overwhelming majority of gang members would have chosen a different way of life
Current and former gang members say raising awareness about reality of gang life key to preventing kids from joining.
By GEOFF MCMASTER
The vast majority of gang members in Alberta wouldn’t wish their lives on their own children, according to a new University of Alberta study.
Sociologist Jana Grekul said 98 per cent of gang members she interviewed say theirs is not the life they would have chosen if there were any other option.
“To me that just speaks volumes about the despair, and the realization that this is not the way to go,” she said. “So the challenge is, how do you get out?"
Along with Dawn Marie Chalas of Alberta Justice, Grekul interviewed 175 current and former Alberta gang members about their experiences. Their study, “I’ve Had Enough: Exploring Gang Life From the Perspective of (Ex) Members in Alberta,” was recently published in The Prison Journal.
Lured by false promises
New gang members are recruited by promises of money, women, drugs and, above all, respect. They also believe gangs will offer protection and a kind of substitute family. Among Indigenous youth, expectations are much higher that they will join a gang—Redd Alert and Alberta Warriors are those most often mentioned—following in the footsteps of a father, uncle or older brother. Some recruits are even forced to join when they come of age.
“For many, that's your life path,” said Grekul. “You grow up knowing that—you're surrounded by gang members, and the entrenchment of that lifestyle for some of these kids is shocking.”
Over time, most realize those promises are false, said Grekul.
“It’s a fake way of life,” said one participant interviewed in the study. “It’s not what it’s all made out to be. When you’re a kid you think, ‘Oh, gangster—you get money and respect and whatever else, but when you get told to do something, you have to do it even if you don’t want to, like being violent to another person even though he’s supposed to be your friend or family.’”
For some, said Grekul, ending up in prison can help gang members reform and break their shackles. But more often than not it only deepens the involvement. “Quite a few are recruited in prison and are expected to maintain their ties once they leave.
“Conditions of prison life also make gang life appealing. You have protection from other inmates, access to goods, to drugs—all of it comes easier to you. That's a driving force for joining behind bars."
Getting out of the gang life
Leaving a gang can come with violent, often repeated, retaliation. It is possible to enter protective custody, said Grekul, “but that comes with its own stigmatization.”
When asked how they would prevent their own children from joining gangs, respondents said raising awareness among youth about the reality of the life was a top priority, perhaps by recruiting former members to make presentations or screen documentaries in schools, community centres and prisons.
They also said environmental support plays a big role in allowing gang members to even consider leaving, such as providing information and mentorship regarding education and employment opportunities, or offering job training to inmates while in custody. Programs that encourage the development of positive social bonds rather than negative relationships were highly valued by respondents.
For Indigenous gang members, exposure to their cultural and spiritual heritage—or "walking the red road”—can be a positive influence, said Grekul.
There is also a lot to be said for major life events like getting married or having children—or simply growing up, she said. One former gang member confessed he was sick and tired of taking orders from a degenerate leader and spending time in jail.
“I don’t want to be bad guy. I have a four-year-old son, so I want to smarten up.”