published Saturday, November 26th, 2011

Chattanooga gangs keeping jailers busier

This photo of a Gangster Disciple tattoo was taken by Bradley County Corrections staff.
This photo of a Gangster Disciple tattoo was taken by Bradley County Corrections staff.


Ninety varieties of criminal street gangs have been documented at the Hamilton County Jail.

The number varies from the 44 gangs documented by the Chattanooga Police Department because not all inmates reside in the Chattanooga area.

26: Crip sets

21: Blood sets

5: Vice Lords sets

5: Gangsta Disciple sets

8: Hispanic gangs

2: Asian gangs

9: Hate groups

5: Outlaw motorcycle gangs

9: Hybrid gangs

Source: Hamilton County Jail

Maybe it's a tattoo of a six-point star or a Teutonic thunderbolt.

Perhaps it's the observations of a patrol officer transporting an inmate.

But in both cases, it prompts jail officials to ask: "Are you a gang member?"

"Something has to happen to bring it to our attention that this person is a person of interest," said Hamilton County Sheriff's Office Lt. Gene Coppinger, a corrections security supervisor at the county jail who has been watching gang members get booked in for at least a decade.

The number of inmates who are gang members is growing within the Hamilton County Jail, which houses about 500 inmates.

On any given day in 2010, on average there were 98 gang members in custody. So far in 2011, the average is 102 -- nearly one-fifth of the jail population.

State law defines a gang as three or more people in an ongoing organization that commits crimes.

Coppinger, who is also on the executive board of the Tennessee Gang Investigators Association, said the openness of inmates admitting gang membership has changed over the years.

"They would come in, and they bragged. They were proud of being a gang member," he said. "Now they come in and they don't give us that information readily."

According to Chattanooga Police Department figures, an estimated 1,100 gang members have been documented in the city. That's up from 100 in 1997, according to newspaper archives.

"In the neighborhoods, I've heard it's not a matter of, 'Did I necessarily want to join?' It's either 'I'm one of them or I'm an enemy to them,'" Coppinger said.

In recent years, Bradley County also has become aware of the gang problem and has begun tracking gang members at the jail.

"It's definitely growing, and I think it's a little more developed than what we see," said Bradley County Sheriff's Office Corrections Sgt. Jason Brock.

At capacity, the Bradley County Jail holds 408 inmates. This week, the population was at 365. On average, there are about 30 gang members at the jail, Brock said.

The most prevalent gang members are from the Gangsta Disciples -- whose symbol includes a six-pointed star -- and hate groups such as Aryan Nation. There have been 14 hate groups documented, including white supremacists, he said.

The Teutonic thunderbolt is one of the symbols used by the white supremacy movement and was used by the Nazi SS corps in World War II.

Since the Bradley County list formally began in about 2007, 445 gang members have been documented at the facility, he said.

There are no legal consequences to being a gang member.

"If they come in and say, 'I'm a gang member,' it's not illegal in the state of Tennessee to be a gang member," Coppinger said. "You can be a gang member. Obviously, you're going to be a person of interest when you enter my walls, but as long as you follow the rules of the facility you're going to be treated like any other inmate."

Neutral Territory

It takes about eight staff members at the Hamilton County Jail to move inmates and keep gang members away from each other.

"It's a full-time job. It's a constant shell game of moving people here and moving people there to try to keep that balance," Coppinger said. "Regardless of the gang problem here, you have eight, 10, 12 people locked up together. And sooner or later, they are going to get on each other's nerves."

The city has had 23 homicides so far this year. Of those, 65 percent were gang-related, according to Chattanooga police.

Gang members charged in a crime against a rival gang present a challenge for jail workers.

"They've killed or disrespected in some way a member of another gang," Coppinger said. "When they come into jail, that other gang is out to get them."

Do you worry about becoming a victim of gang violence?

But jail rivalries are different from those on the outside.

"Since they are in custody, they no longer have all of their home boys around to protect them. They don't have weapons. They are all not toting. They aren't as brave," Coppinger said. "They aren't as bad as they were out on the street with 20 of their friends riding in five carloads around town. They aren't in their own neighborhood where they know they can run, where the guns are stashed, things like that."

Ninety criminal street gangs have been documented at the Hamilton County Jail, but that doesn't reflect the number of gangs entrenched in the community -- 44 gangs, according to Chattanooga police data.

Gang members who do not live in the area sometimes get arrested here, Coppinger said.

The total at the jail includes 26 Crip sets, 21 Blood sets and nine hate groups. Hybrid gangs, similar to neighborhood cliques with some characteristics of organized street gangs, also are on the rise, he said. The gangs allow members to be in national or local gangs. Often, they are school based, according to Chattanooga police.

"If something happens out on the street, then it overflows into the facility," Coppinger said.

Gang Criteria

Hamilton and Bradley counties classify jailed gang members with Tennessee Department of Correction system criteria, which operate on a point system. When 10 points are reached, the inmate is classified as a gang member, Brock said. For example, gang-related tattoos are worth eight points.

  • photo
    Bradley County Corrections Sgt. Jason Brock describes a point system used to classify gang members in custody.
    Photo by Tim Barber /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

"I tell them I use [the classification] to control conflict in the facility and not to house rivals around each other," he said.

Both Coppinger and Brock noted that gangs are less organized in East Tennessee, as compared with other cities in the state, as alliances are often formed between members of different gangs.

Coppinger said gang members will do whatever benefits them at the local jail, unlike at state and federal prisons, where gangs are highly organized.

And there still are gang members in jail who remain undocumented.

"The ones who are the most worrisome are the ones we don't know about. They aren't going to tell us anything," Coppinger said.

Bradley County is seeing an influx of gang members moving into the region, Brock said.

"We have a lot of locals that we deal with, but we also have a large number of members who have moved from other areas to try and get off the radar. There's more in here I don't know about," he said.

There are about four people at the Bradley County Sheriff's Office who track gang members, Brock said, but they also have other responsibilities and document gang members as time allows.

"This is a bigger problem than we know about," Brock said. "It's something that we're going to have to open our eyes to and face."

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xsiveporsche said...

If they think they are such bad a__es, put them all in the same cell at the same time and see who comes out.

November 26, 2011 at 8:23 a.m.
Emersization said...

Should have thought about the consequences of removing the bible and prayer out of public schools. How long did this take, one maybe two generations?

There is an award winning documentary. It gives a great understanding of the sociological aspects of what we are experiencing as recipients of this cultural breed that is sweeping cities across our nation. In Your Face, so it is said. The story begins with WWWII manufacturing plants luring Black American farmers to Los Angeles. Not long after, mass unemployment takes place from shutting down of the no longer needed factories. A new struggle to survive emerges ....

Ladies and Gentlemen, I bring you Crips & Bloods: Made in America


November 26, 2011 at 8:28 a.m.
skyboxer said...

"Bible and prayer" is not the solution. The Koran is. Long live Mohammad the one great and true Prophet.

November 26, 2011 at 12:08 p.m.
macropetala8 said...

Emersization said... Should have thought about the consequences of removing the bible and prayer out of public schools

I knew it wouldn't take long for someone to jump in and blame all today's ills on the schools no longer having the bible and prayer as part of its regular curriculum. Guess what, gangs and even violence have always been a backdrop of American history. Bible and prayer were a major part of schools during the terrorisitc reign of the KKK and other sub groups. In fact, they often used Bible quotes as their driving force and reason for existing. Before every lynching. Before every cross burning. Before every home they burned down or family members they dragged from their home in the middle of the night to torture, they prayed about it all to the christian god.

November 26, 2011 at 4:08 p.m.
kathy said...

Gather them all up, put them all in one room, step back, let them kill each other off. Problem solved. The city would be much better off without the trash on the streets.

November 26, 2011 at 5:35 p.m.
ginagirl43 said...

Amen, Kathy!

November 26, 2011 at 6:20 p.m.
SCOTTYM said...

Ten comments down the memory hole.(Only one by me.)

I guess it is OK to bash Christianity, but any negative comments about Islam get deleted.

How very Orwellian.

November 26, 2011 at 8:21 p.m.
SCOTTYM said...

Are the editors/webmasters afraid an emissary from the "religion of peace" will hunt them down and kill for allowing negative comments to remain?

Cowardice in the face of barbarity?

Or just P.C. run a muck?

Either way, the deleter is a broken person who should never be allowed to exercise any sort of control of anything.

November 26, 2011 at 8:27 p.m.
PinkSalmon said...

SCOTTM, I don't see where anyone is bashing TRUE Christians or Christianity. Just the fakes calling themselves Christians.

Christianity means to be Christ-Like. Jesus Christ would have nothing in common with many who today call themselves "Christians." In fact, they'd likely treat Him no better than He was treated in His own time, because Jesus Christ would march to the beat of a different drum than today's false "Christians" who are so filled with hate, bigotry and intolerance of anyone and everyone they've decided doesn't fit into their exclusive club.

November 26, 2011 at 8:34 p.m.
SCOTTYM said...

So, Pink, you've taken it upon yourself to decide who is "TRUE" to their professed religion. I wonder how you've arrived at these wonderful powers of deduction.

I like the way your "hate, bigotry and intolerance" of those you've decided aren't "TRUE" Christians allows you to really get at the center of why it's OK to delete comments about another religion. Your post oozes with hate and intolerance.

Good job on the open mindedness.

November 26, 2011 at 8:48 p.m.
PinkSalmon said...

SCOTTYM, don't confuse yourself with someone speaking the TRUTH with "intolerance and hate."

Even the "Bible" speaks of the false ones, and warns of their true motives.

It would be interesting to know what was in those other posts about Islam, wouldn't it? Why would someone feel the need to bring up Islam in conjunction with a social ill which has nothing to do with Islam?

This "my religion is better than your religion" is juvenile.

November 26, 2011 at 9:02 p.m.
ThinBlue706 said...

The article is on gangs and gang violence. Two (2) comments are brief and about most peoples "wish" to deal with the gang issues in jails. The rest are about religion? The long term gang problem, both locally and nationally, are much, much more complex than simply religion or lack there of. The KKK said prayers and recited the Bible before spouting their hatred and commiting their heinious crimes. No differant than a radical Muslim praying over the Koran then setting off a bomb that kills innocents.

To deal with the gang issues is going to take commitments by the local community to alleviate. Government can't just throw money at the problem. We can't wish a "Bull" Connor to come use dogs and fire hoses to wash the problem away. We can not afford to turn ourselves into the very thing we are trying to erradicate....violence. Strong law enforcement presence, strong judicial system will help. But, it has to start in the home with an emphasis on FAMILY, education, and decent employement. Full bellies, decent home, and cohesive families do not rape, murder, and steal. It will not be solved quickly.

November 26, 2011 at 11:03 p.m.
SCOTTYM said...

"It would be interesting to know what was in those other posts about Islam, wouldn't it?"

I know what my comment contained. There were references to pedophilia, schizophrenia, and the subjugation of women. I suppose it was the fact that I attributed these things to Muhammad that was the problem. If it weren't true, why the need to censor my comment? One could merely post contradictory claims.

Apparently contradictory viewpoints are not tolerated by the "religion of peace", nor by those who live in fear of the adherents thereof.

November 26, 2011 at 11:13 p.m.
Echo said...

Please do not suggest that if we just threw more money down the hole for education, family, blah, blah that this problem would be solved. People make choices based on personal interest. Our jail are no longer a deterrent, they are a criminal finishing school. Here's your solution.

set eye bolts in blocks of concrete in an open field.

chain convict to eye bolt.

convicts who shut their stupid mouths get water.

convicts who stand at attention get some food.

convicts who can serve food and water get a blanket.

convicts who can work, work in a work detail and get basic shelter.

if you screw up, you get downgraded and set back a level.

Indoor plumbing, heat, shelter and all other things that a law abiding person must pay to have are a privileged to be earned. I call this outcarceration.

It's "greener" because it takes less resources and energy. You don't need cell extraction. There no potential for contraband or assault. Fresh air and sunshine, unless it's raining, or cold.

Then see how many people want to go shooting and looting.

November 27, 2011 at 5:20 a.m.
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