Reality check! Hoboken students talk about local gangs, listen to pitfalls from inmates

Kids at Hoboken High School said last week that they are aware of local gangs.

While they admitted that there is a local presence of the national Bloods Gang, they said the most prevalent gangs in town are what they called “crews,” groups of teenagers with no affiliation to a major gang, who have formed their own alliance.

“The same crews that grew up with each other, now want to fight each other,” said one 16-year-old last week. “It’s crazy.”

The students spoke out after 500 of their classmates listened to a firsthand account of gang life a week ago Thursday from former gang members who are currently serving sentences at Northern State Prison.

The presentation at the high school came courtesy of the statewide Gang Awareness and Prevention Program (G.A.P.P.), an initiative introduced into the district three years ago by Sgt. Edmond Drishti, under the guidance of Capt. Edelmiro Garcia and Chief of Police Dr. Carmen LaBruno.

The program attempts to combat the often glamorized version of gang life children are subjected to from celebrities and rappers.

Kids glued to stage

“A lot of kids are misguided by what they see and hear on TV and in music,” said Sgt. Drishti last week. “Programs like this make them aware of the pitfalls that come with becoming part of a gang.”

During the assembly, when the students were asked if they knew of any local youths who are part of a gang, they overwhelmingly raised their hands.

“When you join a gang, there are rules and regulations,” said Mr. Earl, one of the two inmates who led the discussion. “If they tell you to kill your mother, you gotta kill your mother. If they tell you to kill your father, you gotta kill your father, cause if you don’t do what they say, they’re gonna kill you.”

One of the greatest lessons Earl learned from the time he spent as a member of a gang was the feeling he got from losing his personal freedom.

“When you join a gang, you give up the right to think for yourself,” added Earl. “You let the gang leader think for you, you let the gang leader get rich off of you. I thought joining a gang you get me honor and respect. There ain’t no honor amongst thieves; ain’t no loyalty amongst a bunch of idiots.”

Earl was joined by another inmate referred to as Mr. Derrick, who spoke mostly of his experience in prison. “You might think you’re tough out here, walking around with attitude; you ain’t nothing,” said Derrick. “You go in that prison you gonna run into someone just little tougher than you, and they’re gonna tear you apart. People get killed in prison; people get raped in prison.”

One of the most graphic stories Derrick told involved a fellow inmate whose sister admired her brother so much that she decided to join his gang while he was locked up. The sister’s initiation process involved her rolling dice and being forced to have sex with the number of gang members that the roll offered. The sister contracted AIDS.

Following the presentation, Earl, who spent over 10 years in prison due to a gang-related violent offense, said he’d consider the presentation a success if it deterred at least one student from making the same mistakes he did.

“I hope they realize that they’ve got a whole lifetime ahead of them,” he said. “And that they realize by my experience that they don’t have to go through what I went through if they make the right decisions.”

The impact

The students were moved by the uncensored stories of violence and subsequent prison life.

“It’s hard for us to imagine what it’s like going to jail and living with killers,” said 16-year-old Hoboken High student Camron Harris. “All we know is what we see on the street. Listening to these guys lets us see what happens later.”

Students talked about local kids.

“All people want is to be cool; they want to be popular, but not in the right way,” said 16-year-old Bernardo Nunez.

Another student, 15-year-old Paige Peguero, added, “A lot of kids are careless about other people’s feelings and how they will affect their lives.”

The overall sentiment the kids took from the presentation was summed up by 15-year-old David Rivera, who said, “It’s not worth it.”

Drishti noted that there has been a significant improvement in the atmosphere at Hoboken High in the past five years since the introduction of a program called the School Resource Officer Program, which, through a federal grant, places three police officers at the high school during the school day.

The students agreed that more preventive programs are needed to give kids a more balanced look at gang life and the effects on their families.

“Kids will listen if you talk to them,” said Harris.

Harris added that a moving part of the presentation occurred when the inmates described how they had to shower and shave in a small box-like area within their cell that was also used as a toilet.

Last year, about 100 students were taken on tours of the County Jail and Rahway State Prison on a Department of Justice Grant to see how inmates live.

G.A.P.P. has also held seminars at Brandt Middle School and Demarest High and Middle schools in September.

Seven gangs

The New Jersey Department of Corrections classified the following seven high-profile gangs as security threats within the state’s prison system: the Bloods, Crips, Neta, Five Percent Nation, East Coast Aryan Brotherhood, Prison Brotherhood of Bikers, and The Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation.

As of June 30, 2005, New Jersey State Police estimated that nearly 17,000 gang members exist statewide. According to Drishti, violent crime amongst teens is on the rise across the state, especially among females.

School board member Carmelo Garcia, a strong advocate of the program who also played an instrumental role in bringing it to Hoboken High, was at the presentation.

“In today’s society there’s so much peer pressure,” he said. “A lot of our children need to think about the consequences when they make that choice. This is a very preventative approach that is going to be effective and hopefully leave a longstanding impact in their minds.”

Around the state

G.A.P.P. was founded in November of 2001 by New Jersey Principal Investigator Ron Holvey to combat the escalation of gangs across the state.

The program works in accordance with the State Department of Corrections, allowing former gang members who are currently incarcerated to visit law enforcement agencies, schools, and civic centers.

First, they must successfully completing the Security Threat Group Management Unit Program at Northern State Prison, earning a minimum custody status that permits them leave the prison under security escort.

G.A.P.P. has received a $140,000 federal grant in 2006 to expand its areas of operations throughout the state.

Michael Mullins can be reached at


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