Spotlighting gangs in South Mississippi

Updated: Oct. 22, 2019 at 9:50 PM CDT
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HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WDAM) - “I love this organization and I’ll die for this."

Those are words from an inmate inside the Forrest County Jail. That organization he’s talking about is a gang, known as the Simon City Royals. That interview is part of a much longer report, aired by CNN, highlighting something Pine Belt law enforcement agencies have known for years.

“Every law enforcement agency in this area is very aware of the gangs that are here,” said Captain Phillip Hendricks with the Forrest County Sheriff’s Department. “I think any city of any significance size in the United States is going to have some level of a gang problem."

Hendricks is the chief investigator with the Forrest County Sheriff’s Department. Hendricks is featured in that CNN report and hopes it sends a message that life inside a gang leads to destruction, and often times behind bars. Filtering it’s way to the Pine Belt by way of Chicago, Simon City Royals is a street gang that eventually found itself making up local jail populations, just like the one feet away from Hendricks’ office.

“I know that any given day there are several Simon City Royals housed there," Hendricks said. “Of course they’re not allowed to wear their street clothes with their gang colors or anything. They have to wear a uniform when they’re incarcerated.”

When asked about whether those gang members self identify, Hendricks said it’s part of the booking process to ask about gang affiliations.

“Sometimes it’s their sense of identity, it’s their sense family. They’re proud of that,” said Hendricks. “Everyone eventually gets released. So, if they become a gang member when they’re in jail or when they’re in prison, eventually they’re going to be released and now they’re a gang member on the street."

While often associated with crime, active gang members in that CNN report have a much different perspective, saying the gang is all about staying positive and that ending up behind bars is not the intention.

“It just seems like especially here in Mississippi, it’s due to drugs,” said one of the Forrest County inmates featured in the CNN report. “Some people think, ‘Man, I can control it.’ But then it’s like after a while it’s just like anything, it takes control of you.”

Hendricks said that can lead to a lifetime of gang involvement, especially when looking for protection behind bars, but doesn’t have to.

“If have to believe if you’re in this work that anybody has the potential to change," Hendricks said. “As long as you’re still breathing, you have the potential to turn it around.”

When it comes to combating gangs, Hendricks said there are a lot of factors in play. Those factors include everything from poverty and family life to loneliness and substance abuse. Hendricks said that’s why early education and outreach are big missions for the sheriff’s department.

“We’re going for more of a comprehensive approach," Hendricks said. “We’re not just trying to catch people when they break the law.”

Hendricks points out the Simon City Royals isn’t the only gang around, and while not always the topic of conversation, he hopes community awareness will stop gangs from continuing to build, both behind bars and out.

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