TYLER/LONGVIEW, Texas (KETK) - Texas gangs have been around since the mid-1850s and law enforcement said they're not going away anytime soon. Current and former gang members said the issue starts in the home or neighborhood. Some said they dealt with abandonment of some sort and in turn, end up searching for respect in the streets.
In Tyler, PT Cole Park is now a quiet, peaceful setting. There's no sign of violence that once happened there. It has been four years since an innocent, young woman was found dead in that very place.
"I feel like I'm down here with a life sentence for a crime I didn't commit," said Dennis Bendy, behind glass as he's serving time at the Telford Unit in New Boston.
It happened on July 30, 2013. Investigators reported the shooting as a result of gang activity.
"I never was apart of the gang but by me being around the environment and growing up with certain people, they base me as one of them," said Bendy.
He is now appealing his conviction so he couldn't say much, but he did say he regrets hanging around the wrong crowd.
"People try to make names and have something to prove, feel like they hard, you know. I feel like that's probably why a lot of stuff happens too," he said.
Tyler Police said because of crimes like the one at PT Cole Park, they put safe guards in place to protect the community.
"There's not any problem too large or too small that we won't try to address," said Tyler Police Chief Jimmy Toler.
Chief Toler said any given day, they monitor from 10 to a dozen gangs in the city.
"Some of the things we've seen in the past have to deal with assaults and drug activities and burglaries and thefts. Those are the most common that we see," he said.
Sergeant Shane McCarter with Longview Police said it's about the same for his city.
"We've estimated our active gangs is about three or four gangs," said Sergeant McCarter.
The word 'active' is an important distinction. He said their department only averages eight reports a month associated with gang members, out of the average 930 total crime reports a month.
"Our gangs are loosely affiliated inside the city and most of them are neighborhood oriented," said McCarter.
Those involved in gangs said neighborhoods and family are heavy influences.
"You doing the right thing, you a nobody. Those are the people that I looked up to," Malik Bridges, a self-identified gang member. "People like my cousin, they were heroes because they were taking care of their family. They weren't doing the right thing but they had love everywhere. I wanted that same thing, I wanted that same thing. It's really acceptance."
Bridges is only 20-years-old and is almost two years into his 20-year sentence for aggravated robbery at the Beto Unit in Tennessee Colony.
"I do deserve punishment for the wrong that I done, I deserve punishment," he said. "Not this, though. Not this type of punishment. Maybe this is just a part of God's plan for me though."
The cousin Malik mentioned is about an hour and a half south of him serving time at the Eastham Unit. His name is Tim Johnson, but most people in Longview know him as the rapper "Money Trump." He's going on five years in several different prisons. It's a time he said has been a harsh reality but a blessing in disguise.
"Back then I was childish. I actually feel like I became a man. I'm ready to take care of my responsibilities like a man," said Johnson.
He's being reviewed for parole and said he has big plans to make a change in the community when he gets out, including meeting with community leaders to create youth programs.
"I got a bunch of music that's going to be positive," he said. "It's going to be street, but it's going to be positive. It's going to touch them because I know where they from, I know where they came from. I'm kind of putting it together right."
Despite their trouble with the law and time behind bars, they haven't given up on their education. It's something they all said they wish they had paid more attention to growing up.
"Get your education and stay away from the street life because it don't bring nothing good out of it, nothing but penitentiary and death," said Bendy.
Bendy never finished high school at John Tyler, but just got his GED in prison. He said he has been reading more and even studying up on the sociology behind gangs.
"School and football, yeah that was an option but once my daddy left, we left," added Bridges. "We kind of had to raise ourselves like that, but if I would've stayed in school it would've pushed me a little more to get away."
He was just moved out of medium custody into general population last week. He's now able to attend school at the prison and wants to study musical engineering and business.
"I don't have to get out depending on the same thing that got me here," said Bridges.
As a father of five kids, Johnson is hitting the books too. He's currently attending Lee College.
"I'm trying to get my associate degree in business right now. I'm doing good, I'm not letting nothing hold me back," said Johnson.
Getting an education is just the first step in the right direction for many who have fallen into a life of crime.
"When those guys have done their time, it is hard. It is hard for them to find jobs and those are things that we want our young people to understand early on," said Sergeant McCarter.
William Spink, an ex-gang member from Houston, has only been out of prison for seven weeks but he has already opened his own auto-detailing business in Jacksonville.
"I was turned down for several jobs multiple times," said Spink. "Prison taught me alot. I got some trades when I was down there. I learned how to weld, I got my welding trade, carpentry. It taught me discipline," he said.
He said as a kid, he fell into the streets to survive.
"My mom, she sold drugs so I grew up around that. She went to prison when I was like 14 and I'm the oldest of five kids, so when she went to prison we all went to the same boys home," said Spink.
He said surrounding yourself with good people who care is important and that's a lesson many gang members learn the hard way.
"I want people to wake up and think about the loved ones, the real loved ones not the fake friends or the people you think love you," added Johnson.
While many social theories try to explain why young men join gangs, some who have been through it said that quick path to gaining money and respect cost way more than they would've ever imagined.
Lee College offers college courses for credit in the Texas Department Criminal Justice System. Their Huntsville Center study said inmates who finish two years of college have a 10% re-offending rate compared to a 60% re-offending rate for prisoners who do not get any additional education.
For more information about William Spink's business, 'Quality Detailing Services & Mobile Pressure Washing,' you can contact him at 469-559-7555 or visit his location at 405 W. Larissa in Jacksonville.