The Economics of Prison Gangs

Power and order behind bars


A very interesting Atlantic article about prison gangs devotes a lot of attention to the work of David Skarbek, a graduate of George Mason's economics program who now teaches at King's College London. Here are some excerpts:

Your guide.

"Prison is set up so that most of the things a person wants to do are against the rules," Skarbek says. "So to understand what's really going on, you have to start by realizing that people are coming up with complicated ways to get around them." Prison officials have long known that gangs are highly sophisticated organizations with carefully plotted strategies, business-development plans, bureaucracies, and even human-resources departments—all of which, Skarbek argues, lead not to chaos in the prison system but to order….

Prison, Skarbek claims, is the ultimate challenge for a rational-choice theorist: a place where control of the economic actors is nearly total, and where virtually any transaction requires the consent of the authorities. The Soviets had far less control over their people's economic activity than prison wardens do over the few dollars available for prisoners' commissary purchases. Both settings have given rise to alternate currencies and hidden markets. Most famously, cigarettes have become the medium of exchange in many prisons. But when they are banned, other currencies take their place. California inmates now use postage stamps….

Can't a man get some sleep?

What's astonishing to outsiders, Skarbek says, is that many aspects of gang politics that appear to be sources of unresolvable hatred immediately dissipate if they threaten the stability of prison society. For example, consider the Aryan Brotherhood—a notoriously brutal organization whose members are often kept alone in cells because they tend to murder their cell mates. You can take the Brotherhood at its word when it declares itself a racist organization, and you can do the same with the Black Guerrilla Family, which preaches race war and calls for the violent overthrow of the government. But Skarbek says that at lights-out in some prisons, the leader of each gang will call out good night to his entire cellblock. The sole purpose of this exercise is for each gang leader to guarantee that his men will respect the night's silence. If a white guy starts yelling and keeps everyone awake, the Aryan Brothers will discipline him to avoid having blacks or Hispanics attack one of their members. White power is one thing, but the need to keep order and get shut-eye is paramount.

There's much more, including an argument that "prison gangs are the courts and sheriffs for people whose business is too shady to be able to count on justice from the usual sources." Read the rest here. Buy Skarbek's book The Social Order of the Underworld here. See him describe the world's freest prison here. Peruse Reason's special incarceration issue here.