Criminal Justice

Gangs in Control of America's Prisons

Q and A with author David Skarbek.


Published March 12, 2015. Original text below:

"We need to make prisons smaller and safer so that inmates don't have to turn to gangs for protection," says David Skarbek, a lecturer in political economy at King's College in London and the author of "The Social Order of the Underworld: How Prison Gangs Govern the American Penal System."

In an interview with Reason TV's Nick Gillespie, Skarbek talks about how American prisoners once relied on an unwritten "convict's code," which essentially encouraged inmates to be good neighbors or face ostracization. As the prison population began to swell in the 1960s, the decentralized methods used by inmates to protect themselves were replaced by the rise of prison gangs as "an alternative source of governance."

Skarbek also talks about how tattoos are a "credible way to provide information" to other prisoners, and why reducing the prison population is vital to mitigate the influence of prison gangs. 

About 9.30 minutes.

Produced by Anthony L. Fisher. Camera by Josh Swain and Meredith Bragg. Additional photography by Todd Krainin. 

Music by: Music: "Applicant" by The Matt Kurz One.
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  1. OT: After some talk about Star Trek movies the other night, I had to throw on Undiscovered Country. I can confirm that it’s still my favourite of all the Trek movies.

    1. Rura Penthe had an unwritten convict’s code as well.

      1. Work well, and you’ll be treated well.

        1. I guess my comment was rather on topic.

          Now the all important question: Would you sleep with the shape shifter when she was in the black woman form, knowing that she was a shape shifter?

          1. I don’t know. Am I Kirk?

            1. I have always thought of you as more of a Picard.

          2. We should ask David Bowie.

            1. I’m thinking I want to start wearing a skirt ’cause my junk is feeling oppressed. Anyone planning on giving me any crap, be forewarned I’m claiming 2% Scottish DNA.

              1. I was just in a wedding where all the groomsmen wore formal Highland dress. I think Utilikilts and such are kinda dumb, but I’ll definitely say that a kilt and Prince Charlie jacket are about the most comfortable formal attire I’ve ever worn. I could wear that shit every day, no problem.

    2. As Trek movies go, it wasn’t a bad way to end the original series movies. And then…Generations. Ugh.

      1. You’re just pissed you missed the temperal energy ribbon the last time it swung by Earth

        1. Yes! Yes I am!

          It’s the Nexus by the way. An intergalactic janitor named Guinan told me so.

          1. She also said of Picard that “it wasn’t ‘assimilation’ assimilation”.

            So there’s that.

            1. You know, there just isn’t enough rape in Star Trek. Well, there is some mindrape, though. But Guinan says that isn’t rape-rape. Spock agrees.

                1. I never cared for or watched more than a few episodes of DS9. I’m assuming the Bajoran-Cardassian thing was a poorly veiled reference to the Bosnian War.

                  1. When DS9 made allusions it was to the Holocaust. Bajorans were one stereotype of the Jews, an old as fuck religious culture with funny-lookin’ noses waiting for a Messiah the Emissary.

                    And then you had the Ferengi.

                    I’ve never seen Rick Berman and Sheldon Richman in the same room.

                    Jus’ sayin’

                    1. It’s pretty amazing how the people who took over Star Trek after Gene’s death are so obsessed with certain racial/religious bullshit, considering how Gene’s whole deal in TOS was to overcome that and have a show where it was irrelevant.

                    2. Actually, Gene’s whole deal was to give us Nazi Spock, which I agree is infinitely better.

                    3. Eh, I actually like a lot of DS9’s religious and cultural overtones (except pah wraiths, fuck pah wraiths). The few episodes where they play off the Bajorians ‘less civilized’ perspective to the Federation’s monocultural idealism were pretty good at highlighting the flaws of the Federation’s ‘guidance’. The Ferengi get plenty of ‘take that’s at humans during the series as well.

                      I found the fact that in the Federation all religious influence disappeared, even just as a source of a cultural identity, to be ridiculous.

                    4. Also, the massive amount of butthurt over the creation of Section 31 for DS9 cements it as a favourite series. What’s that? Your idealist perfect state actually needs bastards in the shadows manipulating things to be possible?

                    5. I think the religious /racial tones wete added to coubter things l5ije B5.

                      B5, however, built itself from the ground up with that stuff in it so it didn’t feel as clunky

                      Even the holy graik stuff kind of worked

  2. Aww, I can’t believe I missed the 2015 Insane Trolls Convention in Richman’s Israel article today. All it was missing was american socialist showing up to spew Stalin apologia.

    1. Foreign policy articles are quickly becoming the go-to place to find the worst quality comment section discussions on Reason.

      1. Describing Richman’s writings as “foreign policy articles” is like describing Sayyid Qutb’s writings as “invitations to interfaith dialog”.

        1. Indeed. Richman’s ‘foreign policy articles’ are more ‘bedtime stories for my beliefs that conveniently leave out any facts that disagree with me’. And his articles always seem to attract the worst people, Hihn and his insanity in particular.

          1. I’ve never seen Richman and Hihn in the same room together.

            Jus’ sayin’

            1. If you did, they’d be balls deep.

              1. yeahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

          2. Hihn. Jesus, what a tool.

            1. Chumby too.

    1. What the hell is this game? Is it all about just walking around in circles on the moon typing shit into the chat box?

      1. Well, you’re supposed to be repairing your base’s life support system while learning about basic science concepts like mass, gravity, and potential/kinetic energy. But the fact that the developers included a TTS system ascends this game into another realm that is incapable of accurate description in our 4-dimensional space-time.

  3. “We need to make prisons smaller and safer so that inmates don’t have to turn to gangs for protection,” says David Skarbek

    Yeah.Okay. I like that idea.

    Now how about we make government smaller and safer so Americans don’t have to turn to “big party” political gangs for protection?

    1. True. And as far as prisons being “smaller and safer,” it would be a lot easier if we didn’t have so many fucking people in prison for bullshit reasons. Smaller government and a gazillion fewer laws would help.

      1. Word. Stop imprisoning people for victimless crimes and you’ll cut down on prison populations dramatically. And, as a bonus, you’ll have a much less shitty society.

        1. I completely agree with both of you. We Americans have more of our people in prison than any 3 “super-tyrannies” combined. We’re a prison based “democracy.” We could easily begin to change that horrific title by ending prison time for victim-less crimes. Both of the two big political gangs are likely to resist.

  4. I don’t get it… where are their uniforms?

  5. Random LOL: Defying Darwin

    Mentos Shotgun Shell at Coke

  6. The dumbest thing you’ll read all week.

    And since wealthy people don’t spend nearly as high a percentage of their incomes as poor people do, much wealth is sitting around not doing its job.…..?referrer=

    1. Why do so many people want Derpetologist’s job? Why is H&R = Masochist Central?

    2. That whole article is chock full of some of the derpiest derp I’ve ever read.

  7. OT: This article and the comments section for it is what’s wrong with the world today, or at least a lot of it. No part of it does not make me want to vomit out all of my internal organs. Mom names Aspy son ‘Odin’, kids don’t want to hang out with him, Mom begs internet to be friends with son. Masses and masses of online assholes make a superficial meaningless display of solidarity with son, others come to his party as if they have anything at stake. Everyone congratulates everyone and damns those mean kids who didn’t want to hang out with an Asp they don’t like. BARF.…

    1. Lighten up, dude. It’s just the old newspaper staple, the sappy feel-good story, with social media added. It’s not really my kind of thing, either, but everyone involved did so voluntarily, and everyone’s happy, so why rain on their parade? To each his own.

  8. Meh. Prisoners know to play up to televised stereotypes. There are certainly gangs in prisons, but they do not run them. If anything, the guards get off on enforcing piddling regulations. They are largely uneducated, and inside the walls is where they have power.

    Unless you go out of your way to make enemies, the people you really have to worry about are the dangerously mentally ill. They are certainly present, but seldom in general population, and gang affiliation isn’t going to do you much good anyway.

    As a general rule, people don’t want to make friends or enemies. They want to serve their time and be done.

  9. and idiots are in control of Reason…like goes on

    1. So is Jimm the new Tulpa sock or a brand new ignoramus?

  10. Speaking of stereotypes, this is a funny dissection of a wonderfully clueless worldview, as reported by the New York Times: Brain Scientist Tries to Uncover Why White People Are Prejudiced Against Gypsies

    1. “And their psyches have been frayed by that experience. Kende’s research suggests that children living in settlements understand social mobility and the mechanisms behind it: to have a nice life, you have to study hard so you can get a good job and buy a house. But they also understand that those paths are closed to them. When she asked students how they would afford a nice house and a family, many said they would have accidents and collect insurance money, or win at poker.

      “The Roma who do escape the settlements often shed their ethnic identities ? either deliberately or by default. “So for example, the dominant group may accept a Roma who comes from the settlement and somehow makes it into college,” Kende says. “But it’s not, ‘Oh, now this changes my perception of Roma.’ It’s, ‘Oh, well that person is not really Roma.’ And then what you have left is, the word ‘Roma’ becomes shorthand for ‘dirty, lazy, thief.’?” Those norms are so pervasive, she said, that the Roma themselves have adopted them.”

      1. So perhaps the Roma should be cured of their anti-Roma prejudices?

      2. “Straight white male Americans: words that connote privilege, racism, sexism, sexual violence, and colonialism. Those norms are so pervasive that straight white male Americans themselves have adopted them.”

        Gee, Officer Krupke, we’re very upset;
        We never had the love that ev’ry child oughta get.
        We ain’t no delinquents,
        We’re misunderstood.
        Deep down inside us there is good!

        Society’s played him a terrible trick,
        And sociologic’ly he’s sick!

    2. They could make a great movie about a hippie brain scientist:

      “My genius was, like, too, intense for the Establishment, man. I would have all these insights about making people think better by reading their, like, brain waves, and I wrote these insights down right away on my rolling papers – I mean notepaper – and I showed the results to all the stuffed shirts, and they *laughed at me!*

      “I got hassled by the Man, mocked, my grant money cut, and I could not afford the good grass, only the ditchweed. But, like, I’m going to have the last laugh, man. I’m, like, going to use my brain-science powers to create a new race of SJWs that will conquer ze vorld…ha ha ha ha ha ha!”

      1. Luckily, the hippie brain scientists I know are not SJWs.

    3. This Razib thing is going to provide excellent iSteve material for the next few days.

      1. NYT: “We want racial diversity around here, but not any of that ideological diversity crap! Go away, strange brown person whose scientifically-based views make us uncomfortable!”

  11. lol…no “f@@k” off….lol…moving past 3 and 4 letter words? good for you

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