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In Praise of Prison Justice

By: Nick Zaiac - @NickZaiac - Aug 6, 2014, 6:00 am

EspañolWhat can prison gangs teach us about the rule of law and constitutionalism? “Not very much,” the average person might say. Prison life seems so far removed from the world “on the outside” — living under lock and key among violent criminals, and your daily habits controlled by armed guards.

Trust among prisoners is lacking, as are the traditional methods of bringing order to society. Yet, despite this, a thriving prison economy exists where millions of illicit deals are executed every day. This is the world of David Skarbek’s excellent new book, The Social Order of the Underworld, in which he seeks to explain how order and trade can emerge under some of the least-likely circumstances imaginable.

The Social Order of the Underworld by David Skarbek
(Amazon)

Skarbek’s book is the latest in a recent research vein that explores governance under the most difficult of circumstances. It shares many similarities with other similar works, such as Peter Leeson’s The Invisible Hook, which explores how governance was provided aboard pirate vessels.

Indeed, if the book has any major weakness, it is that, with minimal background knowledge, it says exactly what one would expect on such a topic: governance emerges in difficult situations all the time. People group together to protect property rights. When trade is lucrative, groups will try to control individuals to maximize collective gain. While none of this is shocking, that should not detract from the valuable lessons Skarbek’s book provides.

The author’s research is extremely thorough, despite the natural complications that arise when one studies illicit markets. By their very nature, gangs are not particularly forthcoming with information about how and why the operate, and with good reason. The level of opacity makes piecing together information about gangs inordinately difficult, but Skarbek’s research uses a variety of unorthodox sources to paint a clear picture for why prison gangs exist. Especially notable is his use of memoirs and stories from past prisoners and prison officials to illustrate the role gangs play in governing the overall prison system.

His research raises important questions about popular perceptions of prison gangs, how they arose, and why they exist. He first counters the common argument that prison gangs are simply outgrowths of street gangs, with ready-made structure imported from the outside. He notes that, “During the 1980s, all eight gangs identified by Texas correctional officials began in prison, not on the street.” Moreover, he points out that in 2010, more than half of prison gang members were not in gangs prior to entering the prison system.

He also argues that changes to the judicial system in the mid 1960s, which granted more rights to prisoners and subsequently weakened state control thereof, could not have been the genesis either. After the changes were enacted, prison gangs did not arise somewhat uniformly across the nation. Rather, the trend began prior to the changes and continued to form in new states nearly 20 years after.

The actual reason, he argues, is that gangs fulfill unmet demand for governance among prisoners. The trade in illicit goods in prisons is lucrative, but in a place full of violent criminals, trade involves a great deal of risk. If another prisoner fails to pay, or the goods (often drugs) are of poor quality, there is no official means of recourse for harmed parties.

Gangs help to solve these issues via a system of community responsibility for individual actions. If a member of a gang fails to live up to expectations, his entire group is held accountable. This provides a strong incentive for gangs to hold their members to high standards, as one member’s failure not only jeopardizes proceeds from trade, it can lead to violence against members of the gang as a whole.

An interesting outgrowth from this system of governance is that of gang constitutions. Gang constitutions work not unlike constitutions of nations, or charters of other organizations. They define what may and may not be done by members of the group, and help to formalize rules for members. Such constitutions are essentially universal among prison gangs.

It is important to note that these constitutions arose organically, from the ground up, in response to the unique circumstances of the prison system. By holding all members to a defined set of rules, gang constitutions increase the overall level of trust in prisons, reducing the risk associated with trade in illicit prison goods and allowing a greater degree of trade with members of other gangs.

Skarbek provides an important and fascinating look at order among the thieves, murders, and everyone else in the prison system. Beyond its superficial look at such gangs, it also provides great insight into how institutions arise in unique situations where traditional sources of governance are inadequate to satisfy demand. It is here that the book shines.

The ideas Skarbek aptly explains have implications in fields ranging from constitutional political economy and the study of black and gray markets to behavioral economics. Scholars and observers in those fields would do well to give it their attention, not only because the book is a useful resource, but because the prison gang lens makes the study of such fields both entertaining and meaningful.

Nick Zaiac Nick Zaiac

Nick Zaiac is a public-policy researcher in Washington, DC. He also serves as a policy analyst at the Maryland Public Policy Institute. His column, The DC Leviathan focuses on the often-ignored bureaucratic agencies, from the Department of the Interior to the General Services Administration. He has been published in the Baltimore Sun, City AM, CapX, and other outlets. Follow @NickZaiac.