The Social Order of the Underworld

The Social Order of the Underworld: How Prison Gangs Govern the American Penal System (2014) by David Skarbek is a fascinating look into when, how and why prison gangs have formed in the US and how they operate. The book concentrates on the Californian Prison System.

Prior to the 1950s the Californian Prison system housed a fairly small number of inmates and Skarbek says there were no gangs, instead prison inmates had a code that they obeyed that was fairly simple but allowed inmates to remain fairly safe.

As the population of inmates grew rapidly prison became more dangerous as new inmates didn’t know the code and inmates had little in common with each other. In order to provide protection gangs arose and then began to provide services for inmates including drugs and payment systems and a method of enforcing agreements. The gangs formed along ethnic lines and geographic lines. Skarbek argues not because of racial attitudes but simply because race is something that allows easy identification. These gangs create their own rules and even write their own constitutions. They recruit people who they believe will serve the organisation well.

The gangs allow people to do deals by ensuring that people are more trustworthy because they will enforce contracts. For instance if a white inmate gets drugs from a latino inmate and then refuses to pay the white gangs will actually force the inmate to pay or physically harm him to keep order. Skarbek points out that prison gangs actually reduce riots and some kinds of violence as the gangs want things to be orderly so that they can make money from their illicit activities. Prison lockdowns due to riots hurt gang profits.

The many downsides of gangs, their own kinds of violence and the corruption they lead to are not ignored. The remarkable pressure that they manage to bring to bear on crime outside prisons is explained convincingly.

The book provides a really interesting glimpse into how the underworld organises itself. It’s really interesting to read about how human self-organisation arises in incredibly inhospitable environments.

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