Who governs prisons?

10 January 2021


Review The Puzzle of Prison Order by David Skarbek (Oxford University Press 2020)


The Puzzle of Prison Order is a book about prison governance but reads like a story of human resilience. People behind bars do not meekly accept austere conditions and state surveillance. Instead, prisoners repeatedly demonstrate their ability to govern themselves. When prison officials fail to govern, prisoners respond by creating complex democratic institutions, setting social norms, and competently managing day-to-day life. Incarcerated people react to administrative apathy in remarkable ways; they create internal market systems, care for the poor, and provide for the public good. 


Applying economic theory to prison governance risks treating inmates more like numbers than people. But David Skarbek, a political science professor at Brown, manages to combine economic principles and site-specific prison ethnographies without dehumanizing incarcerated people. Rather than treating these individuals as unpredictable deviants, Skarbek’s book describes them as “rational actors” with needs and wants. This framing emphasizes prisoners’ autonomy. In Skarbek’s view, prisoners are not passive recipients of punishment but active participants in carceral governance.


Skarbek’s quest to solve the prison order puzzle brings readers to jails and prison across the world, from South America to the Nordic countries. His tour of inmate governance includes stops at women’s prisons in California, small facilities in England, and the Los Angeles jail’s gay and transgender unit. Puzzle is more than just a collection of ethnographies. Throughout the book, Skarbek thoughtfully considers why and how prisoners govern themselves. He makes two primary arguments. Part I argues that prisoners govern more as prison officials govern less. Part II considers how environmental factors, such as size and social distance, influence the methods of inmate self-governance. In small prisons with homogeneous populations, Skarbek contends, prisoners maintain order through social control-mechanisms like shame and ostracism. In contrast, he suggests that inmates in larger, more diverse facilities frequently turn to hierarchal governance structures like prison gangs. Part I begins in South America, where prison staffs are often spread thin and confront serious overcrowding. Skarbek focuses on two facilities, one in Brazil and another in Bolivia. In the Brazilian jail, administrators cope with resource shortages by governing in collaboration with elected inmate representatives. Prisoners also take on roles typically reserved to guards and administrative staff. They control inmate transfers, cook, and assign new inmates to housing units. In this facility, inmates also organize mutual aid efforts.


Next, Skarbek presents a stark portrait of a Bolivian prison, where administrators simply allow prisoners to rule themselves. Guards do not enter this facility at all; they only control access in and out of the prison. Left to their own devices, inmates created a vibrant market economy. New arrivals must buy or rent a cell. These range from multi-story apartments to rooms without beds or light. In this city-like prison, inmates run butcher shops, barbershops, and a copying center. They work as carpenters, electricians, doctors, and competitive athletes. Quasi-professional soccer teams—a few even sponsored by Coca-Cola—compete in organized leagues. 


As Skarbek acknowledges, the fact that “co-governing and self-governing regimes can work” should not be read to “imply that this is the ideal institutional outcome.” To describe these facilities as unsafe and unsanitary massively understates their shortcomings. Prison markets exaggerate inequalities and prevent those most in need from accessing health care and other much-needed services. Alarmingly, Skarbek describes families so impoverished that they move in with their incarcerated family member. More than two-hundred children live with incarcerated family members in the Bolivian prison Skarbek studies. Despite these conditions, Skarbek extracts a lesson: allowing prisoner-run economies encourages inmates to “better themselves by bettering their environment.” The two South American facilities support Part I’s thesis that prisoners govern more when officials govern less. 


The next piece of the prison-order puzzle considers high-quality official governance in Nordic prisons. Officials in Norway recognize that intense prison supervision makes re-entry more challenging. Here, correctional facilities hire well-educated staff to focus on rehabilitation. Small prisons and high-quality care leave inmates with little incentive to create their own formal governance structures. Individuals in these facilities rarely resort to violence and do not form gangs. Instead, prisoners ostracize, shun, or shame those viewed as dangerous, annoying, or untrustworthy.


Traveling more than a hundred years into the past, Puzzle makes a detour to a confederate-operated prisoner of war camp in Andersonville, Georgia. This is the odd chapter out. The Confederate case study stands for the proposition that inmates will not govern—even when officials fail to govern—when there is no incentive to do so. The rest of Skarbek’s ethnographies persuasively combine story and theory. But the Andersonville chapter feels backward-engineered to fit Skarbek’s thesis. Still, the study is harrowing. Guards and prisoners frequently went hungry, and thirty percent of prisoners died. In spite of these brutal circumstances, prisoners and guards were able to work together to subdue a group of marauding prisoners who were robbing and murdering their fellow soldiers. 


In Part II, Skarbek turns to the question of why inmate self-governance looks different in different facilities. Over the course of three chapters—covering women’s prisons in California, English men’s prisons, and the gay and transgender housing unit of the Los Angeles County Jail—Skarbek makes the case that prisoners are more likely to create more formal governance structures like prison gangs in large, diverse environments. 


Sixty years ago, California’s men’s prisons were gang free. Today, gangs dominate these facilities. The state’s women’s prisons, however, have not experienced a similar rise in gang activity. Skarbek attributes these disparate outcomes to differences in population size. Women’s prisons are smaller, making information about other inmates “cheaper” and easier to obtain. Skarbek contends that low-cost information obviates the need for more elaborate governance mechanisms. In other words, gangs are unnecessary when incarcerated people know each other—especially if informal methods of control, like gossip and ostracism, are sufficient to curb undesirable behavior. In the 1960s, male and female prisoners in California relied on these informal control mechanisms. As men’s prison populations skyrocketed in the following decades, reputational information became increasingly difficult to obtain. As a result, male inmates turned to gang affiliation for proxy information. 


Skarbek then explores men’s prisons in England and Wales to make the case “that size of the prison rather than the prisoners gender causes this result.” Prisons in England and Wales are not just smaller, they also tend to be closer to inmates’ homes. As a result, prisoners frequently encounter people with overlapping social networks and tend to look out for others from their neighborhood. Unlike California’s prison gangs, these “zip-code cliques” lack hierarchical authority and are largely non-violent. 


The sprawling Los Angeles County Jail system, which holds seventeen thousand people across eight facilities, is larger than seven state prison systems. Skarbek focuses on the jail’s most anomalous housing wing, where about four-hundred gay, bi-sexual, and transgender (GBT) individuals live across four dorms. The unit was created in 1985 after the American Civil Liberties Union sued the jail for failing to protect GBT inmates from the general population. Here, officials work with a prisoner elected “house mouth” to co-govern the wing. These units are racially diverse, experience less violence than the rest of the facility, and are free from gangs. Skarbek suggests that these positive results stem from the small population of the dorms and inmates’ common “life experiences, worldviews, and interests.” 


In a brief Part III, Skarbek considers the implications of these case studies for prison governance. For prison administrators, there are several practical lessons. Skarbek’s findings suggest that large and diverse facilities, common in state prison systems across the U.S., may cause inmates to rely on gangs. If true, this finding may negate the cost reductions typically attributed to the efficiency of large prisons. While prison administrators may not be able to control the population of their facilities, they do control inmate classification—the process of determining how inmates are assigned to specific prisons and individual housing units. Skarbek’s accounts of housing assignments in English prisons and the GBT wing of the Los Angeles jail suggest that housing individuals based on common backgrounds may reduce gangs and violence.


For prison researchers and governance theorists, Skarbek’s description of prison governance categories (self-governance, co-governance, official governance, and minimal/no governance) provides a useful framework for both quantitative and qualitative work on prison structure and behavior. Additionally, by relying on existing ethnographies to generate new theories of prison governance, Puzzle provides compelling evidence for the theory that comparative analysis of qualitative research can generate powerful explanatory governance theories. (Skarbek has also made this argument more explicitly elsewhere.)


Writing about institutions of control is not without risks. The grim subject matter leads some administrators and researchers to rely on sanitized or incendiary language. The Puzzle of Prison Order avoids both pitfalls. Skarbek’s narratives about day-to-day prison conditions are engaging, and his theories are insightful. Moreover, Skarbek’s theories of prison governance recognize the humanity and autonomy of incarcerated people. Rather than assume that prison gangs are the product of an incorrigible class of inmates, Skarbek describes gang formation as a predictable—even rational—response to inadequate conditions. This framing rejects the all too common notion that prisoners are somehow other, as if inmates are an irrational, unpredictable underclass whose bodies must be controlled. Each of the ten million individuals currently living behind bars spends their days striving to improve their lives and their environments—just like the rest of us.



Photo Credit (post): The Puzzle of Prison Order [cover], Oxford University Press (2020), Fair Use.

Photo Credit (featured image): Tim Hüfner, via Unsplash.


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