The Social Order of the Underworld: How Prison Gangs Govern the American Penal System
Paul A. Heckert
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When most people think of prison gangs, they think of chaotic bands of violent, racist thugs. Few people think of gangs as sophisticated organizations (often with elaborate written constitutions) that regulate the prison black market, adjudicate conflicts, and strategically balance the competing demands of inmates, gang members, and correctional officers. Yet as David Skarbek argues, gangs form to create order among outlaws, producing alternative governance institutions to facilitate illegal activity. He uses economics to explore the secret world of the convict culture, inmate hierarchy, and prison gang politics, and to explain why prison gangs form, how formal institutions affect them, and why they have a powerful influence over crime even beyond prison walls. The ramifications of his findings extend far beyond the seemingly irrational and often tragic society of captives. They also illuminate how social and political order can emerge in conditions where the traditional institutions of governance do not exist.
protecting inmates and maintaining a safe facility are those with either the least experience or histories of misconduct. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that deputies have smuggled in contraband. The California Legislative Analyst’s Office reports that prison employees are the main source of smuggled cell phones in prison.36 In one instance, a Los Angeles County Jail deputy received thousands of dol ars to smuggle in phones, private messages, and cigarettes.37 In another case,
Unlike past work on prison systems, the authors identify the mechanism through which the court ruling gave rise to gangs. Specifically, an important part of the court order disbanded “building tenders,” an informal inmate assistant to officials. Building tenders resolved disputes and informed officers about what was occurring among the inmates. They provided a source of extralegal governance that supplemented formal mechanisms of social control. After the ruling, officials could no longer rely on
expects the other groups to educate new inmates about the system. When inmates are affiliated, leaders can assert influence on group members to limit disruptive behavior. When this happens, the system works well, so each group wants others to inform new inmates about how the system works. A white inmate who served 10 years for robbery complained, “The black dudes were slow at training their new guys. When they [white inmates] come in, we have a talk and set them straight. My boys were on it; you
make a change. He dropped out of the gang and went to school, first to a local community college and then to the University of California at Berkeley. He excelled. His sociology professor, Martin Sanchez-Jankowski, an expert on street gangs, recalls, “He was excited about ideas. He wasn’t a one-dimensional person. He was smarter than that.”1 Guillen wrote a thesis on Latino prison gangs, and he graduated with honors in 1994. He was accepted into the UCLA School of Law, and three years later, he
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