David Skarbek’s provocative new book The Puzzle of Prison Order could just as easily have been named Governing the Prisons after Elinor Ostrom’s classic book Governing the Commons.  In the introduction, Skarbek states that his work is based on Ostrom’s own lifelong obsession with comparative institutional analysis, and that he seeks to emulate her approach.  The book is a success on that front.  Drawing on case studies throughout the world and from the past, Skarbek presents a remarkable variety of ways in which order has been achieved within prisons.  It’s a fascinating book to read for the cases themselves, the range of alternatives in governance that exist, and how different prison orders emerge depending on the context.


Much like Ostrom, Skarbek makes a much broader case for the amazing frequency with which humans solve collective action problems.  Ostrom was interested in testing Garrett Hardin’s claim about the “tragedy of the commons” – that common pool resources would inevitably be over-exploited without central control.  She showed convincingly this didn’t have to be the case.  Skarbek’s target seems to be Thomas Hobbes who famously said in Leviathan that life without strong central authority was “cruel, nasty, brutish and short”.  Yet in this book we see several astonishing examples of self organization without central authority even among a group of individuals who have much higher costs to establish order – criminals.


To summarize Skarbek’s argument, he argues that the form of order in a prison depends first and foremost on how much oversight and administration the prison authorities provide to the inmates.  When an effective order is provided by the staff and guards, prisoners themselves have no reason to establish self-governance.  However, in prisons where the administration is either limited or incompetent/non-existent, the prisoners can develop institutions to govern themselves rather than live in the anarchy, violence, and uncertainty that Hobbes predicts.


Prisoner-run orders of self-governance emerge much more easily and effectively when there are pre-existing social networks that the prisoners can draw upon for information about their fellow inmates.  Additionally, the prisons need to be small enough to be self-governed.  Therefore, Skarbek recommends that prisons be kept smaller and they be filled with prisoners from the local area so that the “costs” of establishing trust and social networks are lower since the prisoners can more easily get information about their fellow inmates.


So what do prisons look like when the inmates run things?  Surprisingly better than the old joke suggests.  In two Brazilian prisons Skarbek studied  prisoners, selected by the staff and the inmates, helped to coordinate administration and even security.  They distributed goods to those in need and helped set rules and practices along with enforcement of those rules.  At one prison these so-called “trustees”, not prison guards, did nighttime head counts, cell checks and lock-ups.  The trustees were actually in charge of the prison when the prison director wasn’t onsite.


The most interesting example of self-governance he documents is that of San Pedro prison in Bolivia.  Here the guards only monitor the entrance to maintain a separation between the inside and outside.  The prisoners have developed an amazing variety of institutions to manage life on the inside.  First off, the prisoners “own” their cells.  There is a robust market, with a tracking system of property rights for cells.  Prices vary based on size, amenities, and location.  How do the prisoners afford cells?  There are markets in food production, retail sales, services, as well as things like illegal drugs, alcohol, and prostitutes.  The basic food provided by the prison authorities is a foul gruel that virtually none of the population eats, so there are grocery stores and various eating options, but again all require money.  Surprisingly, the population is partially composed of families.  Some of the inmates are husbands and providers, and their families can choose to live with the prisoners rather than on the streets.  This obviously creates some potential for problems, but the prison even has a self-organizing group who look after the children, albeit imperfectly, as some of the girls and boys get caught up in criminal activities and sex trafficking.


In contrast are prisons in Nordic countries, which have high levels of very competent, professionally trained staff.  In these prisons, where the staff can outnumber prisoners, inmates rarely self-organize because the authorities do it for them.  There is no need to spend time or effort self-governing.  However, even in these “efficiently” run prisons, inmates develop mechanisms for obtaining drugs.  Since developing and enforcing property rights is too costly, instead the prisoners engage in what Skarbek calls “sharing,” where those prisoners who are administered narcotics share them with others and develop a network of expectations to share back during times of scarcity.  While not as robust as property rights, the emergence of this practice is still notable.


Two other cases are worth mentioning, although more for the questions they raise.  The first is the horrendous and tragic example of the Andersonville prisoner of war camp during the American Civil War.  This is an example where only after tremendous suffering and loss of life did the prisoners self organize to ward off bands of secretive killers and thieves who were ravaging the prison population at night.  Skarbek struggles to clearly explain this lack of self organization, particularly since the prisoners were soldiers, who in theory would have been more likely than criminals to create an order.  Finally, one prisoner goes to the Confederate warden and asks permission to organize a group of inmates to catch and subdue the gangs.  The warden agrees, and the group is eliminated.  But this raises the question of entrepreneurship.  It would have been interesting if Skarbek had explored this topic in the other cases and incorporated it into his theory.


The second case  is a special wing of the Los Angeles County jail dedicated to gay and transgender prisoners.  Here Skarbek discusses how the group has a particularly strong social network because they interact in and out of prison, but also because many return to the system frequently.  Recidivism is another factor that could merit more attention.  While I find it compelling that placing prisoners in smaller prisons near their homes helps to lower the costs for self-governance, and probably makes prison life more bearable, it seems to me equally likely that high rates of recidivism also would have an impact on the ability of prisoners to organize, not only with personal ties, but also a knowledge of the rules and norms or prison life.


But these are small complaints.  Skarbek has written an elegant and interesting book about the various ways prisons are organized and self-govern.  The range of institutional diversity is very interesting, and his conclusions are useful in many areas of the social sciences.  Even for those of us who, hopefully, never spend real time in a prison, the book is an interesting addition to our understanding of incarceration specifically and political economy generally.


G. Patrick Lynch is a Senior Fellow at Liberty Fund.

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