They’re predictable and stable

Sunday, June 4th, 2023

In Social Order of the Underworld, David Skarbek argues that prison gangs arise naturally in mega-prisons:

The vast scale of mass incarceration in America makes the old informal social structure of prisons practically impossible. The Shawshank Redemption or prison shows like Orange is the New Black accurately capture the reality of prisons… from 40-60 years ago. A few hundred inmates with their own informal social structure, a community: it has interpersonal squabbles and the personalities aren’t the best, but there are old timers who’ve been there forever and who know everyone, and the reputational economy kind of keeps everything in line well enough. If a new guy came in and started smashing faces or started trying to run a protection racket on the smugglers or started maiming, everyone would know, and a conspiracy to deal with the problem would naturally form out of the more respected members of the community.

In a modern American prison in California or Texas you might not even notice a shark was amongst you until it was your skull they caved in. The modern super prison exceeds the Dunbar number by an order of magnitude, sometimes close to two. With 5-10k inmates in a single prison even knowing what’s going on or who the major players are becomes a nightmare. The annual or even monthly in and outflows alone exceed the number of people Andy, Red and Piper would have to keep track of during their entire stay…This is the major cause of the rampant racial segregation: its a natural division that can’t be faked, thus a white or black trouble maker can’t just slip in amongst the Mexicans and start stealing shit, the way they could if you used a non-visual division. This naturally allows the number of people an individual prisoner might have to track to be reduced from all 5-10k prisoners, to maybe 1/4th or 1/5th that, once everyone’s divided into Black, White, Latino, Asian, etc.

This however necessitates introduction of formal race based prison gangs. Because its only your race you can realistically keep track of and punish (if that), any group of enterprising aggressors from one of the other races could profit by stealing from you or fucking you up, and you’d never even be able to identify them… thus you need an armed structure amongst your own race to retaliate if members of another start aggressing, thus the racial division immediately becomes a race-gang cold war.


Prison gangs share all the characteristics of any other hierarchical org chart, whether monarchical or oligarchical… but whereas other org charts are properly and traditionally visualize as a pyramid with those entry level serfs at the bottom and the CEO or king at the top, the visualization embodying the aristocratic endeavor it aspires to be, a prison gangs are more properly visualized as a funnel or pit, with those entry level souls nearest escape while those in positions of commands most buried in its depths and held down by the press of the criminals they order above them, and the weighty realities of what they’ve done to achieve command.


The same way prison gangs selected for damned souls who have no hope for life on the outside or mere peace, and the Scottish crown selected for murderers and assassins, the US government it seems selects for careerists who don’t give a shit about the objective issues their department addresses and indeed seem to actively work against the explicit goals of the organization by their affiliated social problems worse in pursuit of greater funding.


The thing Skarbek comes back to over and over again in his assessment of prison gangs is that very uniquely in the criminal world they’re predictable and stable. On the streets gangs go to war with each-other or overthrow each-other and take turf, men change sides in a subtle dance of daring and betrayal… not in prison gangs.


The American civil service might be a horrifying nightmare beyond parody… but the old pre-war British civil service was widely regarded as one of the most efficient institutions in human history, engaged as it was in a multi-polar contest for dominance with contingency plans for war with every possible actor from the Germans, to the French, to the Ottomans, to the Americans… as well as potential regional conflicts as far afield as China, Iraq, South Africa, or Ireland.

Skarbek might call this market competition for governance, an Italian futurist might say “War is the hygiene of the world”, a musician might say a rolling stone gathers no moss, a survivalist that the quickest stream is the freshest…

But the phenomenon remains. the devil reigns in hell… because where else are you going to go?


  1. Jim says:

    I’m as much a true-blue supporter of IRS-sponsored, FBI-enforced, U.S. District Court-approved medium-boil race war as the next good little rules-following jobs-having taxes-paying U.S. citizen, but sometimes it seems like no one bothers to ask the singly most obvious question daringly staring the modern mealy masses squarely in the subtly underdeveloped collective midface: Is it Constitutional® for these “people” to be in the realm at all?

  2. Longarch says:

    “Is it Constitutional® for these ‘people’ to be in the realm at all?”

    In the original interpretation? Of course not. If the Constitution can be stretched indefinitely, then it will continue to be stretched and distorted. In some ways, US laws resemble a big sheet of Lycra or Spandex fabric that can stretch quite a ways. But what will happen to the country if the folks who stretch and distort government power suddenly tear the fabric?

  3. Ullan says:

    People respond to incentives, whether deliberate or situationally imposed. Change the incentives, change the behaviour, but it can be wildly unpredictable if you don’t understand people.
    In the US if you have a rare, endangered species of bird on your land the incentive is to shoot, shovel and shut up because otherwise you will lose a massive amount of value and control of your land per federal regulations. In parts of Europe the opposite occurs, finding a rare species is a jackpot, with the government giving you buckets of money to preserve the habitat.
    The US, whether due to stupidity or evil design, seems to get incentives insanely wrong, from welfare to banking to education. Nothing gets better until this is fixed.

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