Reems Landreth

The Center for Free Enterprise brought Dr. David Skarbek to Florida Southern on Feb. 6 for the third Politics, Law & Economics Lecture Series of the spring semester.

Skarbek is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Brown University studying the operation of informal institutions within prisons globally. He is also the author of The Social Order of the Underworld: How Prison Gangs Govern the American Penal System.

His research suggests that prison gangs form to define and enforce property rights and to facilitate exchange when state-based governance institutions cannot or will not do so.

Skarbek presented three main reasons for the formation of prison gangs. He said that after his detailed research and observation of prisons in California, prisoners need more than correctional officers for governance.

He also stated that it came down to access to common pool resources such as basketball courts and weight benches as well as the regulation of underground economic activity.

Skarbek quoted an inmate in which he said “somebody wanna control this basketball court or that basketball court. Or this weight bench or that weight bench. [Correctional officers] has nothing to do with that. That’s amongst the inmates, the convicts. Sometimes you can maybe talk it out, get it settled without the violence. Sometimes you have to bring the violence.”

The Convict Code and Gang-based Governance were also brought up during the lecture.

The Convict Code was the original form of governance for inmates which stated to never inform on one another, to pay your debts and to not be nosy, lie, steal, weaken, whine or gossip. Individual inmates followed these rules to keep their image clean to the eyes of other inmates.

Gang-based Governance came into existence with the formation of prison gangs in the 1960’s. Gang-based Governance is the concept that the group is responsible for its members debts.

Most gangs are led by three-to-five “shot-callers” who make the majority of the decisions for the gangs well as negotiate with other gangs on turf and debt payments. Membership to these gangs are restrictive, mutually exclusive, permanent and race-based. These requirements facilitate community responsibility within prisons.

According to a correctional officer that Skarbek interviewed from the Corcoran Prison, “when you come to prison, you have to join a gang. You have no choice. It’s a must. Because you have no protection. You’re on your own. And anything can happen to you”

Skarbek also said that since the introduction of these gangs within prisons, prison riots and inmate homicide have both radically decreased.

According to an inmate interviewed by Skarbek, “well, we don’t fight in a riot and stuff unless we have to… if I’m locked down, then I’m not working [selling drugs]. You can make some serious bank in prison and shot-callers hate it when you’re in lockdown.”

Skarbek also discussed safe solutions to rid prisons of these gangs. His suggestions included reducing the demand for the services that gangs offers within prisons.

These reductions focused on lessening the price of phone calls home in hopes to reduce the sale of cell phones. Skarbek also suggested sending fewer people to prison and cited economic research and Recidivism rates (the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend).

The next PLE Lecture will be on Feb. 20 at 6 p.m. in Becker 112. Dr. Carrie Kerekes will be speaking on civil asset forfeiture.

More information on the PLE Lecture Series and the Center for Free Enterprise can be found on the Florida Southern website.