The Social Order of the Underworld

The Social Order of the Underworld

by David Skarbek

David Skarbek, a lecturer at Kings College London, has written a fascinating account of how and why gangs have risen to prominence (and notoriety) within the American prison system. Skarbek persuasively argues that the rise of prison gangs corresponded with large increases in the prison population between the 1950s and the 1970s. The significant rise in the number of inmates reduced social bonds and weakened the prevailing ‘convict code’ which regulated behaviour amongst prisoners without the need for gangs. Gangs therefore arose to fill this vacuum and provide protection to inmates.

Skarbek’s analysis is measured throughout, but the book works so well in part because he never lets the reader forget that behind the discussions of incentives and institutions are real lives (and deaths). Each chapter is divided by a short vignette which powerfully captures the reality of prison life and the damage caused by prison gangs.

At the same time the book provides a rigorous case study of how social systems change in response to incentives, and the power of institutions. Whilst far from cheerful, the Social Order of the Underworld is an engrossing and important read that has lessons for communities and groups beyond the prison walls.

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