Saturday, July 5, 2014

David Skarbek's "The Social Order of the Underworld"

David Skarbek is a Lecturer in the Department of Political Economy at King's College London.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Social Order of the Underworld: How Prison Gangs Govern the American Penal System, and reported the following:
The conventional wisdom suggests that prison gangs form to engage in violence and to promote hateful, racist ideologies. However, in The Social Order of the Underworld, I provide contemporary and historical evidence that suggest neither of these claims is true. Explanations that suggest gangs’ primary purposes are violence and racism do not explain where prison gangs are active. Instead, the book argues that prison gangs come into existence when inmates need more protection than prison officials provide and as a source of regulation and dispute resolution in illicit markets for drugs and alcohol. Gang members profit by selling drugs, so they actually have an incentive to reduce the frequency of unorganized and spontaneous acts of violence. Gangs, therefore, play a crucial role in providing informal governance to the society of captives.

The 99th page captures the conclusion of the theoretical and empirical argument laid out over the course of the previous three chapters. In short, “…based on both historical and contemporary evidence, prison gangs form and operate to provide protection…Because gangs profit when markets flourish, they have an incentive to promote order.” Page 99 also includes the start of a section on “Practical and Theoretical Implications.” The most important implication of the argument is that if officials could pull a lever and eliminate gangs, then inmates would be made worse off. Gangs exist because inmates have a demand for what they provide: protection and assurance. This suggests, instead, that the best way to reduce the power that prison gangs wield is to focus on meeting the needs that inmates turn to gangs to fill. Inmates in safer, smaller, and more liberal prisons have little or no need for the governance that prison gangs provide.

Page 99 of The Social Order of the Underworld, therefore, includes the core idea of the book and hints at the policy implications that result. What the reader can also see from Page 99 is that models from politics and economics drive the theoretical and analytical approach and that both quantitative and qualitative evidence is used to support the research claims. What Page 99 doesn’t reveal, however, is that each chapter is prefaced with a vignette that illustrates the key idea of the upcoming chapter and the book also examines the written constitutions that gangs rely on and how prison gangs control street gangs.
Visit David Skarbek's website.

--Marshal Zeringue