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The Social Order of the Underworld$

David Skarbek

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780199328499

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: June 2014

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199328499.001.0001

Governance Institutions and the Prison Community

(p.1) 1 Governance Institutions and the Prison Community
The Social Order of the Underworld

David Skarbek

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Economics provides a powerful lens through which to view the world. This is the first study using rational choice economics to examine how governance institutions form, operate, and evolve in prison. It brings insights from the economics of crime to offer answers to questions found in a large literature in criminology and sociology. The basic idea is that prison gangs are an important source of governance, and these institutions make inmates better off

Keywords:   governance institutions, rational choice, economics of crime, gangs, prison, sociology, criminology

In short, in California, the question of how to manage prisons has resolved itself into the question of how to manage prison gangs.


Criminal Justice

On a warm May evening in 2009, Aaron Osheroff and his nine-year-old daughter, Melody, walked hand-in-hand through the crosswalk at the corner of San Carlos Way and San Marin Drive in Marin, California. It was about 9 p.m. A car stopped as they crossed the street; a motorcycle racing down the road did not. It sped between the stopped car and a parked car, running into Aaron and Melody. They were both seriously injured, and paramedics rushed them to the hospital. Melody died the following day at the Children's Hospital in Oakland. Aaron spent months in recovery, endured multiple surgeries, and had his right leg amputated. The Osheroff family lost their daughter, a fourth-grader who loved reading and hiking.

The motorcyclist, Edward John Schaefer, had a blood alcohol level more than twice the legal limit. He had a dozen prior convictions for driving under the influence and reckless driving. Prosecutors charged him with second-degree murder, gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, mayhem, and causing injury while driving under the influence. If convicted, he faced from 17 years to life in prison. In his first court appearance, the unshaven 43-year-old made a rude hand gesture to the photographers and officials in the courtroom. He was later convicted of second-degree murder and gross vehicular manslaughter, and he received a prison sentence of 24 years to life. Officials sent Schaefer to San Quentin State Prison.

(p.2) On a brisk morning in late July, only 10 days after arriving at the state's oldest prison, Schaefer walked out to the prison yard and never walked back. An inmate stabbed him seven times in the neck and chest with a seven-inch prison-made metal spear, known by inmates as a “bone crusher.” It was made from a piece of a metal bunk bed. His killer, Frank Souza, was a 33-year-old associate of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang; he wore a large “White Power” tattoo emblazoned across his entire forehead.

Schaefer's murder wasn’t motivated by racism. Schaefer was white too. When authorities asked him why he did it, Souza responded, “All I got to say, nine-year-old girl.” In court, he explained, “The innocence of a child will be defended at all costs.”2 He read from William Ernest Henley's poem “Invictus,” wherein circumstances prey upon a man, but “under the bludgeoning of chance,” he still stands tall. Good men must stand tall in the face of the tragedies that befall innocent people. Souza read from the second stanza, “My head is bloody, but unbowed.”

Schaefer's death was no accident, nor was Souza's role in the murder. The prison gangs that control California's inmates carefully orchestrated the events on that brisk July morning. Racially segregated prison gangs rule over the inmate community. Sometimes they work together. At times, they wage bloody battles for control of the prison yard. No one who enters prison can ignore these gang politics. Souza enacted criminal justice at the behest of a prison gang, and in doing so, he demonstrated one of the myriad ways that gangs provide governance in the criminal underworld.

The Economic Way of Thinking

Prison gangs appear baffling. Many people associate their lifestyle, organization, monikers, activities, rituals, and customs with non-rational forces. The oddities of the criminal underworld seem attributable only to psychopathy or pure evil. Their actions raise many puzzling questions. Why do murderous prison gangs avenge the death of unknown children? Why do clandestine groups get prominent tattoos that reveal their membership? Why is prison the only place that middle-aged men join gangs? Why does racism permeate prison at a time when society is more tolerant than ever before? Why didn’t gangs exist for the first 100 years of the California prison system, but now dominate them? Why do the most dangerous inmates keep the peace? Why do people join gangs that they can never leave, even after release? We cannot explain these puzzles by simply calling inmates evil, stupid, or crazy. These are not the actions of irrational men. On the contrary, the only way to under (p.3) stand prison gangs is to study their members as rational people. This book uses economics to explain the seemingly irrational, truly astonishing, and often tragic world of prison life.

There are two central ideas that make up the rational-choice approach. First, people are self-interested. They pursue ends that they value. This doesn’t mean that each person cares only about him- or herself. People often do care more about themselves, their family, and their friends than they do about complete strangers. However, people also give to charity, save people from burning buildings, and perform acts of sacrifice for the sake of justice and honor. People pursue outcomes that they value, both self-interested and altruistic ones. One advantage of viewing the world this way is that it makes it hard to ignore social problems. If people always cared about everyone else as much as themselves, then violent crime and many other social problems wouldn’t exist. People would know that these actions harm others, so they simply would not do them. Related to this point, the focus of this analysis is always on how individuals act. We cannot understand gangs, prisons, and the legal system without understanding the individuals who comprise them.

Second, people respond rationally to changes in costs and benefits. If some activity becomes more costly, people tend to do less of it. If something becomes less costly, people tend to do more of it. This does not require that each person be a lightning calculator of pleasure and pain.3 People aren’t robots. They sometimes make mistakes, get confused, satisfice, and struggle through a murky world of imperfect information and cognitive biases. However, when they recognize changes in costs and benefits, they respond accordingly. Again, this does not mean that people will not rush into burning buildings to save others. It just means that a person will be less likely to do so when the flames burn twice as hot. A person's subjective preferences determine what he or she views as costs and benefits. It is not helpful to ignore an inmate's desire for heroin just because we might not share or approve of that preference. This approach doesn’t require that everyone value things in the same way or naively assume that people only want money. Economics looks at how people strive to accomplish their preferred goals, based on the costs and benefits of doing so.

The rational-choice model applies to criminals as much as it does to everyone else, possibly more so. The punishment for making errors in the underworld are often more severe, and meted out more quickly, than in traditional arenas of life. If you make a mistake in an ordinary job, you may be fired. If you make a mistake as a criminal, you may go to prison. Mistakes in prison can be fatal. This feedback makes many inmates highly attuned to their (p.4) environment. Writing about his own experience as a political prisoner, political scientist Marek Kaminski explains, “Prison socializes an inmate to behave hyperrationally. It teaches him patience in planning and pursuing his goals, punishes him severely for his mistakes, and rewards him generously for smart action. … There is little space for innocent and spontaneous expressions of emotion when they collide with fundamental interests …. Paradoxically, much of the confusion in interpreting prison behavior arises from both a failure to understand the motives of inmates and an unwillingness to admit that outcomes judged as inhuman or bizarre may be consequences of individually rational action.”4 The rational-choice approach provides a way to understand how order emerges in the criminal underworld.5

A Governance Theory of Prison Social Order

Criminals lack access to many formal governance institutions: the legal and social institutions that promote social order and economic activity by protecting property rights, enforcing agreements, and facilitating collective action to provide physical and organizational infrastructure.6 Governance institutions play a crucial role in every society. Markets, business endeavors, and nearly every sort of cooperative pursuit require well-functioning governance institutions. This includes both criminals who wish to cooperate in crime and the members of society who must cooperate to stop them. However, precisely because they are involved in illicit activities, criminals can’t rely on the same governance institutions that law-abiding citizens rely on. To meet this need, criminals must create alternative, self-governing institutions. Because the theme of self-governance permeates the entire book, it will be useful to examine briefly the three components of governance.

First, governance institutions define and enforce property rights. A property right is the exclusive authority to choose how a resource is used. It determines who has the right to use it, earn money from it, transfer it to others, and enforce the exclusive control of it. Property rights are not a fixed, unchanging feature of the world. People choose how much to invest in defining and defending property rights based on the costs and benefits of doing so.7 A person will restrict access to a resource more when it becomes cheaper to do so. For example, if the cost of a car alarm falls by half, people are more likely to install one. The car will be safer from theft, so the resource is more secure. As the value of a resource increases, it will be worth investing more to protect it. A person is more likely to buy a car alarm for a new sports car than for an old pickup truck.

(p.5) Because it is costly to define and enforce property rights, not everything will have a clearly defined owner.8 For example, no one has found it profitable to define and enforce property rights claims to vast segments of the world's oceans. It is too costly to monitor people's use of the distant blue sea, and there is often little benefit in doing so. Property rights are also more complex and nuanced than either owning something or not. A resource may have many attributes that comprise a bundle of related property rights. A person may control some of those rights, but not all of them. I may have the right to keep someone from trespassing in my home, but I might not have the right to keep planes from flying across the sky above it, broadcasters from sending radio waves through it, or own the valuable minerals buried deep below it.

Unlike normative theories of who should have property rights over something, the positive theory of property rights looks at whether someone can actually enforce a claim.9 If I go to the store and purchase a bicycle, then it is legally mine. However, if I do not invest resources to secure it, then it won’t be mine for long, especially if it is left unlocked. Even if I have a moral or legal claim, if I lack the resources to defend the claim, then in reality I don’t control the property right to it.10 An inmate can have a moral claim not to be assaulted by other inmates, but if he cannot prevent others from doing so, then he doesn’t actually control that property right. People's rights differ, and they depend on one's ability to enforce such claims. Governance institutions provide a way for people to assert, define, and defend ownership claims to property rights.

The second role of governance institutions is to help people capture the benefits from trade. Voluntary exchange makes both parties better off. However, beneficial trades might not take place for a variety of reasons. The costs of finding a trading partner may be too high. The cost of learning the quality of a product may be excessive. A trader may fear that the other person won’t hold up his or her side of the bargain. If people know they will have a venue for resolving disputes, then they will be more likely to engage in commercial activity. For example, a seller's reputation provides an important check on bad behavior.11 If a seller defrauds a buyer, the buyer can expose the seller's untrustworthiness to others and reduce the profitability of the seller's business in the future. Regulation, licenses, insurance, courts, and a variety of creative market mechanisms provide the governance that address these problems and facilitate trade. This assurance gives people confidence to participate in commercial activity. Good economic governance underlies—and is the foundation of—the entire system of specialization and the division of labor that exists in a market economy. Without it, market failures proliferate.

(p.6) The third function of governance institutions is to help people act collectively. Goods like national defense are difficult to produce privately because everyone enjoys their benefits once they exist. The same threat that deters a hostile country from bombing my neighbor's house protects mine too, even if I haven’t paid for it. Recognizing this ability to free ride, many people won’t contribute to the production of a public good. As a result, although each individual acts rationally, the public good may not be provided at all. Everyone is worse off. Collective action is also needed when people take actions that harm others, like polluting the environment. The institutions that people create to solve these types of problems are necessary for capturing the benefits of trade and establishing an orderly society. In the real world, these governance institutions take many different forms, depending on the context, resources, and people involved. Studies of a tremendous array of collective action problems from around the world reveal that governance institutions arise in “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful.”12

Each of these three types of governance institutions is necessary for people to live orderly, prosperous lives. People often assume that governments must create and operate these essential institutions, but that is not true. Many modern governments provide governance effectively, but none provides all of it. Private companies and organizations play an important role in protecting property and adjudicating disputes.13 Moreover, many governments do a poor job of providing governance. The Democratic Republic of Congo's history of human rights abuses reflects the absence of secure property rights. In Zimbabwe, President Mugabe's land appropriation policies undermine commerce and the rule of law. Indeed, governments need not provide governance, and many remarkably effective governance institutions flourish outside of the control of the state.14 Sometimes these extralegal governance institutions are more effective than state-created institutions because they can rely on local expertise and information.15 When governance institutions work well, they solve the governance problems faced by every society. However, no one form of governance institution is best in all situations. The specific constraints of information and incentives in a particular time and place determine what context-dependent institutions will most effectively provide governance.

Criminals must rely on extralegal governance institutions. Heroin dealers cannot call the police if someone robs them. Criminals must conceal their production, transportation, warehousing, advertising, and selling of illicit goods. Assets are subject both to theft from other criminals and to confiscation by the police. The accounting services that aid legal businesses are unavailable (p.7) to criminals. Criminal firms can’t legally insure their assets against accidents and acts of God. Criminals can’t list a company on the New York Stock Exchange, borrow funds from a local bank, or use traditional advertising to attract customers. Illegality also raises the cost of developing a good reputation. A drug dealer known for his honesty may also be well known by the police. Drug dealers must alert consumers, but not police, to their presence. It may also be more difficult to recruit employees in the criminal underworld than in the law-abiding one.16 Criminals are more willing to violate the law and sometimes widely held moral principles. Incarceration adds to these difficulties. Correctional officers watch inmates. The imposed schedule of incarceration limits one's freedom to move about and speak to others. Criminals face an extraordinary challenge in producing the governance institutions that are necessary for illicit markets to flourish.17

This book examines the extralegal governance institutions that criminals create. In offering a governance theory of prison social order, I depart from the two most commonly accepted frameworks for understanding prison life that have dominated the sociology and criminology literature: the deprivation theory and the importation theory.18 The deprivation theory contends that prison social order is a direct result of the pains of imprisonment experienced during confinement.19 It focuses on inmates’ deprivations of liberty, goods and services, heterosexual relationships, autonomy, and security. Thus, to understand the prisoner community, one must look at the nature of confinement. Prison social order has indigenous roots. The importation theory, by contrast, contends that to understand prison social order one must understand the pre-prison experiences and beliefs that inmates bring into prison.20 The prison culture, for instance, is an extension of the criminal, working class, or drug culture in the world beyond prison walls. We can best understand the prison community by looking outside of prison.

I diverge from these theories in two ways. First, I argue that norms are not a highly rigid or inherent belief. They are neither fixed nor exogenous, and they are not primarily symbolic. Norms emerge and change to help people coordinate social interactions.21 They are a means instead of an end. To understand prison social order—of which norms are an important part—we need to understand what problem norms arise to solve, and when they are incapable of doing so. Second, and related to this, past work on inmate deprivations has tended to downplay or ignore the fact that prisons deprive inmates of essential governance institutions.22 Goods and services can ameliorate the pains of imprisonment, but their availability depends on the effectiveness of extralegal governance institutions. Identifying the crucial need for extralegal (p.8) governance among inmates provides answers for why, where, when, and how prison gangs form and operate.23 In short, prison gangs form to provide extralegal governance when inmates have a demand for it and official governance mechanisms are ineffective or unavailable.

Economists and political scientists should share an interest in extralegal governance institutions. Scholars have long studied prisons as microcosms of society, and understanding the development of informal institutions and conflict processes in prison provides a useful exercise in comparative politics. All around the globe people are working in informal and shadow economies. Half of the world's workers are in the informal sector: unregulated, unregistered, and untaxed.24 They do a tremendous volume of business—$10 trillion annually. Moreover, half of the world's countries provide governance poorly or not at all.25 Yet, the majority of political economy research focuses on formal institutions and conventional markets. We cannot fully understand political and economic outcomes without understanding how formal institutions interact with extralegal governance institutions. Informal governance institutions are of tremendous importance, and in many cases, are more important than formal institutions.26 Prison provides a context in which to study these broader issues.

The prison setting offers an opportunity to assess the effectiveness of extralegal governance, and it is uniquely well suited for doing so because it enables me to examine a worst-case scenario and to control for a number of important characteristics that are theoretically relevant. For instance, the people who live in prison are, on average, less trustworthy and have less self-control than people in the broader population. They can’t choose who to live and interact with. Inmate drug dealers can’t rely on formal governance mechanisms as a last resort should extralegal ones fail (a criticism made about Avner Greif's seminal work on self-regulating trade).27 These factors make exchange much more difficult, so prison presents an excellent environment for testing the robustness of self-governance mechanisms. More practically, if public administrators do not have a sound understanding of why prison gangs come into existence, then they will lack clear methods for mitigating their harms.

Prison Gangs

The primary focus of this book is to understand how criminal institutions form, function, and evolve, and to determine their effectiveness and robustness. Prison gangs play an important role. A prison gang is an inmate organization that operates within a prison system, that has a corporate entity, exists (p.9) into perpetuity, and whose membership is restrictive, mutually exclusive, and often requires a lifetime commitment.28 They recruit most of their hard-core members from among the most dangerous people behind bars.29 Many gangs have elaborate written constitutions that guide their operations. Other common characteristics of prison gangs include well-defined goals and philosophies, a structured internal organization with clearly defined authority and responsibility, and widespread involvement in criminal activity both behinds bars and often on the street.30 They vary in size, and can often include several hundred members. Nearly every prison gang restricts its membership to one racial or ethnic group.31 Geographic and other characteristics often matter too. For instance, in California, Hispanics from Northern California (known as Norteños, Spanish for Northerner) and Southern California (Sureños, for Southerner) affiliate with different Hispanic prison gangs. Some have operated for decades and have substantial influence in the criminal community. Compared to street gangs, prison gang members are typically more organized, entrepreneurial, covert, selective, and strict.32

Gangs have had an increasingly important presence in jails and prisons across the United States. Prison gangs did not exist prior to the 1950s. By 1985, prison gangs were active in 49 states, with 114 different gangs and nearly 13,000 members.33 By 1992, national prison gang membership had tripled to roughly 46,000.34 A recent study estimates that there are about 308,000 gang members in U.S. prisons.35 Prisons in California and Texas hold about 70 percent of all prison gang members in the United States, so it is a useful context to study, to understand their origin and operation.36 In 2002, a high-ranking official testified that there were 40,000 to 60,000 gang members in California prisons.37 Another estimate suggested that 75 percent of California inmates were gang members.38 Importantly, the number of prison gang members underestimates their actual influence, because gangs have substantial influence over other inmates. A gang investigator at Wabash Valley Correctional Facility in Indiana described the gangs’ control: “What people don’t realize is that almost everything that happens in a prison setting has some sort of gang involvement, whether it be extortion, intimidations, trafficking narcotics. There's nothing that goes on that at least one gang member is not involved with … nothing.”39

Compared to research on street gangs, criminologists and sociologists have done relatively little work on prison gangs. The most widely cited article on prison gangs reports that there have been only a few in-depth studies.40 Two leading criminologists describe prison gangs as the final frontier of gang research.41 Ethnographic research on prison social order in the United States (p.10) more generally is in decline. In 2000, one scholar observed that studies of prison social organization have largely ceased since 1980.42 Sociologist Loïc Wacquant writes that detailed ethnographic studies of “the everyday world of inmates in America have gone into eclipse just when they were most needed on both scientific and political grounds.”43 Fortunately, there has been some renewed interest in studying prison social order, but none focuses on the role of extralegal governance.44

The absence of useful data is the major obstacle to studying prison gangs. Data on gang-affiliated inmates remain some of the most elusive figures in corrections.45 According to a recent study, “there are no national (or state) longitudinal data tracking street gang expansion in state and federal prisons, and prison gang growth over the three decades of prison expansion.”46 From the mid-1990s to 2005, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation even closed down its research unit.47 Moreover, there is little or no coordination of information management systems among the hundreds of criminal justice–related agencies that track offenders in California.48 When officials collect data, the data set often isn’t useful because it is “confounded by definitional variability and variation in disciplinary policies.”49 People in different corrections departments measure and count things differently, so we can’t compare them. Moreover, data are often only for departmental use because officials consider the information too sensitive or confidential to make public.50 Of course, unlike the study of mainstream businesses, we cannot use gang's financial statements and accounting records.51

There are several additional obstacles to collecting qualitative evidence. Prison gangs enforce a code of silence.52 Staff can revoke an inmate's privileges if they validate him as a gang member.53 Even if a gang member is willing to talk, he may exaggerate his claims or lie. Unlike studies of other deviant communities, no one has conducted field studies on prison gangs.54 One difficulty is that the same walls that keep inmates locked in also keep researchers out. Getting evidence on the inmate community, and specifically prison gangs, therefore presents a substantial challenge.

In my work, I rely on wide-ranging types of evidence. First, I use the best academic research available, much of it from criminology and sociology. Rebecca Trammell's work on prison violence has been especially useful, as have classic works by Donald Clemmer, Gresham Sykes, and John Irwin.55 Second, I have collected data on California's inmate population, going back in some cases to the 1850s. Much of this information comes from annual reports and periodic studies released by the California Department of (p.11) Corrections and Rehabilitation.56 I have supplemented it with information obtained in other sources, like histories of the state's prisons.

I have also made extensive use of legal documents related to California's prison and street gangs. This includes indictments, criminal complaints, court orders, and testimony. In addition to histories and descriptions of gangs, these items give detailed lists of alleged overt criminal acts and reveal the inner workings of numerous street and prison gangs. While legal documents provide a tremendous amount of information, courts of law have not yet vetted many of these allegations. Law enforcement is not without its own biases. Police want to make arrests, and prosecutors want to get convictions. One way that I leverage these court documents is to see what appellate court judges think about the quality of the evidence. They review and describe the evidence presented in the original case, assessing its reliability and validity. This provides a relatively impartial and judicious assessment of the evidence. A related source of evidence is declassified files from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Numerous agents working on different projects over several decades created these documents. Because they are primarily internal correspondence, they tend to be informative and are likely to be fairly accurate.

Personal memoirs and biographies of former law enforcement officials who investigated prison gangs in California also provide insights. Some of these people spent decades scrutinizing prison gangs, others served long tenures as correctional officers. In addition, prison gang members who have dropped out and testified against their former colleagues have written about them. Prison gangs kill former members who tell their secrets, so the people involved appear to consider informants’ accounts accurate enough to warrant serious action. A gang investigations supervisor I spoke with described these works as highly informative and reliable. I supplement these with conversations with correctional officers, gang investigators, gang experts, police officers, and former inmates. I have visited some of the prisons discussed in this book, including minimum-, medium-, and maximum-security facilities in California and elsewhere.

I have also taken advantage of documentaries and media reports on prisons. This is a nontraditional, but useful, source of evidence. Clearly, the producers of these reports do not randomly select the prisons they go to, the people they speak with, and the clips they air. These sources do not single-handedly provide generalizable results. However, they do coincide strongly with findings from both the academic literature and my own interviews. They also offer texture, detail, and perspective that complement other (p.12) sources. They add to the rich mosaic of qualitative evidence, and they help paint a compelling picture of prison life. I would prefer to rely entirely on scholarly observational studies, but as Loïc Wacquant sadly notes, “with social science deserting the scene, one is forced to turn to the writings of journalists and inmates to learn about everyday life in the cells and dungeons of America.”57

Each of these types of evidence is imperfect, yet together they provide a compelling picture. Their authors come from both sides of the law and from many academic disciplines. Judges have vetted and assessed much of it. It is qualitative and quantitative. I hope to show that the synthesis of these diverse sources provides an accurate and convincing picture of the criminal underworld.

Finally, economics helps us identify the mechanisms that underlie social interactions, but it neither condones nor condemns the people involved. Just because we understand why something happened doesn’t mean that it is desirable. Clearly, many prison gang members have participated in heinous, deplorable crimes and have left in their path a wake of innocent victims and shattered lives. (I document this in some of the vignettes throughout the book, which provide vivid illustrations of issues related to gangs and governance.) If we have any hope that we can improve the problems associated with crime and incarceration, then we must believe that people are not inherently and immovably committed to violence and racism. Criminals, like all people, respond to incentives.

(p.13) Men's Central Jail

BUILT IN 1963, the Men's Central Jail in Los Angeles is one of the oldest county jails in California. Officials claim it's the largest jail in the world. It is also one of the most controversial. The jail is overcrowded. Its antiquated design reportedly makes it dangerous for both inmates and staff. Over the last several years, inmates, visitors, and the American Civil Liberties Union have raised serious concerns about the behavior of the jail's deputies.

In December 2010, Juan Pablo Reyes was serving a short sentence in the Men's Central Jail for making a criminal threat. He had threatened his wife during a domestic dispute. He is a native Spanish speaker and knows “a little English.” Because he was neither a gang member nor a serious offender, staff assigned him to a job as an inmate worker and to a cell that housed only inmate trustees. He spent his days delivering bag lunches to inmates, sweeping and mopping floors, picking up trash, distributing mail, and cleaning the staff bathrooms and deputies’ desks. This is a relatively comfortable way to serve a sentence at Men's Central because an inmate gets to spend lots of time outside of his cell and is not housed among the most dangerous inmates. However, according to Reyes's legal deposition, his incarceration experience quickly changed for the worse.

While at work on December 10, Reyes found a piece of mail on the ground. It didn’t appear to be trash, and he claims that he was going to return it. Before he could do so, however, a deputy saw Reyes holding the mail and accused him of stealing it. Reyes objected, saying that he had just found it. The deputy didn’t believe him, and said that he would “deal with him” on his next shift.

On Sunday, December 12, two deputies approached Reyes while he was in his cell. They told him that if he identified inmates who had cocaine and crystal meth, they would forgive him for stealing the mail. Reyes told them that he didn’t know anyone with drugs. This displeased the deputies. They ordered him to switch out of his green inmate clothes (which indicated he was an inmate worker) into blue clothes (for regular inmates). They had fired (p.14) him. The deputies then ordered him out of his cell and told him to stand with his face against the wall. They put on plastic gloves. Then the beating began.

According to Reyes's translated deposition, “They punched me in the eyes, body, back and ribs, and one of their punches broke my eye socket. I could feel my face breaking as they beat me. The beating was extremely painful, and I felt upset, confused and helpless. Two other deputies, whom I cannot name at this time, joined in the attack, and continued to punch me as well. I did not strike back, but tried to cover myself up as I fell to the ground. Once I had fallen, the deputies proceeded to kick me with their leather steel toed boots. I cried out for them to stop, but they refused, and were laughing.”1

After the beating, officers took Reyes to a holding area and made him undress. They were moving him to the housing unit reserved for gang members. Not being a gang member, this was an unusual housing decision, and for Reyes, much more dangerous. They walked him up and down the tier of the gang module, naked, and spoke in English about Reyes being a homosexual. As Reyes walked past the row of inmates in the gang module, one of the deputies spoke over the intercom so that all of the inmates could hear: “Aqui va un maricon caminando.” Translation: “Here goes a faggot walking.” The deputies and some of the inmates were laughing as they marched him around.

Reyes entered a four-man cell occupied by three gang members, two Hispanics and one black. Hispanic gang members follow “gang rules” that require them to assault Paisas, inmates from Mexico and Central America. The deputies closed the cell door. Almost immediately, and without warning, the Hispanic gang members began to beat Reyes. He explained, “I do not know whether they beat me because of whether they thought I was gay, or because I was a Paisa, or the fact that I was paraded naked by the deputies gave them license to beat me, but they proceeded to punch me and hit me on my back, face, chest, and stomach.” Sadly, this was not the end. “The beating started mid-morning, and continued on and off all day for hours. Deputies would walk by doing their cell checks and feeding the inmates, and they ignored my cries for help and my appearance. They refused to respond to my cries to take me out of the cell. One time when [the deputy] walked by the cell, I begged him to take me out. I told him that I was being attacked. He said I deserved the attacks by the inmates and walked away.” At night, his cellmates took turns raping him.

When the cell doors opened the following morning, Reyes fled. He ran into a holding area and cried out for help. A female chaplain heard his cries and contacted a sergeant. Officials took him to an interview room. The deputy who beat Reyes was in the room when the sergeant asked him what happened. (p.15) Reyes told them about how the inmates had beat and raped him, but he didn’t mention the beating he received from the deputies. He feared retaliation.

He received medical care at the jail that day, and about two weeks later, he spent several days in the county hospital. The doctor told him he needed eye surgery. Instead, officials released him from the hospital directly to the street, two months earlier than expected. Since he didn’t receive the surgery and doesn’t have insurance, his eye remains unrepaired.

The American Civil Liberties Union alleges many more disturbing instances of neglect and abuse by deputies in the Los Angeles Jail system.2 It is important to note that this is not the experience of all inmates or the actions of all deputies. Moreover, the legal system has not yet examined these allegations. Nonetheless, there has been a growing awareness of corruption and misconduct in Men's Central Jail. These complaints come not only from inmates but also from court-ordered monitors, jail chaplains, and former Los Angeles Sheriff's Department jail supervisors. This disturbing incident illustrates one of the reasons why inmates often seek out alternative forms of governance: they cannot always rely on the guards.


(1) . DiIluio 1987, 130

(1) . Los Angeles County Witness Statements 2011, 106–10.

(2) . Klien and Gomez 2012

(2) . Rosas and Goodwin v. Baca 2012; Los Angeles County Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence 2012

(3) . Veblen 1898 [1998], 411

(4) . Kaminski 2004, 1; also Toch 1992, 64–65

(5) . The rational choice approach to crime is not new. Caesare Beccaria's work (1764) is a seminal study of crime and punishment. Becker (1968) and Ehrlich (1972) have made important contributions in the modern era. Much of this book follows the tradition laid out in Thomas Schelling's (1967; 1971) superb institutional analysis of organized crime and in important empirical work by Peter Reuter (1983) on American organized crime and Diego Gambetta (1993) on the Sicilian Mafia.

(6) . Dixit 2009, 5

(7) . Demsetz 1967

(8) . Libecap 1994

(9) . Holcombe 1993, Ch. 2; Friedman 1994; Friedman 2001, 112–27

(10) . Holcombe 1993, 12

(11) . For example, Houser and Wooders 2006

(12) . Munger 2010

(13) . Benson 1990; 1998

(14) . Leeson 2005b; Leeson 2006; Leeson 2007c; Stringham 2007; Leeson 2008; Leeson 2009b; Powell and Stringham 2009. On the positive analysis of anarchy, see Boettke (2005).

(15) . Dixit 2009, 6

(16) . Gambetta 2009, 3–29

(17) . On the economic consequences of illegality and underground economic activity, see Reuter (1983, 109–31), Staley (1992, 145–80), Venkatesh (2006), Cook et al (2007), and Meadowcroft (2008).

(p.170) (18) . Lahm 2008; Fleisher and Krienert 2009; additional perspectives exist, too (DeLisi et al 2013)

(19) . Sykes 1958 [2007]

(20) . Irwin and Cressey 1962

(21) . Posner 2000, 11–35; Kaminski 2004

(22) . However, see Williams and Fish (1974) and Kalinich and Stojkovic (1985).

(23) . Following the literature in political science and economics on institutions and institutional change, this book uses an analytical narrative framework (e.g., Bates et al 1998; Greif 2006b, 3–23, 124–152, 350–376).

(24) . Neuwirth 2011, 27

(25) . Leeson and Williamson 2009, 77

(26) . Williamson 2009; Williamson and Kerekes 2011

(27) . Edwards and Ogilvie 2012; Greif 2012

(28) . Lyman 1989, 48

(29) . Blatchford 2008, 7

(30) . Buentello, Fong, and Vogel 1991

(31) . Gangs make exceptions, but it's rare (Morrill 2005, 49).

(32) . Pyrooz et al 2011, 4, Table 1

(33) . Camp and Camp 1985, vii

(34) . American Correctional Association 1993, 9

(35) . Winterdyk and Ruddell 2010

(36) . Trulson, Marquart, and Kawucha 2006

(37) . Petersilia 2006, 35

(38) . Knox 2000, 434 cited in Volokh 2011, 839

(39) . MSNBC 2005a

(40) . Gaes et al 2002, 360

(41) . Fleisher and Decker 2001, 2

(42) . Studies have tended to focus on major events, like riots and court cases, rather than the ordinary life of institutions (Simon 2000, 289).

(43) . Wacquant 2002, 371; see also Wacquant 2001, 109. On the political consequences of incarceration, see Weaver and Lerman (2011) and Page (2011). See Simon (2007) on the rise of political governance through crime.

(44) . Trammell (2011a) describes gang activity in California, but her goal is not to explain the observed variation in prison gang activity. See also important work by Kruttschnitt and Gartner (2005), Goodman (2008), Crewe (2009), Fleisher and Krienert (2009), and Dolovich (2012).

(45) . Trulson, Marquart, and Kawucha 2006, 26

(46) . Pyrooz et al 2011, 15

(47) . Petersilia 2006, ix

(48) . Ball 2010

(49) . Pyrooz et al 2011, 13; see also DiIulio 1987, 51

(50) . Fleisher and Decker 2001, 3; Fong 1987, iii

(p.171) (51) . A rare exception is Levitt and Venkatesh (2000).

(52) . Fong 1987, iii

(53) . California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation 2012d, 15–25

(54) . Pyrooz et al 2011, 12; Gaes et al 2002, 360

(55) . I am grateful for permission to use quotes from Enforcing the Convict Code: Violence and Prison Culture, by Rebecca Trammell. Copyright © 2011 by Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc. Used with permission by the publisher.

(56) . More specifically, I use documents prepared by the state-level corrections authority, which has held several different names. In 1929, the Department of Penology was created. It was renamed the Department of Corrections in the 1940s. In 2005, it became the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. For more on this history, see Gilmore (2007).

(57) . Wacquant 2002, 387