The Surging Prison Population Helps Explain the Rise of Prison Gangs

When prison populations began to surge in the mid-20th century, it changed the entire social dynamic of incarceration. Prison gangs grew out of a need for inmates to organize and defend themselves.

Violent gangs are becoming synonymous with the American prison system. You institutionalize an offender acting alone and they seem to walk out indoctrinated into this larger system of criminals. But these prisoners may not have much choice to organize.


The Economist explains that blame for the rise of gangs can be levied on institutions rather than the criminals themselves. The author of the piece proposes that these violent groups are a product of their environment, pointing to David Skarbek's book The Social Order of the Underworld: How Prison Gangs Govern the American Penal System. Skarbek argues that prison gangs didn't exist until the 1950s, because the inmates didn't need them. Before inmates started aligning themselves with gangs, prisons had a “convict code”--a kind of unwritten rule where inmates wouldn't rat out other inmates or help officials. There was a threat of being ostracized or beaten up. This idea worked when prisons were small and everyone could hold one another accountable, but adding more people to the mix made keeping the code difficult. First-time and more violent offenders flooded in, and prisons became overpopulated, so race and tattoos became the new organizations identifiers. It's no longer prisoners against the system.

These gangs offer protection for individuals that the prison guards can't provide. There's an existing mentality amongst gang members that “if you mess with one of us, you mess with all of us.” So, drug dealers and distributors can trade their wares more effectively with the strength of an entire organization behind them. But this has made prisons become a place of turf wars and mob rule.

The Economist suggests that in order to get rid of the prison violence, policymakers would need to focus on getting rid of the gangs by making them obsolete. One way to do that would be reducing prison populations, which is easier said than done since gangs are a factory for pushing out repeat offenders. It's a tough problem to solve, and one that will require tough compromises on issues of who we incarcerate and for how long.

In his interview with Big Think, Kwame Anthony Appiah, talks about the harsh conditions criminals are sentenced to: contracting AIDS or tuberculosis, getting raped, and so on. He argues that these people are not sentenced to these punishments--they are sentenced to incarceration. 

Read more at The Economist

Photo Credit: sakhorn/Shutterstock

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