Lessons From the American Inferno
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The Lords of the Underworld
Why this is Hell, nor am I out of it.
-from Doctor Faustus (by Christopher Marlowe)
In Social Order of the Underworld David Skarbek lays out The economics and game theoretic logic of prison economies and politics, and quite plausibly argues that prison gangs arise, especially in the mega-prison environments of Texas and California, out of practical necessity.
The vast scale of mass incarceration in America makes the old informal social structure of prisons practically impossible. The Shawshank Redemption or prison shows like Orange is the New Black accurately capture the reality of prisons... from 40-60 years ago. A few hundred inmates with their own informal social structure, a community: it has interpersonal squabbles and the personalities aren’t the best, but there are old timers who’ve been there forever and who know everyone, and the reputational economy kind of keeps everything in line well enough. If a new guy came in and started smashing faces or started trying to run a protection racket on the smugglers or started maiming, everyone would know, and a conspiracy to deal with the problem would naturally form out of the more respected members of the community.
In a modern American prison in California or Texas you might not even notice a shark was amongst you until it was your skull they caved in. The modern super prison exceeds the Dunbar number by an order of magnitude, sometimes close to two. With 5-10k inmates in a single prison even knowing what’s going on or who the major players are becomes a nightmare. The annual or even monthly in and outflows alone exceed the number of people Andy, Red and Piper would have to keep track of during their entire stay...This is the major cause of the rampant racial segregation: its a natural division that can’t be faked, thus a white or black trouble maker can’t just slip in amongst the Mexicans and start stealing shit, the way they could if you used a non-visual division. This naturally allows the number of people an individual prisoner might have to track to be reduced from all 5-10k prisoners, to maybe 1/4th or 1/5th that, once everyone’s divided into Black, White, Latino, Asian, etc.
This however necessitates introduction of formal race based prison gangs. Because its only your race you can realistically keep track of and punish (if that), any group of enterprising aggressors from one of the other races could profit by stealing from you or fucking you up, and you’d never even be able to identify them... thus you need an armed structure amongst your own race to retaliate if members of another start aggressing, thus the racial division immediately becomes a race-gang cold war.
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These gangs are not pleasant. Despite multiple cycles of rebellion, breakaway gang formation, and formal written constitutions being drawn up to prevent the abuses of the past The natural political economy of prison seems to preclude a more than minimally desirable governance from these gangs.
The Libertarian-ish dream of competitive government is immediately ruled out. The natural environment almost grantees you’ll have one, and only one, gang that will govern you. You enter a prison you don’t choose, you have a race you don’t choose, and the gang that runs your race will govern you for the entirety of your stay. If you are white and don’t get along with Aryan Nation say, there is not another white gang you can can run to and seek their governance... you’ll have to learn to get along with Aryan Nation... or you’re just fucked.
The black and Mexican gangs won’t take you because that immediately compromises their security. If white guys are coming and going, All of a sudden all black inmates would have to go from keeping track of just the few hundred to few thousand black inmates, to all the inmates to know which whites are cool and which aren’t... something they can’t do in a super prison of 5-10k... they’d just be robbed blind. They won’t welcome random white guys who double triple super insist they aren’t racist and hate Nazis... that’s not the point.
They, probably, wouldn’t even kick your ass if you tried. as that might cause an inter-racial incident... they’d just yell at you to GTFO and go back to your own, then the people who look like you would kick your ass.
Similarly multiple gangs of the same race must inevitably be unstable and cause conflict. The ability to know who everyone is governed by at a glance, since they can’t divide governance geographically, is invaluable... a divided racial rule would not only be bad for the gangs but also for the contraband trade... if you don’t know who’s paying up to who or who to report a bad deal to, you have to enforce it yourself. Thus if any race is unclear about who the gang in charge of them is, it’ll inevitably devolve into universal war on them by all the other gangs as such a race could neither collectively negotiate peace and enforce it amongst their members, nor predictably protect any of their members.
Thus the natural tyranny of the racial prison gang, and why Gangs which can’t depend on racial identifiers go for elaborate body covering tattoos even on their faces: Such as you find in the El-Salvadorian MS-13 trying to distinguish themselves from Mexican gangs (with Russian and Japanese gangs you also see elaborate tattoos but I’m less clear of the dynamic there since they evolve out prison systems very different than the US, and I’ve yet to start reading my book on Russian prison tattoos)
Now this natural monopoly on governance is rife for abuse. A gang needs a mechanism of brutality to keep trouble makers (of which there are many in prisons) in line, or in hospital. But as soon you have such a mechanism: collections of core gang members sworn to secrecy on pain of death, various hangers on and owers of favours who’d gladly maim or kill for favour amongst their rulers or to pay off a debt... it become trivial to use those same mechanisms for personal vendettas or because it would clear up a business interest, or just because you’re feeling spiteful that day.
The various attempts to solve this through formal written constitutions, coups against corrupt and tyrannical gang heads, schisms and brutal gang wars, are all explored through-out the book, but a combination of practical realities as well as human nature (sane and psychotic) leave the problem unsolved.
Now this would maybe be a curiosity... a tale of bizarre and unnatural governance structures in bizarre and unnatural environments. Except for a concerning fact I had certainly not known before reading Skarbek:
Prison gangs are at the pinnacle of the criminal underworld.
I want you to picture an old-school organized crime hierarchy. Something you’d see in an old-timey cop movie borrowing from Shakespeare, the feudal pyramid of tribute and loyalty made manifest in the modern era.
The Mafia had 70k plus members at its peak. The Yakuza over 200k. And this widely cast net of associates worked with and payed up to local bosses, who paid up to a regional bosses, who paid up to a major underbosses, who paid up to a family head.
These famous groups were never fully unified into one hierarchy the five families of New York and the various Yakuza syndicates all maintained their independence from each-other, often violently...
But the hierarchical logic was clear. Whether you were a boss or mere associate, you paid tribute up the hierarchy, and violence and orders came down the hierarchy.
Now that violence and those orders might be welcome... if you’re a good earner you’ll be happy to have violence from the top keeping everyone in line, killing snitches, and backing up your precarious ownership claims on illegal goods with the threat of death... dispute resolution is a valuable service crooks and normal people are happy to pay for... or you might chaff at the restrictions and forced payment of tribute... but that’s the hierarchy: money goes up without trade, violence comes down without reciprocation.
Thus by that standard Vast swathes of American crime are functionally ruled by the prison gangs, and far from the dreams of the 80s, the decimation of the mafia and mass incarceration might have, if anything, centralized crime.
The vast majority of Street gangs all expect large percentages of their members to spend years in prison. Any individual gang might have multiple core members imprisoned at any given time... complete with all the sensitive information in their head. Thus being able to guarantee their safety and good standing on the inside is a major concern... both as insurance and security for gang members who never get picked up, as you need to ensure prison is not so horrible other members turn states witness to avoid a few years sentence, And Then there’s also the necessity to snuff out any who do try to snitch. It was an economic inevitability that payments between street gangs and prison gangs would already be occurring naturally. A great deal of useful and violent services were there for the purchase.
Of course as with the mafia before them, these voluntary market exchanges for dispute resolution or muscle quickly became compelled hierarchical political relationships.
Currently almost no street gang refuses to pay tribute to their respective prison gangs. Skarbek details the history of a few who refused to pay the tribute and openly bragged about their defiance of the prison gangs... things did not end well for them. Obviously those who were arrested and sent to prison did not enjoy, and regularly did not survive, their stay. But the curious case is those on the outside. Most all the other street gangs immediately went to war with them, and what few members survived the initial onslaught almost immediately laid low or went into hiding.
The gangs on the outside were more than happy to commit violence on the prison gang’s behalf to curry favour or in place of missed tribute.
The gangs wholly in prison were perfectly safe from these free street gangs which might try to defy them, they had countless concrete walls, guards, and a horde of associates with shivs answering their beck and call... but the free gangs, the unconvicted? Ironic. They could not reach into the prisons, but the men in their concrete cells could reach out and kill them with a whisper.
This pattern replicates in a self similar manner. Within the prison system, membership of the prison gangs, like most other gang memberships, are tiered. Obviously there are mere members, captains, and gang leaders... but on the periphery there’s an entire formal structure of member vs. prospective member vs. mere associate who’s not a member, has little protection, but is expected to take orders (if you, dear reader, go to prison in Texas or California, or other gang run prisons, you’ll probably be immediately either defaulted to associate, or some sub-associate rank depending on how useful they think you are... obviously not following their command is not an option).
This structure should be familiar to anyone who has followed the sagas of the American Mafia or the Hells Angles... this structure is very common for gangs, though their effective governance of a captive population is an interesting twist.
What is unique however is how all the metaphors of crime become literal in the prison environment.
The ritual and codes for becoming a full member of the Mafia or Hell’s Angels or Yakuza involves tons of talk of being members for life, loyalty to the group and leaders before ones own wife or mother “If the boss needs you and your wife is dying in the other room, you go with the boss”, being a member of the group first and foremost in all things, etc.
Stuff almost no member is ever called upon or ever intends to do.
But amongst prison gangs this takes on a horrifying literalness...
One of the major codes of all gangs, but prison gangs especially, is if another member of the gang is threatened or under attack you must join the fray on their side... similarly if your leadership orders you to attack you must obey... now in street gangs these rules are largely ceremonial. Sure occasionally you’ll get a hell’s angels event that turns into a riot because a hell’s angel took a swing at a drunkard, or a drunkard the angel...and then every HA in the place has to respond and the bar gets destroyed... but largely if someone’s attacking your fellow gang member you’re either 3 towns over or if you’re close enough to respond, they’re attacking you too and you’ll fight back out of pure self preservation. Similarly your bosses have designated enforcers and hitmen they rely upon for aggression... famously wannabe toughs almost competed in the mafia to get assigned hits so they could advance or expand their clout “There were never enough hits to go around” was a common complaint.... the odds some quiet guy, who just wanted to earn off some numbers scheme or profitable scam, would be commanded to do a hit he didn’t want to do is laughable.
In prison gangs however it is relatively common for mere associates and peripheral members to be called on to shore up a violent fight, or illegally exploit a jailhouse job or privilege so as to kill or maim a target...
Full members of prison gangs swear on for life, and there’s pretty-much no escape once they do. They’re often expected and ordered to brutalize or kill... in prison. The sheer odds they’ll be caught, or that the only means to commit a hit will involve being completely exposed to security cameras and guard observation is enormous. Yet they have no right to refuse.
Thus the oath to life in the prison gang can easily equate to accepting life in prison.
For the obvious reason above , almost no one not already committed to a life of crime would ever want to join a prison gang as a full member, indeed even those who are committed to such a life probably wouldn’t because they’d much rather build their dream criminal career on the outside.
There are many currencies in different businesses. Cash obviously... but also reputation... various commodity goods... power... information... access to famous people, or members of the opposite sex... violence.
But The most powerful currency prison gangs seems to operate on is Ruin.
Going to prison only to kill a fellow inmate, is the story of utter ruin... what might have been a few years sentence is now almost certainly a life or at-least decades long sentence... even brawling or common violence can add years before parole, or additional charges resulting in additional years, as well as movement down the layers of America’s infernal system of punishment: From cozy minimum security up to Maximum or SuperMax “administrative segregation” along with the additional loss of human decency entailed.
However, for inmates who are already staring down decades in prison, or whose lives are already ruined on the outside, or who expect to have additional charges piled on at any moment... their ruin becomes a commodity they can trade for prestige, power, and security... they can perform hits on the inside, or partake in violent conflict, or swear on for life to these gangs... sure they’ll almost certainly wrack up years and move down into higher security settings... but they’ve done an assessment of their life and they’ve been offered a deal with the gangs and they’re willing to make that Faustian bargain.
This is a true hierarchy. All the dynamics are largely self similar. The same way the street gangs pay tribute and live in fear of the prison gangs, so do the minimum security sub-factions live in fear of the higher security sub-factions. The junior member or mere associate who winds up running a minimum security prison knows that sooner or later he’ll wind up in a higher security prison, and that the street gangs on the outside even are controlled by the prison gang and if he screws up, or doesn’t earn, or doesn’t pull off the necessary hits, he won’t live long enough to make it in either direction, the senior prison gang members can order hits through their connections in other prisons as easily as they can on the outside... similarly this pattern replicates down through the dimmer darker prisons of America until we reach the pinnacle of the criminal underworld: The men who collect tribute from all, and return nothing but cold command.
The bosses of the prison gangs almost universally reside in SuperMax or some version of administrative segregation. They spend 23 hours in their cells and 1 alone in the grey concrete yard per day... and by and large they are there for life... unable to do... almost anything.
Yet their few necessary orders escape, which aren’t many, since their machinery runs itself... occasionally a more free gang head will be caught embezzling from the gang or conspiring against his “Brothers” and need purging... but those are the bosses in medium or high security, or the few who occasionally walk out... a prison gang head in the open world... the bosses in SuperMax are largely beyond that. Their machinery runs itself.
Their tribute accumulates in their secret hiding places, their trusted confidants still following their orders, they still have one or two avenues to get messages out, at some expense and some effort... but if they want someone dead, a crooked guard or lawyer can relay a short message, or they can slip a sheet of toilet paper to another inmate the 1-2 times a week they see them.
And thus they sit, alone, buried in their cells, maybe the slightest 2-4inch window to let in light but no view, their rare visitors mostly lawyers who files lawsuits trying to define their solitary confinement as torture... and in those dark stone cells they lie... the lords of the underworld.
And on the shining coasts amongst their mansions and yachts, amongst good friends, and pricey women...men who by all accounts live the gangster’s dream, lie awake and shudder, that those buried men might dream of them.
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