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The Accidental Research of David Skarbek’s The Social Order of the Underworld

2,372 words [1]

David Skarbek
The Social Order of the Underworld [2]
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014

As long as academia compels its scholars to write books in which they avoid asking questions about race, discerning readers will ask such questions for them. The Social Order of the Underworld is one such book. Nominally, it is a study which uses economics to explain prison gangs and their function, structure, and behavior. On this account alone, the book is enlightening, engrossing, and at times fascinating. From the perspective of the political Right, The Social Order of the Underworld becomes invaluable for the data it provides, even though author David Skarbek makes no mention of this. Indeed, his work confirms the very basis of much Right-wing – and especially Alt Right – thought: that human beings are fundamentally tribal and racial by nature, and, when placed in situations unconstrained by any official or legal authority, will cluster among themselves and regard out-groups with suspicion.

This is what I call “accidental research.” A scholar uncovers data which bolsters forbidden perspectives and either ignores it all (as Skarbek more or less does), tries to downplay it, or actively argues against it. In either case, we’re richer for having this book on our bookshelves, despite the author not exactly being a hero for the cause.

Skarbek organizes his book almost like a high-level flowchart, with each chapter leading logically, almost inexorably, to the next. Between chapters, he interpolates absorbing anecdotes which are directly apropos to his central thesis: that gang members are for the most part rational actors, and that gangs have formed to meet the inmates’ quite natural need for order, protection, and extra-legal governance. In fact, Skarbek uses his “governance theory” to challenge existing theories explaining the social order in prisons. It’s a specialized field with scant scholarship to be sure, but Skarbek’s novel reliance upon economic models and the respectable amount of data and firsthand accounts he collects must certainly have made some waves in his corner of academia when it was published in 2014. Whether it will have any widespread impact on prison policy remains to be seen.

Skarbek begins with a general description of his governance theory. The second chapter discusses what’s known as “the prison code” and its rise and fall. Chapter three marks the rise of prison gangs, interpreted through the prism of general governance. Chapters four and five deal with the internal workings of the gangs. Chapter six addresses the formidable reach of prison gangs beyond the walls which contain them. And the final chapter contains Skarbek’s conclusions and recommendations for reducing the influence and power of prison gangs. And that’s it. Usually I find books with few but long chapters somewhat tedious or burdensome, but Skarbek, in clear, unpretentious prose, makes it work. That his subject matter is rife with tension, violence, and tragedy certainly helps make this a page-turner as well.

Prior to the 1950s, when white inmates still outnumbered minorities two to one, there were no prison gangs to speak of. Instead, much of the order behind bars was achieved through norms which were eventually consolidated into what’s known as the “convict code.” Prisoners, of course, didn’t have reliable recourse to prison authorities to help solve their problems or administer justice in their dealings. So they looked to the code to help guide their behavior. Skarbek describes the code thusly:

Inmates are to refrain from helping prison or government officials in matters of discipline, and should never give them information of any kind, and especially the kind which may work harm to a fellow prisoner.

In other words, keep cool and don’t be a rat. There’s more to it than this, of course, but these are basically commandments one and two when it comes to pre-gang prisoner conduct. Inmates who respected the code got respect. Those who didn’t, didn’t. And if a certain inmate violated the code often enough, he could face disesteeming, ostracism, or even violence from the other prisoners. None of this was official, of course. Norm-based governance is, if anything, decentralized and informal. Yet for a hundred years, it worked.

Another interesting finding shows how race and ethnicity were downplayed during the age of the convict code. Not only did fewer inmates feel the need for a strong affiliation with distinct groups than today, but many of the informal groups which enforced the code and settled disputes (called “tips” or “cliques”) were interracial. Skarbek quotes novelist, screenwriter, and actor Edward Bunker, who served time at San Quentin in the 1950s:

. . . [A]lthough each race tended to congregate with their own, there was little overt racial tension or hostility. That would change in the decade ahead . . . [W]hat I did for a black friend in the mid-fifties is something I would never have even considered a decade later.

Edward Bunker might be most famous for playing Mr. Blue in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs [3] in which, early on, he opined about his favorite Madonna songs. He also co-wrote the screenplay for the excellent 1985 prison escape film, Runaway Train [4], and penned a handful of novels, including the riveting No Beast So Fierce [5], which was published in 1973.

Skarbek identifies four rapid demographic trends which weakened the convict code in the 1960s and ultimately relegated it to secondary status in the age of prison gangs by the 1970s:

These three changes, more than anything else, caused turmoil in prisons. The relatively smooth social order dictated by the convict code was forever shattered, and inmates now required something stronger and more centralized in order to survive, let alone help solve their problems. Because prison authorities could not provide such services, inmates had no choice but to form gangs.

Skarbek draws certain parallels between the rise of prison gangs and underworld organizations such as the Sicilian and Russian mafias. As described in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas [6], the Mafia served essentially to “protect people who can’t go to the cops. That’s it. They’re like the police department for wiseguys.” While this is certainly true, prison gangs wield much greater control over prisoners than mafias do over ordinary citizens on the outside. For one, they quite literally keep the peace. In the 1970s, after the initial turbulence caused by the demographic changes listed above, prison violence and riots declined steeply in accordance with the rise of prison gangs. Second, going well beyond the convict code, prison gangs required that inmates set aside former rivalries and swear lifelong allegiance to the gang. Many of these gangs, such as the Mexican Mafia and La Nuestra Familia (the two most powerful Hispanic gangs in California) even have written constitutions, official questionnaires for new inmates, strict by-laws, quasi-military hierarchies, and significant tattoo requirements. Third, while it is not true that every inmate in a particular prison is in a gang, it is true that the majority of inmates are affiliated with them in some way.

Finally, and most importantly, prison gangs revolve entirely around race. Blacks stick with blacks, whites with whites, and Hispanics with Hispanics. Different races will certainly do business with each other (most often over narcotics and other black market contraband) and there are rules of conduct in these circumstances as well. There may even be some wiggle room when it comes to low-level, interracial fraternization, especially during peacetime, when business is booming. However, when the shivs are drawn, the races stick together, no exceptions.

Chapters four and five delve into the inner workings of prison gangs and demonstrate the surprising meticulousness with which they operate. Below is a flowchart illustrating complex relationships and hierarchies found in La Nuestra Familia:


Not shown in this chart is the ingenious check and balance of captain appointments. While a general can construct a hierarchy among his captains, he cannot appoint them except in war. Under normal circumstances, captains can only be appointed by vote among the lieutenants and soldiers. So, if the rank-and-file are displeased with their general, they can elect captains who will be more likely to buck his authority.

While making his case that gangs provide essential governance to prisoners and fill economic niches only found in the joint, Skarbek is not blind to the violence, terror, rape, and abuses gangs inflict on otherwise (for lack of a better word) innocent inmates. Like any political organization, gangs also suffer from corruption and incompetence, which in the long run does much to turn former members into stool pigeons or dropouts – a class of inmate as despised as child molesters. He makes it clear that just because gangs have good reasons to exist does not mean they are always good.

Before concluding his book, Skarbek also answers the mystery of how several hundred incarcerated gang members of a particular gang can wield such fearsome power over the thousands who compose the street gangs in their former neighborhoods. The answer seems straightforward and obvious in hindsight, but it really isn’t. It’s also one of the best reveals of The Social Order of the Underworld, so I will leave it to those who actually read the book to find out.

Even beyond its accidental research, Skarbek’s study has its flaws. For one, it concentrates mostly on Hispanic gangs, with the Aryan Brotherhood coming in a distant second. Perhaps this is because Skarbek intentionally limited his study to gangs in California and Texas, the two states with the largest prison populations. Either way, he doesn’t offer an explanation. Very little attention is devoted to black gangs. Perhaps they’re not as organized as their Hispanic and white counterparts, or perhaps a deeper study of black gangs would challenge some of his conclusions or recommendations. Again, Skarbek does not say.

To any reader on the Right, however, the accidental research of The Social Order of the Underworld screams mainstream academia. Granted, it is not as bad as it could be – Skarbek doesn’t recognize the data’s importance to the Right and then attempt to explain it away (as Nicholas Wade did to some extent in his otherwise excellent A Troublesome Inheritance [8]). Still, I would expect many Right-wing readers to greet The Social Order of the Underworld with the same jumble of gratitude and annoyance they greet any mainstream work which accidentally strengthens their convictions.

Essentially, Skarbek sets a beautiful table, but expects us to eat standing up. He fails to point out that prisons are essentially a microcosm of humanity, and that much of what goes on there has direct parallels throughout history. What did the age of norms have that the age of gangs lack? Quite obviously, a white majority. When whites ran the show in the joint, things were relatively calm and orderly, little centralized governance was required, and race wasn’t a big deal. As soon as whites lost that majority, however, violence and overall thuggery increased, as well as the need for murderous organized crime syndicates to keep prisons from descending into utter chaos.

Skarbek exerts no intellectual effort in explaining why this is, despite there being scholarship that explores this very issue. Kevin MacDonald describes the individualistic and non-clannish nature of whites in his The Culture of Critique [9], and many of his findings are played out here. Further, a wealth of prison data and scholarly information on racial and IQ differences can be found at American Renaissance [10], which could also shed a buzzing, yellowish fluorescence over what goes on in prisons. Skarbek seems to take for granted the need for prison gangs in order to construct his governance theory, and neglects to include any potential genetic component for this need.

Furthermore, Skarbek ignores obvious parallels throughout recent history. As white America became less white in the twentieth century, the need for stronger, more centralized government (as promoted by the increasingly non-white Democratic Party) increased, just like it did with prison gangs. Increasing as well was the corruption and abuse which often accompanies such an increase in political power, just like it did with prison gangs. Skarbek pays some lip service to how these tumultuous changes in prisons came on the heels of the Civil Rights movement. But nowhere does he connect the dots between increased Hispanic immigration and black freedom, on one hand, to the rise of violence and racial tribalism in American prisons on the other. For Skarbek, it was racial diversity, among other things, which caused this, not the faults or defects of specific races.

Perhaps there is something uniquely genetic about whites that keep them from needing so much governmental control? Perhaps there is something uniquely genetic about non-whites – blacks and Hispanics, especially – that make them more brutish and violent, thereby increasing their need for governmental control? Skarbek’s data seems to point in this direction, but Skarbek himself seems too well-mannered to actually say so. Instead, he would rather unconvincingly propose that the best way for prisons to get a handle on their gang problem would be to create an environment which lessens the need for the governance gangs provide. In particular, Skarbek calls for the release of more prisoners into society, making prisons more “liberal” when it comes to contraband and other inmate restrictions, and, in general, employing more police in crime-ridden areas. Despite presenting some data to support these recommendations, he fails to realize that if you attempt to artificially limit the prison population, then extra police won’t be able to do much good since there will be fewer places they can put the bad guys after they arrest them. Further, with more liberal policies in prison, criminals won’t have a healthy fear of incarceration, and will therefore have fewer inhibitions when deciding whether or not to commit crimes in the first place. And this says nothing of the problems that an increased number of criminally-minded people roaming in freedom can cause.

Skarbek essentially wishes to foist the problem of gangs back onto the general public and call it a solution, which is doing little more than smearing lipstick on a pig. Along with all the accidental research found in an otherwise valuable book, this kind of pig-headed thinking is, sadly, the least accidental thing about it.