Of gangs and guards

By Hugo van Lent

Thelen and Mahoney’s theory of actors and endogenous change can easily be applied to the dynamics inside a prison

The general prison regime – which determines which goods are considered contraband, how severe the punishments are et cetera – may be considered the primary formal institution of the prison. Gang leaders, of course, do not wish to follow these rules, and aside from setting up their own informal institutions, one would expect them to behave as insurrectionaries by openly opposing the prison regime, or as subversives by opposing the warden without open revolt.

It is obvious, however, that those particular strategies would result in the gang leaders losing the game; their sentences would just be increased. Instead, gang leaders operate as parasites within the system. They use the fact the prison environment to sell drugs at higher prices than on the street and expand the influence of their gang – you’re in for life after all. They are able to do so because the prison regime is very difficult to enforce, and they are therefore the main actors behind drift.

However, everyone wants to be the gang leader or start his own, and we may therefore find many opportunistic gang members, waiting for the ideal moment to strike. This often causes a lot of chaos and violence, and this ultimately benefits neither individual gang leaders nor the guards.

Therefore, the prison administration and individual gang leaders are in a – arguably unhappy – mutualistic relationship with one another. Aside from profiting from corruption, guards cooperate with gang leaders to keep opportunistic gang member in check and thus keep the peace. Therefore, the interaction between these three actors keeps the gang system in place, even if it directly contradicts for what prisons are designed.