It may seem counterintuitive that gangs can exist in what is perhaps the ultimate tightly-regulated environment. Gangs, however, have been thriving in American prisons since the 1950s, and are now ubiquitous. Why is it that the corrections system has been unable to eradicate gang activity from the facilities they run?
A recent article in Behavioral Economics by M. Garrett Roth and David Skarbek makes the case that gangs have actually become necessary elements within the prison system, allowing inmates to create and sustain an internal economy centered on contraband, eliminating much of the violence and disorder that would be present without them.
Through their examination of the California state prison system—the birthplace of the country’s most notorious prison gangs, including the Mexican Mafia, Nuestra Familia, and the Aryan Brotherhood—Skarbek and Roth discovered that correctional officers and prison authorities actually benefit from the existence of prison gangs, and have come to rely on gang hierarchies to maintain order, saving money in the process.