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The Puzzle of Prison Order

Why Life Behind Bars Varies Around the World

David Skarbek

Publication Date - 03 August 2020

ISBN: 9780190672508

240 pages
6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches

In Stock


Many people think prisons are all the same-rows of cells filled with violent men who officials rule with an iron fist. Yet, life behind bars varies in incredible ways. In some facilities, prison officials govern with care and attention to prisoners' needs. In others, officials have remarkably little influence on the everyday life of prisoners, sometimes not even providing necessities like food and clean water. Why does prison social order around the world look so remarkably different? In The Puzzle of Prison Order, David Skarbek develops a theory of why prisons and prison life vary so much. He finds that how they're governed-sometimes by the state, and sometimes by the prisoners-matters the most. He investigates life in a wide array of prisons-in Brazil, Bolivia, Norway, a prisoner of war camp, England and Wales, women's prisons in California, and a gay and transgender housing unit in the Los Angeles County Jail-to understand the hierarchy of life on the inside. Drawing on economics and a vast empirical literature on legal systems, Skarbek offers a framework to not only understand why life on the inside varies in such fascinating and novel ways, but also how social order evolves and takes root behind bars.


  • The first major work to analyze prison governance institutions around the world, instead of only in one country
  • Features remarkable discussions of how prisoners live and conspire behind bars in both historical and contemporary settings
  • Offers the first framework for doing comparative analysis of prison settings through a theoretical approach that can be used in future research by scholars
  • Provides positive analysis that is the foundation of this book identifies numerous normative implications that inform policy
  • Draws on a wide range of interdisciplinary theories and evidence

About the Author(s)

David Skarbek is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and the Political Theory Project at Brown University. He is the author of The Social Order of the Underworld (Oxford, 2014), which won the APSA's William Riker Award for best book in political economy and the Outstanding Book Award from International Association for the Study of Organized Crime.


"The Puzzle of Prison Order provides a rich foundation for future research... Examining the variation in governance institutions using Skarbek's theory may help researchers explain and address that variation in violence." -- Kaitlyn Woltz, The Review of Austrian Economics

"...this book is a wonderful example of how brilliant scholarship can be produced by relying on secondary data sources, without collecting any "original" data." -- Malcolm M. Feeley, Public Choice

"This book will likely have a wide appeal and be a useful resource to criminologists, sociologists, political scientists, and anthropologists alike, as well as to individuals working within the criminal justice system who wish to understand more about the underlying mechanisms of social order within prisons." -- Rose Elisabeth Boyle, Pernille Nyvoll, and Thomas Ugelvik, Criminal Law and Criminal Justice Books

"Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates. Graduate students and faculty." -- R. D. McCrie, CHOICE

"An illuminating work of much interest to students of crime and punishment."--Kirkus

"Prisons' regimes around the world and across history differ dramatically. Skarbek's new book offers a groundbreaking argument of why this so. He holds our hand in a fascinating and at times disturbing journey inside the world of prisons. I cannot think of a better guide." -Federico Varese, University of Oxford, and author of Mafia Life

"Were it only for its extraordinary comparative scope, The Puzzle of Order would already be a major contribution to the fields of prison studies and human rights, but Skarbek's rigorous analysis of governance structures across varying prison regimes makes this a major theoretical breakthrough in law and society research generally, one that should be read by all who care about the nature of public order in institutions of control." -Jonathan Simon, University of California Berkeley

"David Skarbek is one of the most interesting writers about prisons today. Using case studies from across continents and centuries, he develops a persuasive theory of extralegal governance which will help academics and prison professionals alike unravel the puzzle that is prison governance." -Nicholas Hardwick, Royal Holloway University of London

Table of Contents

    List of Figures
    List of Tables

    1. Why Does Prison Social Order Vary?

    Part I: Who Governs?
    2. When Prisoners Govern: Brazil and Bolivia
    3. When Officials Govern: Nordic Exceptionalism
    4. When No One Governs: Andersonville Prisoner of War Camp

    Part II: How Do Prisoners Govern?
    5. Small Populations: Women's Prisons in California
    6. Social Networks: England
    7. Social Distance: Gay and Transgender Unit

    Part III: Conclusion
    8. Understanding Institutional Diversity
    9. References
    10. Endnotes