A Hole at the Center of the State: Prison Gangs and the Limits to Punitive Power CDDRL Working Papers
Benjamin Lessing  |  October 2013

The state’s central function is to establish authority through its monopoly on violence; the very attempt, however, can be counterproductive. Punishment incapacitates and deters individuals, but can empower collective anti-state forces. Prison gangs, their ranks swelled by mass incarceration policies, transform the core of the coercive apparatus into a ‘stateless’ area and headquarters for organizing criminal activity on the streets and supplanting state authority in communities. Drawing on a formal model, qualitative fieldwork and case studies from the US and Latin America, I show how gangs use control over prison life, plus the state-provided threat of incarceration, to project power beyond prison, organizing and taxing drug markets and coordinating armed violence. The model reveals that common state responses–crackdowns and harsher sentencing–can actually strengthen prison gangs’ leverage over outside actors. These countervailing effects can have increasing returns, implying a point beyond which additional incarceration erodes state authority.