Counterproductive Punishment: How Prison Gangs Undermine State Authority Rationality and Society
Benjamin Lessing  |  May 11, 2017

States’ efforts to provide law and order can be counterproductive: mass incarceration policies, while incapacitating and deterring individual criminals, can simultaneously strengthen collective criminal networks. Prison gangs, by promising rewards and punishments inside prison to those who anticipate incarceration, can control criminal activity on the street. A formal model reveals that common crime-reduction policies, by making incarceration more likely and sentences harsher, can increase prison gangs’ power over street-level actors. Leading cases from across the Americas corroborate these predictions: periods of sharply rising incarceration, partly driven by anti-gang laws, preceded qualitative leaps in prison-gang projection of power onto the street. Prison gangs use their capacity to project power not only for criminal governance, but to orchestrate violence—or intentionally curtail it—providing them critical leverage over the state. Thus, even if increased incarceration reduces crime rates, it may do so by strengthening prison-gang power at the expense of state authority.