Benjamin Lessing

Counterproductive Punishment: How Prison Gangs Undermine State Authority

State efforts to provide law and order can be counterproductive: mass-incarceration policies, while incapacitating and deterring individual criminals, can simultaneously strengthen collective criminal networks. Sophisticated prison gangs use promises of protection or punishment inside prison to influence and organize criminal activity on the street. Typical crime-reduction policies that make incarceration likelier and sentences harsher can increase prison gangs’ power over street-level members and affiliates, a formal model shows. Leading cases from the Americas corroborate these predictions: periods of sharply rising incarceration, driven partly by anti-gang laws, preceded qualitative leaps in prison-gang power on the street. Critically, prison gangs use this capacity not only to govern and tax criminal markets but also to win leverage over state officials by orchestrating terror attacks, intentionally curtailing quotidian violence, or both. Thus, even if increased incarceration leads to reduced crime, it may do so by strengthening prison-gang power at the expense of state authority.

Rationality and Society

The University of Chicago