Smaller Prisons are Smarter

By David Skarbek

September 15, 2020

There is a growing consensus across the political spectrum that the United States incarcerates far too many people and that this has tragic and unjust consequences that fall disproportionately on socioeconomically disadvantaged groups and minority communities. Yet, not only do we lock up too many people, but all too often they are incarcerated in prisons that are also much too large. Prisons should instead be built to hold significantly fewer people.  In particular, the size and social networks of prisoners have a profound effect on the informal life of prisons. To make this argument, I compare the prison social orders in California and England and Wales.

Smaller prison populations matter in important ways. Officials can govern smaller prisons more easily. It is less likely that large groups of prisoners will challenge officials’ authority and control. Officials can more easily see prisoner interactions in places that are less crowded. In smaller prisons, officers and prisoners can more easily get to know each other and develop respectful relationships. Smaller prisons tend to have less bureaucratic hierarchy, leading to greater responsiveness to prisoner needs. On the other hand, larger prisons require more regimentation, and they tend to take on an assembly line quality and the sense that officials are merely warehousing offenders. Smaller prisons often have more opportunities for privacy and autonomy, leading to less conflict. Prisoners recognize all these advantages too: prisoners often report that in smaller prisons they feel less stress, safer, and more respected by staff.

Prisoners on recreation at San Quentin State Prison, Marin County, California. Credit: Waldemar Zboralski

Some people assume that prison officials govern most economic and social aspects of prison life, but that’s often not the case. Prisoners must often govern themselves. In smaller prison populations, prisoners can also resolve problems amongst themselves more effectively in informal ways. Gossip and ostracism are powerful tools of social control in small communities. It hurts when someone disapproves or disrespects you. It hurts when no one will associate with you. But these tools become less effective as the size of the community grows. Gossip is less hurtful if no one knows anyone else’s reputations. Ostracism is not a credible threat if there are many other prisoners with whom to associate. Thus, in large prison populations prisoners often turn to organized prison gangs to regulate and govern the society of captives. In smaller prisons, people rely on softer, less violent ways of establishing order among prisoners. 

Consider the California prison system, which is the second largest prison system in the United States. The typical prison in California holds about 3,500 people. Ethnically-segregated prison gangs have a dominant influence on the everyday life of prisoners. They have written rules and regulations that prisoners must follow. Many gangs even have written constitutions. They regulate social interactions and regulate and tax the underground economy. They rule with the threat of violence. Yet, gangs have not always existed in the California prison system. For more than one hundred years, prior to the late 1950s, no gangs existed. Instead, prisoners relied on the “convict code,” a set of informal norms that determined one’s rank in the social hierarchy. The code told prisoners not to lie, steal, or snitch. It told prisoners to be tough, not to whine, and to pay back one’s debts. The more someone adhered to the code, the more his peers respected him and the safer he was. Prisoners who deviated from the code were ostracized and more likely to be victimized. But this system could only work when prison populations were small and people knew others’ reputations.   

England adopted many penal practices and criminal justice policies from the United States, including mandatory minimum sentences, three strikes laws, honesty in sentencing policy, zero tolerance policing, the drug war, a national drug czar, drug courts, juvenile curfews, private prisons, and electronic monitoring. However, their prisons are not controlled by prison gangs like those found in California. One reason for that is that the typical prison there only holds about 750 people. The figure below shows how many facilities hold different numbers of prisoners in each prison system. In short, California has a few, incredibly large prisons, while England and Wales have a large number of relatively small prisons. For comparison, the largest prison in England and Wales still holds fewer people than the smallest prison in California. The largest prison in California holds more than double the number of people held in the largest prison in England and Wales. These are radically different approaches to incarcerating people.

As I argue in my new book, the small prisons in England and Wales have an additional advantage: they are sited close to a prisoner’s home. This is based on a correctional philosophy according to which incarcerating people close to their hometowns allows people to maintain healthy ties with family and friends. It also means that social norms are even more important. A person’s reputation is often known as soon as he arrives at prison. Affiliations based on postcode are common. While incarcerated, friends and family back home might hear about his behavior. After release, one’s actions while incarcerated will be known back home. Taken together, this means that maintaining a good reputation is incredibly important, so prisoners are heavily influenced by social norms. They do not need gangs to govern and control social and economic interactions. The prison system is able to house people closer to home in part because England and Wales has about three and a half times as many prison facilities as California does, and they are spread throughout a geographic area that is only about a third of the geographic size of California. As a result, it is far easier to incarcerate a prisoner closer to his or her home.

To be sure, we should be greatly concerned about the total size of the US prison population. The prison population could be reduced substantially without risking increasing crime rates. However, we should also place greater importance on reducing the number of people held in particular facilities. Smaller is better.

David Skarbek is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and the Political Theory Project at Brown University. His new book is The Puzzle of Prison Order: Why Life Behind Bars Varies Around the World. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidSkarbek .

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