Book Review: The Games Prisoner’s Play

After many attempts to find a journal interested in running a book review on this text, I have decided to post it here and on Amazon instead. The main reasons for the difficulty in finding a journal were as follows:
1. Scholarly journals rarely accept unsolicited book reviews.
2. This text has more to offer to a sociology and or criminology audience than it does to an economics one. My familiarity with these journals is small but growing, as I did find a few that had already ran a recent review by the time I contacted them. Which leads me to beleive…
3. Books must be reviewed recently after their publication. Or have lasting contribution to warrant being re-addressed.
None the less I think the book is worth reading and an important piece of the broader economics of prisons research agenda.

Book Review by Daniel J. D’Amico
Games Prisoners Play, the Tragicomic Worlds of Polish Prisoners
by Marek M. Kaminski

Social scientists have tried investigating correctional institutions to better understand both the causes of crime and the criminal actor, but a series of obstacles like secrecy, hostility, cultural distance, psychological endurance, and physical danger have separated the social scientist from this insight. Kaminski’s Games Prisoners Play, the Tragicomic Worlds of Polish Prisons, invites social scientists to take greater efforts in being constantly aware of the opportunity to exploit their own comparative advantages in accessing data sources, because data surrounds us everywhere. Arrested for anti-communist publishing in early 1980’s Poland, Kaminski conveniently transcends the traditional obstacles, defining himself as an “observing participant…who enters a community through a similar social process as its other members and is subject to similar rules…and undertakes field research as if he or she was a researcher (p. 7).”
Kaminski combines the insights of game theory with real accounts of inmate life, to describe prison life as a realm of strategic risk, uncertainty, cost, choice, status and reward. The characters take shape both personally and as entire classes. The reader can’t help but feel empathy coupled with a sense of humor, as dark as it may be, that makes life “more bearable (p. 15).”
Becker’s 1968 paper “Crime and Punishment an Economic Approach” is perhaps the first to bridge the fields of criminology and economics. In Becker’s model the criminal continuously makes cost benefit calculations, weighs risk and uncertainty, maximize his benefits, and chooses between crime and production. Becker’s theory was bold; it stood in contrast to common opinions of criminal behavior being explained by either nature or nurture hypotheses. Under nature or nurture theories, criminals are either deprived or depraved, and policy implications are limited as such. By characterizing the criminal as a rational actor, Becker’s model has policy implications which go beyond the limited notions of “lock ’em up” on the one hand or “subsidize education,” on the other. It forces planners to recognize that the institutions, to which their policies give shape, have direct effects on the incentives of individuals that operate within them.
This interpretation can be taken in two ways. One could say that Becker’s model gives greater legitimacy to the efforts of prohibitive policy in that they are trying to effectively provide negative incentives to crime. By imposing higher costs to criminal activity, policy makers expect to see fewer crimes take place. On the other hand, Becker’s insight could be interpreted to show that prohibitive efforts are extremely costly and at times futile if they do not recognize all other counter-acting incentives, or more simply put; the elasticity of the demand curve for crime. Individually honed policies do not have direct control over all of the various institutional forces that promote a given behavior. Social behavior is more often than not, the result of a complicated network of interactive forces.
Kaminski’s text supports the latter interpretation of Becker over the former, and furthermore the complicated network does not start nor stop at the prison gates. His main thesis is a straightforward one; game theory is a useful theoretic device at explaining the behavior of inmates (p. 4). He uses his memoirs as representative testimony to model prison phenomena into simplified games. These games help the reader trace the incentives of actors and preferable outcomes are sought and exploited by the inmate players. Kaminski notes that his analysis is confined to the Polish system in the 1980s. Consequently some of the conclusions one draws from his analysis must be limited and treated with caution.
The games Kaminski describes demonstrate the complexity and ingenuity of strategy used by inmates to cope with their uniquely resource-limited scenarios. The inmate’s capacity to strategically interpret, foresee, and communicate amidst the harsh conditions of prison life is obvious. The reader is left to wonder why, if the prisoners are so strategic inside the gates, they were not sufficiently strategic in free society to avoid incarceration? The reader is told a classically liberal message (pp. 11, 22, 26, 27, 32, 63, 85, 119, 129) through the stories of political activists incarcerated by the hands of a communist regime, fitting the text within the thesis of Public Choice political economy. The reader sees imprisonment in society as less about promoting social order, but more about promoting particular political interests. Even strategic responses to social interaction can fall short against hierarchical positions of authority. This holds true both inside and outside the gates.
Despite the straightforwardness of the book’s main thesis, the implications are bold and combative of existing criminal justice policy. Prisons are meant to be an instrument of protection and a promotion of peace, yet inside their walls violence runs rampant. Prison management techniques take the shape of prohibiting inmates’ access to physical materials, drugs, goods, and services. Authority, control, and imposed structure are the only tools used by prison managers to diminish violence and maintain order within the institution’s walls. But are these tools the only ones available, and are they being wielded correctly to their stated aims of promoting peace and social order?
Kaminski’s game theory scenarios tell a story with a novel interpretation of how prisons are used by states. Kaminski demonstrates that it is the harsher conditions of scarcity which raise the stakes of enforcement in a prison, not the mentality or cruelty of prisoners. In prison a person may be beaten or degraded in social status for shaking hands with the wrong person or passing gas at the wrong time; obviously these are harsher conditions of enforcing social norms than in a free society, but harsh enforcement techniques are tools for preserving peace. The alternative of non-violently enforced social norms in prison would result in a constant war of every prisoner against every other prisoner. Comparing rates of violence between free and incarcerated people is no comparison at all because conditions of scarcity are completely different between the two samples. Institutions develop differently in different scenarios of scarcity. Through Kaminski’s work we can see that harsh enforcement techniques are ingenious solutions to maintaining peace and order in the otherwise chaotic prison cell, and furthermore that they are emergent and diverse. Successful games and players remain while failures drop out or adjust their behavior. The allotment of games played were not singularly constructed and imposed by any single authority.
The “grypsmen,” prisoner upper classes, take the role of game designers and have access to information unknown to other players. In a world with next to no physical resources to convert into productive capital, these inmates capitalize on the one asset they seem to hold in abundance; knowledge. Veteran inmates know the repetitive nature of prison society and have exploited profitable avenues in it. There is a single unstable condition: the constant risk and uncertainty associated with new inmates. A new inmate might either accept the social ranks of his cell mates and abide by the rules upon hearing them, or he could rebel against it and threaten to disrupt all of the peace and order which the veteran inmates have worked hard to instill. The harshness of enforcement is a direct result of the combined limitations of physical resource scarcity with the extreme risk imposed by uncertainty of new inmate violence.
Kaminski’s text simultaneously draws into question the entire apparatus of prison management and constructed social enforcement. If management’s true intention by prohibition, discipline, and control is to diminish violence and maintain order within cell walls (or within society for that matter), than it must look more closely at the spontaneity of enforcement mechanisms implemented by inmates themselves to cope with their conditions of extreme resource scarcity and uncertainty. Since knowledge is the commodity most valuable to the upper classes of inmates, prohibition is an ineffective tool at managing the interactions of inmates, perhaps equally true in free society.

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