Winner, 2021 Outstanding Book Award

American Society of Criminology, Division of International Criminology

Winner, 2021 Outstanding Book Award 

Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, International Section

Co-Winner, 2022 Best Book Award

International Association for the Study of Organized Crime

Available now from OUP and Amazon.

David Skarbek

Many people think prisons are all the same—rows of cells filled with violent men who officials rule with an iron fist. Yet, life behind bars varies in incredible ways. In some facilities, prison officials govern with care and attention to prisoners’ needs. In others, officials have remarkably little influence on the everyday life of prisoners, sometimes not even providing necessities like food and clean water. In The Puzzle of Prison Order, David Skarbek develops a theory of why life in prison varies so much. He investigates life in a wide array of prisons—in Brazil, Bolivia, Norway, a prisoner of war camp, England and Wales, women’s prisons in California, and a gay and transgender housing unit in the Los Angeles County Jail—to understand the hierarchy of life on the inside. Drawing on economics and a vast empirical literature on legal systems, Skarbek offers a framework to understand why life on the inside varies in such fascinating and novel ways, and also how social order evolves and takes root behind bars.

"This is a subversive text." From a review by Malcolm M. Feeley

This is a subversive text...This book is to prisons what Anthony Downs’ An Economic Theory of Democracy, and Gordon Tulluck’s, The Politics of Bureaucracy were to their respective topics. Just as theirs did, Skarbek’s book should shape research agendas on the internal structure and organization of prisons for decades to come. This is an accomplishment of the first order.
--- Malcolm M. Feeley, UC Berkeley

Methodologically speaking, Skarbek is clearly breaking new ground...This book will likely have a wide appeal and be a useful resource to criminologists, sociologists, political scientists, and anthropologists alike...Penologists who work with qualitative data on prisons in particular can use the book as a fountain of inspiration when they plan new research projects. Skarbek presents interesting dilemmas for such
​--- Rose Elisabeth Boyle, Pernille Nyvoll, and Thomas Ugelvik, University of Oslo

Skarbek continues to produce important and original work that raises questions no other scholar is asking, even as carceral studies receive unprecedented levels of interest across disciplines.
--- Christopher Calton, University of Florida​​

Prison regimes around the world and across history differ dramatically. Skarbek’s new book offers a groundbreaking argument of why this is so. He holds our hand in a fascinating, and at times, disturbing journey inside the world of prisons. I cannot think of a better guide.

--- Federico Varese, University of Oxford, and author of Mafia Life

Were it only for its extraordinary comparative scope, The Puzzle of Prison Order would already be a major contribution to the fields of prison studies and human rights, but Skarbek’s rigorous analysis of governance structures across varying prison regimes makes this a major theoretical breakthrough in law and society research generally, one that should be read by all who care about the nature of public order in institutions of control.

--- Jonathan Simon, University of California Berkeley

David Skarbek is one of the most interesting writers about prisons today. Using case studies from across continents and centuries, he develops a persuasive theory of extralegal governance which will help academics and prison professionals alike unravel the puzzle that is prison governance.

--- Nicholas Hardwick, Royal Holloway University of London, former HM Chief Inspector of Prisons

...the new and excellent book by David Skarbek...

--- Tyler Cowen, George Mason University

David Skarbek’s book The Puzzle of Prison Order is a path-breaking effort .... a critical and highly engaging book, offering a new perspective on creating prison order. It breaks new territory, both because of its analytic contributions and because of its comparative focus...The book contributes to academic debates in political science over creating order and provides a model for the constructing of social theory using
qualitative, historical data.

--- Bert Useem, Purdue University, author of Prison State

​An illuminating work of much interest to students of crime and punishment.

--- Kirkus Reviews

David Skarbek’s provocative new book…presents a remarkable variety of ways in which order has been achieved within prisons.  It’s a fascinating book to read for the cases themselves, the range of alternatives in governance that exist, and how different prison orders emerge depending on the context…Skarbek has written an elegant and interesting book about the various ways prisons are organized and self-govern.  The range of institutional diversity is very interesting, and his conclusions are useful in many areas of the social sciences.

​--- G. Patrick Lynch, EconLog

...​​provides compelling evidence for the theory that comparative analysis of qualitative research can generate powerful explanatory governance theories ... Skarbek’s narratives about day-to-day prison conditions are engaging, and his theories are insightful. Moreover, Skarbek’s theories of prison governance recognize the humanity and autonomy of incarcerated people. 

​--- Christopher Rudolph, University of Wisconsin Law School

​​In The Puzzle of Prison Order, David Skarbek takes a large step in unpacking the black box of prisons.

--- Kaitlyn Woltz, George Mason University

Finally—and this is the grand merit of the book— Skarbek’s analysis succeeds in bringing different academic fields together that are often mainly concerned with themselves and usually work with much more limited country can learn much from such an audacious

--- Georg Wenzelburger, Technische Universität Kaiserslautern

Comparable studies on prisons—or other aspects of criminal justice for that matter—are few in number owing to the challenge of producing qualitative datasets to assess for ethnographic and operational findings. The effort here to explain how different prison systems function and the impact governments have in financing and monitoring them is laudable.

--- R. D. McCrie, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY

This book will be of interest to scholars and the general reading public. Its multidisciplinary approach can be a model for future comparative research. Well-written and jargon free it is accessible to anyone interested learning more about the world's prison systems.

​--- Mitchel P. Roth, Sam Houston State University

It shows that good economics can exist and prosper outside of fancy theoretical models and quantitative analysis. Whereas some theoretical works in the same vein offer interesting functionalist explanations but fail to derive testable hypotheses; others, when facing testable hypotheses, fail to actually test them because existing data do not conform to the necessities of regression models. Skarbek provides a way out, opening important new avenues for research.

--- João Pedro Bastos, Texas Tech University

The Puzzle of Prison Order presents readers an innovative model...Few attempts have been made prior to Skarbek to categorize these institutions cross-nationally and to provide explanations for the variations in prison social order that exist worldwide. This book flls a void in cross-national research on life inside carceral institutions.

--- Doris Schartmueller, California State University, Chico

One of the reasons why it is such an intriguing study is because Skarbek is interested in private governance among incarcerated people, a situation where one would think that the state has an especially significant role in governance.

--- Ilia Murtazashvili and Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili, University of Pittsburgh

Talks & Media

Podcast on Ideas Having Sex, 9 May 2022

Podcast on Free Thoughts, 28 January 2022

Fall for the Book festival discussion with Raphael Rowe, 27 October 2021

Podcast on New Books Network, 9 June 2021 

Podcast on Lunchtime Social Science, 29 March 2021

Podcast on Political Economy Forum, 8 February 2021

Podcast on Probable Causation, 15 December 2020

Podcast on The Curious Task, 9 December 2020

Podcast with Omar Phoenix Khan on Justice Focus, 28 October 2020

Podcast  with Dan Krikoria on Beautiful Work podcast, 4 September 2020 

Interview on Top of Mind with Julie Rose, 30 July 2020

Podcast with Jonah Goldberg on The Remnant, 17 June 2020

Podcast Centre for the Study of Governance & Society, 24 March 2020

Discussed on the Unregistered podcast, 23 September 2019

Talk at the London School of Economics, 16 November 2015


Ilia Murtazashvili and Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili, Comparative Politics, January 2024 

Doris Schartmueller, International Criminology, June 2023

João Pedro Bastos, Independent Review, Summer 2022 

Mitchel P. Roth,  Theory in Action, January 2022

Lorena Navarro, Delito y Sociedad, 21 December 2021

Rose Elisabeth Boyle, Pernille Nyvoll, and Thomas Ugelvik, Criminal Law and Criminal Justice Books, September 2021

Georg Wenzelburger, Perspectives on Politics, 21 May 2021. This is a "Critical Dialouge" so I respond to his review. 

Malcolm Feeley, Public Choice, 29 January 2021

Kaitlyn Woltz, Review of Austrian Economics, 18 January 2021

Christopher Rudolph, Tocqueville 21, 10 January 2021

Christopher Calton, Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, 8 December 2020

Bert Useem, International Criminal Justice Review, 16 October 2020

G. Patrick Lynch, EconLog, 11 October 2020

Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution, 28 May 2020