Talk at the London School of Economics on "Order without Law?"

David Skarbek

Associate Professor in Political Science, Brown University

Available now from OUP and Amazon.

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.

Discussion on The Remnant podcast

Read an excerpt on Google Books


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 has written 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. 

--- Bert Useem, Purdue University

​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

Talks & Media

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


Bert Useem, International Criminal Justice Review, 16 October 2020

G. Patrick Lynch, EconLog, 11 October 2020

Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution, 28 May 2020