BOOK REVIEW: Competing for Control: Gangs and the Social Order of Prisons

Dev R Maitra

Competing for Control: Gangs and the Social Order of Prisons
Pyrooz, D. , Decker, H. (2019); 310pp, (pbk), (£26.58) Cambridge University Press; ISBN-10:1108735746

In Competing for Control: Gangs and the Social Order of Prisons, David Pyrooz and Scott Decker present a comprehensive academic analysis of prison gangs in the United States. The text is based on their ‘Lonestar Project’ – a longitudinal study looking at several aspects of prison gang membership, prison gang member characteristics and re-entry. The book provides a wealth of data on this timely and contemporary area of study.

Foundation for the Study

The book is divided into ten chapters and covers a wide range of data on prison gang members in the Texan penitentiary system. For those who are not familiar with Pyrooz and Decker’s Lonestar Project, which forms the basis of this book, readers are helpfully directed to the project’s inception and its details: “we embarked on the largest study of prison gang members conducted to date in the United States. We interviewed a cohort of 802 male gang and non-gang members prior to their release from Texan prisons” (p.21). This explanation is provided in Chapter 1, titled ‘Foundation for the Study’, which situates the project and provides background information to introduce its themes to the reader. Although explicitly an American study, the authors make references to the wider, global discussions on prison gangs, and the wider debate around mass-incarceration in the United States. Similarly, in this first chapter, Pyrooz and Howell refer to gang statistics across the United States, in relation to the growth of both street and prison gangs in each decade of the twentieth century (p.10-11).

The Theoretical framework

Chapter 2 then provides a theoretical framework for the book; this chapter is particularly instructive, as it presents detailed theory, drawing on seminal penological studies from throughout the twentieth century. Particular attention is given towards David Skarbeck’s work on social order and gang-led governance in prisons, something the authors later return to. Indeed,  from the outset, Pyrooz and Decker are candid in acknowledging the limitations of their work, highlighting that it presents the findings of an in-depth study of prison gangs in one American state, rather than a more general account of prison gangs throughout the United States or internationally. The authors also, for example, draw attention to the fact that their Lonestar Project only focused on men’s prisons and that, notwithstanding this fact, they “believe such a study (on gangs in female prisons) would be important as the needs of women in prisons are not well understood” (p.21).

The Lonestar Project

Chapter 3 presents the reader with a background of both the Lonestar Project, and the authors’ experiences of gang research. Both Decker and Pyrooz have published prolifically in the field of criminology, particularly (but not exclusively) in relation to street and prison gangs in the United States; the reader soon becomes familiar with the authors’ rationale behind the project, The chapter’s principal strength, however, lies in providing the contextual data around Texas, why the Texan penitentiary system was chosen, and provides a brief history of the prison-complex in Texas, that is both concise and provides the reader with a rich understanding of the state’s penal history and why it was chosen as the site of the Lonestar Project. Startling statistics are provided about the homicide rate amongst prison gang members during the “war years”, and the authors provide a comparison with the contemporary situation. Chapter 3, like much of the book, provides a strong chronological account, theoretically and statistically grounded, and providing a much needed contemporary presentation of an area that has often seemed to lag-behind other areas of criminological research in its body of work. It would have been interesting, however, if this chapter had included some more reflexive accounts on the primary researchers and how their identities and personal backgrounds intersected with, and affected the research process. Although criminologists are increasingly sceptical at including extensive autobiographical details in academic works (Crewe, 2009), it nevertheless would have been illuminating to learn a bit more about the authors’ positionalities in relation to the Lonestar Project, especially for two leaders in the field. Nevertheless, the chapter ends with a brief account of “Inmate and Interviewer Perceptions” on the interview-process, which, like most of the methodology is candid and instructive.

Data from the Lonestar Project

The substantive content of the book begins from Chapter 4 – i.e. it is from this point that the Lonestar Project’s data are presented to the reader. The chapter presents a forensic account of the fundamental questions in this area of study: “who are gang members in prison? What attitudes and beliefs do they maintain? What do their social networks look like? And how similar are they to inmates who are not in gangs?” (p.71 – my emphasis). This last question is particularly relevant, and is returned to later in the book, specifically around those who avoid joining gangs. A lacuna exists in much of the existing scholarship regarding a comparison and contrast between gang and non-gang members, and this is a gap the authors successfully fill throughout much of the book. Chapter 4 does so through meticulously detailing the existing criminological research on gang members vs. non-gang members, and therefore the data is easy to understand . Towards the latter portions of this chapter, the authors go on to discuss the descriptive details of gang and non-gang members (e.g. demographic data) and predictors of gang membership in prison (beginning on page 84). The data is extensive, quantitative, and very much aimed towards a scholarly audience, an aim it executes with success.

Typology of gangs

Chapter 5 continues this empirically driven, quantitative account of prison gang membership, this time moving its focus on to the characteristics of Texan prison gangs. The authors are, again, clear in the chapter’s aims and objectives, stating that “the empirical goals of this chapter are more descriptive than explanatory” (p. 104); indeed, the chapter focuses on providing a forensic account of group-level characteristics of street and prison gangs. The chapter presents a range of quantitative data, illustrating how most gangs studied, as part of the Lonestar project were not confined to prison or the streets, and straddled both sides of the prison walls. In both this section, and the remainder of the chapter, such statistical presentation and analyses (e.g. of the historical and compositional characteristics of gangs (p.113-114)), are foregrounded in criminological scholarship, so as to appropriately situate the study. The chapter’s progression is, again, chronological, beginning with Thrasher’s (1927) seminal study on gangs, and incorporating existing criminological literature from the United States. A ‘gang typology’ is created, which includes Security-Threat-Groups (STGs) in segregation, STGs not in segregation, prison-oriented gangs, and street-oriented gangs. The chapter also focuses on the use of administrative segregation to vitiate the activities of STGs, and importantly, provide detail and justification for this ‘typology’ of gangs, which continues to be applied in the following chapter.

Security-Threat-Groups in the Texan penitentiary system

Indeed, Chapter 6 continues this detailed analysis of the STGs operating in the Texan penitentiary system, and it is from this chapter that the book becomes truly mixed-methods in its approach, with a high mix of quantitative and qualitative data, as well as scholarship around the importation-deprivation discussion, and Skarbek’s (2014) departure from it. Although the chapter’s title suggests that it might rely heavily on Skarbeck’s work as a ‘mast’ around which to frame its data, this is far from the case. Indeed, Pyrooz and Decker present a range of innovative arguments and bold findings, and also integrate work from a range of other criminologists, such as Crewe’s work (2009) around ‘social power’ in prison. Again, there is a comprehensive statistical analysis on topics ranging from comparisons between gang and non-gang members’ activities, behaviours and practices, and a continuation of the ‘gang typology’ from the previous chapter. There is, however, no mention of religious gangs, or the intersection between gangs and faith – particularly in relation to Islamic radicalization. This is, perhaps, a reflection of the absence of such gangs in the Texan Penitentiary System; however, other American criminologist (see, e.g. Hamm 2009) have written in depth about the emergence of faith-based gangs in certain parts of the United States (such as California), and their interactions with existing gang-structures; and therefore, some mention of this literature would have been of benefit, even if the authors did not find such gangs to exist in Texas.

Quantitative analysis with a user friendly tone

Chapter 7 is perhaps the most heavily quantitative chapter of the book. It aims to bring clarity to much of the existing (and largely out of date) qualitative data on American prison gangs, some of which argues that gangs import violence into prison  (e.g. Jacobs, 1977), whilst others contend that gangs bring order and control to prison (Skarbeck, 2014). Unlike Skarbeck’s work, however, Pyrooz and Decker draw on primary (not secondary) data to present their convincing findings, including a range of interview data and statistical analyses on misconduct and violence perpetrated by prison gang members, and rates of victimization for gang and non-gang-members. Whilst this level of quantitative analysis may seem daunting to lay readers or criminologists without a strong quantitative background, the authors are still careful to couch these analyses with guiding information (“gang membership is not a life state that people enter at random” p.165), which fits with the overall user-friendly tone of the book.

Testimonies of gang members

In the next two chapters, Pyrooz and Decker return to presenting an holistic and mixed-methods approach to a range of complex areas of gang membership, including how individuals join, or avoid joining gangs (Chapter 8), then moving onto desistance and disengagement from ‘the gang’. Whilst both chapters include both quantitative and qualitative data, it is the testimonies of gang members that really stand-out: the chapters provide comprehensive analyses of why and how individuals join ‘the gang’, and, interestingly, provide much data on why individuals may choose not to become gang members, both on the streets and in prison. This is an area which has previously received scant attention in the criminological scholarship, and the authors present novel and insightful findings from the primary data collected, through interviews with gang and non-gang members. Through so doing, both Chapters 8 and 9 illuminate the activities and practices underpinning the joining and leaving of gangs, and also addresses many myths and ‘half-truths’ regarding these topics, whether in relation to joining gangs, rituals, or desistance from gang activity. This latter topic is one that is generating an increasing amount of academic attention, both regarding street gang membership, and also relating to leaving ‘the gang’ in prison (see, e.g. Maitra et al 2017). Through providing a comprehensive analysis of the gathered data, Decker and Pyrooz build on the existing American literature and present new findings.

In summary

Clearly much of the book is targeted towards a specialist, academic audience, especially criminologists and social scientists with a quantitative background. However, there is enough within the book for it to be of interest to lay readers. Indeed, the earlier portions of the book – which are rich in theoretical perspectives – would be particularly digestible to such individuals. Moreover, the fact that the book contains copious quotations from prison gang members – in addition to statistical data – ‘humanizes’ the book, unlike many purely longitudinal criminological studies which do not present the ‘human’ side of the data. This is another one of the strengths of the book being a mixed-methods approach, rather than purely qualitative or purely quantitative: much of the book can also be read as ‘stand-alone’ chapters, which is clearly a strength for both students and practitioners. In this vein, the final chapter (Chapter 10), provides a wealth of policy and practice perspectives on the book’s subject-matter. The chapter is perspicacious, easy to read, and provides a range of practical solutions for better comprehending and apprehending the phenomenon of American prison gangs: it could be of real help to correctional staff and those who work within prison administrations. Overall, then, this is a theoretically strong, well-written, and insightful book, which will no doubt become a key text for criminologists and penologists in the years to come


Dev R Maitra, Lecturer in Criminology, University Of Suffolk


Crewe, B. (2009). The Prisoner Society. London: Clarendon Studies in Criminology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hamm, M. (2009). The Spectacular Few: Prisoner Radicalization and the Emerging Terrorist Threat. New York: NYU Press.

Jacobs, J. (1977). Stateville: The Penitentiary in Mass Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mclean, R., Maitra, D., & Holligan, C. (2017). Voices of Quiet Desistance in UK Prisons: Exploring Emergence of New Identities Under Desistance Constraint. Howard Journal of Crime and Justice, 56(4), 437–453.

Skarbeck, D. (2014). The Social Order of the Underworld: How Prison Gangs Govern the American Penal System. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Thrasher, F.M. (1927). The Gang. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.





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