A few weeks ago, a fellow grad student told me about a book that uses game theory to discuss prison life. That book ended up being Games Prisoners Play: The Tragicomic Worlds of Polish Prison by Marek Kaminski. Kaminski ran an illegal Solidarity publishing house during the communist era in Poland. He got caught and spent a few months in jail. Many years later, he became a political science professor at UC Irvine and wrote the book based off the first-hand research he compiled while in jail.
Kaminski’s thesis is straightforward: although prison life looks silly to the outsider, prisoners’ seemingly illogical behavior is perfectly rational once you understand their strategic constraints. The discussion is thorough, beginning with the prison’s ruling class and its secret language before moving to topics like prison sex and strategic ailment. (That’s ailment, as in faking sickness or inducing real sickness, not alignment as I kept misreading.) He intersperses bizarre (but perfectly logical tales) of prison life. Be sure not to skip the postscript, which describes the interesting dilemma of the Polish Robin Hood, a legendary anti-communist thief who became paralyzed. The prison’s ruling class had a lively debate whether it was permissible to help the man use a bedpan. Normally, that would be a major no-no. But is an exception appropriate in the case of such a prison hero? (Yes.)
Throughout, Kaminski relays important points by drawing simple game theoretical models. These are probably more useful to the lay reader, as Kaminski’s the informal logic was sufficient for me. The one exception is his discussion of costly signaling, where game theory proves its value. Unfortunately (and fortunately), Kaminski leaves out any classic examples of the prisoner’s dilemma despite the obviousness of the joke.
Formal theory or no formal theory, bringing rational choice theory to the world of prisons proved worthwhile. It’s the best sociology book I have ever read, hands down. Five stars out of five.