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Games Prisoners Play: The Tragicomic Worlds of Polish Prison

Games Prisoners Play: The Tragicomic Worlds of Polish Prison

by Marek M. KaminskiMarek M. Kaminski


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On March 11, 1985, a van was pulled over in Warsaw for a routine traffic check that turned out to be anything but routine. Inside was Marek Kaminski, a Warsaw University student who also ran an underground press for Solidarity. The police discovered illegal books in the vehicle, and in a matter of hours five secret police escorted Kaminski to jail. A sociology and mathematics major one day, Kaminski was the next a political prisoner trying to adjust to a bizarre and dangerous new world. This remarkable book represents his attempts to understand that world.

As a coping strategy until he won his freedom half a year later by faking serious illness, Kaminski took clandestine notes on prison subculture. Much later, he discovered the key to unlocking that culture—game theory. Prison first appeared an irrational world of unpredictable violence and arbitrary codes of conduct. But as Kaminski shows in riveting detail, prisoners, to survive and prosper, have to master strategic decision-making. A clever move can shorten a sentence; a bad decision can lead to rape, beating, or social isolation. Much of the confusion in interpreting prison behavior, he argues, arises from a failure to understand that inmates are driven not by pathological emotion but by predictable and rational calculations.

Kaminski presents unsparing accounts of initiation rituals, secret codes, caste structures, prison sex, self-injuries, and of the humor that makes this brutal world more bearable. This is a work of unusual power, originality, and eloquence, with implications for understanding human behavior far beyond the walls of one Polish prison.

Editorial Reviews

American Journal of Sociology

Written with refreshing directness—funny and horrible by turns—and complemented by delightful illustrations, Games Prisoners Play . . . makes a highly original contribution to the literature on prisons. The book will also prove valuable for introducing game theory. . . . There could be no better advertisement for rational choice.
— Michael Biggs

From the Publisher

"Winner of the 2004 Distinguished Book Award, European Academy of Sociology"

"Written with refreshing directness—funny and horrible by turns—and complemented by delightful illustrations, Games Prisoners Play . . . makes a highly original contribution to the literature on prisons. The book will also prove valuable for introducing game theory. . . . There could be no better advertisement for rational choice."—-Michael Biggs, American Journal of Sociology

American Journal of Sociology - Michael Biggs

Written with refreshing directness—funny and horrible by turns—and complemented by delightful illustrations, Games Prisoners Play . . . makes a highly original contribution to the literature on prisons. The book will also prove valuable for introducing game theory. . . . There could be no better advertisement for rational choice.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691149325
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 10/24/2010
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

Games Prisoners Play

The Tragicomic Worlds of Polish Prison


Prison socializes an inmate to behave hyperrationally. It teaches him patience in planning and pursuing his goals, punishes him severely for his mistakes, and rewards him generously for smart action. No wonder that inmates are such ardent optimizers. A clever move can shorten one's sentence, save one from rape or a beating, keep one's spirit high, or increase one's access to resources. There is little space for innocent and spontaneous expressions of emotion when they collide with fundamental interests. Brutal fights, self-injury, and rapes can all be explained as outcomes of carefully calculated actions. Paradoxically, much of the confusion in interpreting prison behavior arises from both a failure to understand the motives of inmates and an unwillingness to admit that outcomes judged as inhuman or bizarre may be consequences of individually rational action.

The main message of the book is that prisoners optimize under the constraints of their harsh life conditions and the local subculture. Their behavior reflects their attempts at optimization. Such a "rational choice" approach helps us to better understand prison behavior.


I beg the reader's forgiveness for a brief personal narrative that explains how I learned this lesson myself, and how I collected the data that support it. This is not an autobiography, but I would not be writing this book had I not experienced the life of a prisoner firsthand.

In 1985 I was a twenty-two-year-old sophomore student of sociology who had switched disciplines, disappointed with abstract concepts after three diligent years of studying math. Poland had just witnessed the glorious rise of the Solidarity movement in 1980 followed by the introduction of martial law under General Jaruzelski in 1981 with the rationale that can be summarized as "I kicked your ass, but the Soviets would shoot it." Dissatisfied with the moral and esthetic poverty of communist way of life, I joined the underground Solidarity resistance network. In 1985, I was running an underground publishing house, STOP that employed about twenty full-time workers and up to 100 moonlighters. Between 1982 and 1989, we published about thirty-five titles of more than 100,000 books combined. We were a part of a decentralized network that included about 100 underground publishing houses, hundreds of periodicals, thousands of trade union organizations with a hierarchically organized leadership structure, a few Nobel prize winners, and even underground theaters, galleries, and video rentals. We called it an "independent society."

Half-revolutionist, half-scholar in the making, I was also looking for a topic for my Masters thesis in social anthropology. With hesitation, I started collecting data on the inner workings of the resistance network. My dilemma was figuring out how to balance facts with fiction. If too accurate, my thesis could easily become a handbook for the communist secret police. After my thesis defense I could also fall under permanent surveillance, effectively preventing me from running my organization. At the very worst, the communist court could use my thesis as evidence and throw me in prison.

On March 12, 1985 my thesis dilemma was solved. During a random stop at a police checkpoint, "Dragon," the driver of our van, was so nervous that the policeman became suspicious. He disregarded Dragon's fake documents and implemented a thorough search of the van, which was filled with illegal Solidarity books. Dragon decided to talk. Within hours, five secret police agents had escorted me to a police station, joking that "you will have to swim, Mr. Marek." In fact, I was "swimming"-police jargon for jail sentence-for five months in the Bialoleka and Rakowiecka jails. On my second day in a police station cell, after overcoming my initial shock and disbelief, I decided that my thesis would be on the subculture of Polish prison.

After just several hours I knew that I was entering a bizarre, terrifying, and incredibly interesting environment. Rapes, knife fights, suicides, brutal sex, blunt talk, and self-injuries appeared to be its chief attributes. Ordinary life was reduced to eating and defecating. It seemed as if Pandora had freed all the imaginable violent human emotions from her box there and let them play without the usual societal constraints.

I decided to make the best of my personal misfortune and use it as a unique opportunity to study this fascinating society-within-society. My goals were clear: I did not want to write nostalgic memoirs or point an accusing finger at the regime that had jailed me. I wanted to conduct an extensive and uncompromising research project, using all of my methodological skills. I expected that this would require developing new research techniques or modifying old ones. I was ready to face the necessary risks. It was up to me whether I mobilized my academic spirit-or gave up and slipped into the monotony of day-to-day prison life. I estimated that I would be in prison for up to three years, enough time for a comprehensive field study. Surprisingly, "researching prison" turned out to be an excellent survival strategy. Mentally, it kept me in good shape in the face of adversity-since adversity facilitated fast learning. My research spared me from the helpless repetitions of the "What-am-I-doing-here?" question that introspective characters like to invoke on life's meanders. It helped me to socialize into my new role as an inmate and, at the same time, maintain a healthy distance from it. If you, my reader, are ever unfortunate enough to be jailed, I highly recommend the strategy of "researching prison."

Following my release, I wrote a couple of term papers, some drafts of which had earlier been smuggled out of jail, my thesis, and a few research articles. However, during all that time I suffered from intellectual discomfort and felt that my grasp of prison life remained inadequate. The available prison literature and inmate memoirs offered fascinating details and stories but were of little help in understanding the general mechanisms. It took me nearly three years to find what I thought was a promising methodological approach-game theory. Trying to model prison interactions as games, I completed my formerly abandoned mathematical studies with a specialization in game theory. I became a game theorist and, from time to time, tried to construct prison games.

I wrote this book to correct what I perceived to be the failure of my earlier research. In effect, this book summarizes my recurring attempts to interpret and understand my prison experience over seventeen years. I believe that the galaxy of random anecdotes that I have collected can be condensed into a coherent system. Game theory seems to be well-suited for capturing the spirit of inmate interactions. Games, decision problems, or just informal descriptions of strategic interactions convey the message that I was struggling to formulate at the time of my thesis. With all its weirdness and inhuman appearance, prison behavior is the product of rational persons who calculate the consequences of their actions and try to maximize their payoffs subject to environmental constraints. The goal of my book is to enhance this message, in addition to providing an ethnographic description of prison codes, argot, and customs.


The book reconstructs various components of the subculture of grypsmen, the highest inmate caste in Polish prisons, and provides a set of formal and informal models representing strategic interactions that arise in the presence of subcultural and other constraints. The main components of subculture include initiation rituals, various explicitly formulated norms regulating the behavior of grypsmen, secret argot vocabulary and grammar, techniques of exchanging information and goods, prison art and entertainment, and techniques of faking and self-injuring. Within the strategic environment defined by prison constraints and subculture, I focus on specific games, decision situations, and tests that characterize prison life.

Formal models help us to convert the enormous complexity of social interactions into more manageable forms. While the price for modeling is always paid in simplification, a good model may offer surprising benefits. For instance, many cases of prison rape follow an inmate's failure to pass a tricky initiation test that is routinely applied to some rookies. There are immediate policy consequences of such a proposition. Revealing the existence of such a test to new inmates could automatically reduce the number of rapes. As the reader will later learn, an informed inmate passes virtually all tests effortlessly.

Although the number of strategic situations described here is large, I develop only a handful of formal models. There is a good reason for doing this: simplicity. Quite often I abandoned formalism entirely when its use might obscure my main point. A model is useful when it clarifies the structure of interactions and when it has sufficiently wide applicability. In cases of initiation tests, relatively simple models satisfy both criteria. In cases such as the "dirty physiology norms" separating eating from defecating or farting, formalization would rarely enhance the reader's insight. Moreover, it would make the description dramatically boring. An informally stated argument: "Scarcity of space, slow airflow, low food quality introduce strong incentives for coordination on defecation and farting norms" seems to capture the point sufficiently well. Some of the stories that I tell have so many idiosyncratic features that a relevant formal model would represent this particular story only. Building a model to explain such stories would be like hunting for a fly with a revolver. Nevertheless, the story may be interesting and important enough to tell it without formalization. Again, my main goal is not to overformalize what can be said simply.


The "closed" prison environment makes collecting quantitative data extremely difficult, if at all possible. Inmates implement so many methods of lying and misrepresentation that surveys or other techniques are often rendered almost useless. Without hard data, rigorous testing of any empirical hypotheses with appropriate statistical tools is not possible. While this book offers various empirical hypotheses, in addition to case studies and models of interactions, it does not attempt to rigorously test any such hypotheses.

Some of the prison constraints are defined by the physical conditions of the prison environment and the penal system. Others are subcultural and their evolution into the final form is particularly hard to explain. I do not aim to explain the changes of systems of norms and rules and their relation with prison constraints. The rational choice approach does not work very well when dealing with the evolution of complex norms, with multiple iterations, incomplete information, or inadequate beliefs. It works best when there are simple constraints, repeatable and standardized interactions, and full-at least on one side-information.

The reader may also be disappointed in the scarcity of comparison with other prison systems. I included a small number of comparative references but decided not to develop systematic comparisons, as this is the subject for a different work.


The prison subculture is immensely difficult to penetrate. Inmates carefully protect information, because they know that the frivolous disclosure of a secret may prolong an inmate's prison sentence, jeopardize his parole, lower his status among comrades, cut off access to resources, or reveal that sickness is simulated. Inmates develop ingenious methods of cheating on one another, on guards, physicians, or psychologists. Techniques of deciphering other inmates are applied in order to identify squealers. A sociologist using a questionnaire in Polish prisons is usually confused with a prison psychologist. Survey answers commonly reflect an inmate's perception of his own self-interest against a person who is perceived as a part of the prison administration. A typical inmate spends a lot of time with his cellmates working out answers to anticipated psychologists' questions that would work best for his case. Such an environment "defends itself against research."

The main broadly defined source of data was, naturally, my own experience as an observing participant (OP). I define this particular research role, in contrast to participant observation, with two conditions: (a) OP enters a community through a similar social process as its other members and is subject to similar rules; (b) OP undertakes field research as if he or she was a researcher. An ideal OP lives through his/her social role, impassively registers randomly generated personal experience, and applies available data gathering techniques.

Epistemology of Participation versus Observation

A participant or a participating observer may gather useful data when more formalized methods of data collection are not available or provide unreliable output. A participant perceives his world differently than a participating observer perceives the domain of his study. Differences in beliefs, access to information, and attitudes of these two related roles lead to role-specific epistemological deformations. Such typical deformations are briefly characterized below.

A participant is personally interested in his story. He avoids topics that are inconvenient for him and "forgets" embarrassing facts. A political prisoner emphasizes his own heroism against an unjust regime. A criminal prisoner claims innocence against an unjust court. Both of them believe, after Solzhenitsyn, Bukovsky, and others, that "only a prisoner will understand another prisoner." In other words, a typical inmate hardly considers his prison experience to be intersubjectively communicable. He rarely applies any standardized techniques of data gathering. Instead, he focuses on anecdotes and interprets events through his own experience.

A participant observer lacks the sense of real-life pressure participants experience. He is not as affected emotionally by the events as a participant. He lacks experiences that can stimulate one's understanding of insiders' problems. In prison, such experience includes the stress of being arrested, interrogated, or transferred to another prison. He may be unaware that inmates use incredibly ingenious techniques to decipher squealers and that such techniques are applied routinely to newbies. Inmates may check his background, his papers and timing of various events, his contacts in his previous prisons and in the "freedom world," and where he lived and worked. They monitor his in-cell and out-of-cell activities. Most likely, he will be deciphered in a matter of minutes in a new cell. There is an interesting correlation here: one can learn most from those inmates who are most likely to decipher him. Despite all of my precautions, I was "deciphered" twice by my cellmates as a "sociologist who takes notes and does research in prison." In one case, a beating followed. All that occurred despite the fact that I was a true inmate, that my research was only a by-product of my role, and that I knew both the argot and prison norms well.

Sources of Data

My data sources can be sorted into a few categories: (i) Living through various inmate roles; (ii) Informal evening tea chats; (iii) Secret code training of grypsmen candidates; (iv) Informal conversations with inmates, typically face-to-face; (v) Prison artifacts such as pictures, songs, letters, and hand-made products; (vi) The memoirs and written relations of political and criminal prisoners and conversations with former political prisoners; (vii) Underground Solidarity research reports on prisons and uncensored Warsaw University working papers and officially released statistical data.

The data were collected over five months of imprisonment in thirteen cells of two jails, including three police station and court cells. I met about 190 inmates and developed some form of close relationship with about 140 inmates (see table I.1). In references to the sources of my data that appear in the text, I provide the cell number where the relevant data were collected.


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