Published: Jan. 6, 2021

CU Boulder’s David Pyrooz and Arizona State University colleague win the outstanding book award from Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences

A groundbreaking look at prison gangs, as revealed by the gang members themselves, has won a top honor from the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS), the group announced recently.

David Pyrooz

David Pyrooz

David Pyrooz, a University of Colorado Boulder sociologist, is co-author of Competing for Control: Gangs and the Social Order of Prisons, which has won the 2021 ACJS Outstanding Book Award.

Pyrooz and co-author Scott Decker of Arizona State University interviewed 802 prisoners—half of whom were gang members—in two Texas prisons. While there is much speculation about these gangs, there is little solid research, the book’s authors explain. 

Book cover

Using data from the interviews, Pyrooz and Decker explore how gangs organize and govern, who joins gangs and how they get out, the dark side of gang activities including misconduct and violence, the ways in which gang politics spill onto the street, and the connections between street and prison gangs. 

At a time when deadly prison violence is creeping up again, and gangs—which constitute 15% of the prison population—are playing an outsized role, the book constitutes the most comprehensive study of gang life behind bars, all told by members themselves.

“We don’t really know much about prison gangs,” says Pyrooz, who is also a faculty associate with the CU Boulder Institute of Behavioral Science. “There are media reports, shows like Gangland, and reports from prison officials. But missing from the picture is: What do the gang members themselves say?”

All gang members who were interviewed were on the brink of release, with as little as 48 hours of their sentence to go. Fifty were in solitary confinement, shackled in chains throughout the interview.

Pyrooz, Decker and a team of graduate students sat for hours across a cold concrete table or plexiglass barrier, asking about how gangs organize and govern, who joins and how, and what it takes for someone to get out.

Responding to news of the book award, Pyrooz noted that for the past 30 years, the ACJS has recognized leading books in the field with its Outstanding Book Award. “It’s an absolute honor for Competing for Control to join this selective group of books,” he said, adding:

“Five years of effort went into Competing for Control, and the project on which it is based was a major undertaking. Conducting original research inside of prisons is not easy—a lot of things have to go right. This book became a reality because of the many people who were involved in the study. Receiving this award is testament to this hard work and the ability to execute this vision.”

The ACJS is an international association that was established in 1963 to “foster professional and scholarly activities in the field of criminal justice.” ACJS promotes criminal justice education, research and policy analysis within the discipline of criminal justice for both educators and practitioners.