The Prisoner’s Dilemma II: Cooperation is Key

admin's picture

Written by Elizabeth L. Carter of Urban Cooperative Enterprise Legal Center

According to “Prisoner’s Dilemma” in game theory, prisoners must cooperate in order to achieve the best outcome for each. However, that is easier said than done. Cooperation is an intentional act that requires a willingness to be active for a mutual benefit.[1] It essentially requires a rethinking of success where one thinks beyond what is best for the self and towards what is best for the entire group. In the end, cooperation ensures that what is best for the group is also best for the individual, and the individual helps shape the group goal through active participation. So how does a prisoner realize that cooperation brings better results? It seems that this epiphany is only really realized through natural circumstances, such as through years of kinship as seen in the early limited-equity housing cooperatives of New York City where strong tenant associations created the most successful cooperatives. [2] This is also true for the all-prisoner Cooperative Services ARIGOS where the members first started as a therapy group where they were able to get to know one another and find a common ground before forming an intentional community, such as a cooperative.[3] Cooperation naturally served as a rehabilitative tool for these prisoner members and, according to one member, creating crafts on a cooperative basis transformed their lives without them even noticing.[4]

As recognized in Part I of this “Prisoner’s Dilemma” series, a campaign promoting prison cooperatives will require dedicated individuals coming together despite their difficult circumstances inside of a prison.  As difficult as this may sound, it may actually be more practical to create a prison cooperative inside of a prison than a cooperative comprised of only formerly incarcerated individuals. This assumption is based on conversations that I had with a friend a while back when we were discussing the feasibility of starting a cooperative comprised of formerly incarcerated individuals. During these conversations we discussed the difficulties of doing such a thing, such as finding a way to bring unstable individuals together in the midst of their instability. For instance, forming a cooperative to address recidivism and employment discrimination among those just reentering mainstream society is a long-term goal since it will take some time to get off the ground. In the meantime, however, these individuals need to address immediate needs, such as paying back child support arrears, and finding housing and regular employment as part of their parolee or probationary rules.[5]

As a result, and quite ironically, many of these individuals find more stability while in prison than outside of prison as parolees or felons, due to prisons’ rigid schedules for prisoners. For instance, while in prison, prisoners do not have the burden of paying back debt with little or no income, finding a job within an unrealistic time frame, or a host of other rules that may be difficult to follow for those just reentering mainstream society. Therefore, the Urban Cooperative Enterprise Legal Center’s (UCELC’s) approach to forming cooperatives designed to prevent recidivism and prison exploitation is to begin inside of the prison where members will have the ability to focus on long-term goals, such as cooperative enterprises, while they are in a somewhat stable environment. In furtherance of this goal, UCELC’s campaign will begin with researching the laws, rules, and policies pertaining to cooperation and rehabilitation among prisoners.   


[1] See Carter, Elizabeth L., “Community Planning, Sharing Law, and the Creation of Intentional Communities: Promoting Alternative Economies and Economic Self-Sufficiency Among Low-Income Communities.” ClassCrits VII Symposium, 44 Sw. L. Rev, 686 (2015):

[2] See Jacqueline Leavitt and Susan Saegert, From Abandonment to Hope 40 (1990).

[3] See Grassroots Economic Organizing,

[4] See Id.

[5] See Legal Aide Helps Reentry, Department of Justice,

(Image Credit: dantetg via