The Prisoner’s Dilemma: An Introduction

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(Image Credit: Kzollman via Wikimedia Commons)

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

Prisoner’s Dilemma in game theory provides that cooperation among the players achieves the best outcome for all participants. Just as the fictitious prisoners found in most renditions of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the prisoners of Cooperative Services ARIGOS in Puerto Rico also found that it was in every prisoner’s interest to cooperate and create a crafts business that would provide both income and rehabilitation for the prisoner-members.[1] According to game theory, these prisoner-members are successful because they realized the benefit of cooperation for mutual aid and ARIGOS now has fifty members who have been released from prison, and all, but one have successfully re-integrated into society. [2]  

This success story of a cooperative made entirely of prisoners was the motivation behind the Urban Cooperative Enterprise Legal Center (UCELC)’s Prison Industrial Complex and Recidivism Campaign where the founders believe that the cooperative model is the most effective solution at preventing recidivism and prison exploitation, which is quite frankly, a no-brainer. For instance, a prison cooperative allows members to become positively active by using their skills, talents, and passions to become producers of goods and services that they own. Of course, there is an economic benefit to prisoners owning the goods and services that they produce, which is a stark difference from the typical exploitation of prisoners by outside corporations that use prison labor for very little or no wages.[3] However, cooperatives do not just provide legitimate economic benefit to prisoners and the formerly incarcerated. Rather, prison cooperatives provide a healthy, positive alternative to the traditional prison culture of retribution, and therefore, provide “humanitarian rehabilitation.”[4] That is, meaningful work that recognizes the humanism of every prisoner by allowing them to creatively exercise their faculties and interests, which later provides for a successful reintegration into society as they continue their productive work as a formerly-incarcerated member.  

Although prison cooperatives appear to be a no-brainer to the founders of UCELC and Cooperative Services ARIGOS, it is not the case for the majority of the U.S., especially in the State of New Jersey, where prison cooperatives are non-existent.  According to one of the founders of Cooperative Services ARIGOS, forming a prison cooperative was no easy feat. It took years to form and ultimately required a change to Puerto Rico’s laws surrounding the criminal justice system.[5]  Likewise, the founders of UCELC recognize that promoting prison cooperatives in New Jersey will also be a major challenge. Such a campaign will require bringing dedicated individuals together in light of difficult circumstances in order to successfully defeat the cooperation problem (“Prisoner’s Dilemma”). The campaign will also require knowledge of the complex criminal justice system and relevant laws and policies pertaining to prisons, prisoners, and the formerly incarcerated. Ultimately, the campaign will require advocacy in order to shape the prison reentry policy of the State and ensure that prison cooperatives are part of the conversation. This will be a great challenge for a budding nonprofit like UCELC, but it is one that it will gladly accept.


[1] As described in Cooperative League of Puerto Rico:

[2] As described in Cooperative News:  

[3] See The Public Eye:

[4] As stated by Dr. Jessica Gordan Nembhard and quoted in Cooperative News:

[5] See Grassroots Economic Organizing: