In order to minimise costs and general expenditure the SS delegated duties in the internal administration and supervision of the camp to prisoners.
This so-called "prisoner self-administration" allowed savings in the number of supervising staff and prevented solidarity developing among the prisoners. The SS regarded these prisoner functionaries as an extended arm of their own system and as a tool to help control the mass of the prisoners with minimum expenditure.
To be one of the prisoner functionaries - in the camp jargon known as the "Prominenz" (VIPs) or to have friends among them increased ones chances of survival. On account of their position they had access to better clothing, accommodation and nutrition and they did not have to carry out any heavy physical work.
The SS imposed a number of criteria for moving up into this hierarchy: one had to be a member of a nation, which, in the national socialist racial ideology, was regarded as "superior". At the same time the category to which the SS ascribed a prisoner was decisive.
Generally speaking prisoners from the category "criminal" or "political" were considered for a special function if they satisfied certain prerequisites e.g. could show the necessary degree of brutality and unscrupulousness or had a knowledge of foreign languages and a certain standard of education. A prisoner also needed the backing of a political or national group if he wished to remain in a privileged position for any length of time.
Under these circumstances the various groups of prisoners attempted to fill the most important positions in the camp hierarchy with members of their own collective in order to improve their situation. In trying to do this they came under great pressure from the SS who attempted to prevent the system they had created from being undermined. The SS succeeded in imposing their rules of behaviour on a large proportion of the prisoner functionaries. A prisoner functionary who showed by his treatment of his fellow prisoners that he did not follow the norms decreed by the SS had no chance of retaining his position. Physical and psychological terror was the uppermost principle, even the privileged "prisoner functionaries" had to submit to it - or at least appear to do so. Only few, mostly political, prisoners secretly attempted to use their position to help their fellow prisoners.
Each prisoner functionary was directly responsible to an SS man. At the summit of the prisoner functionaries was the camp elder who was responsible to the SS for the preservation of order in the camp. Below him were the block elders in the individual barracks and under these again the room elders and room orderlies. Oberkapos and Kapos supervised the work details in the stone quarry, in the workshops, storerooms, kitchens and sickbays and the construction groups. In Mauthausen until shortly before liberation all these positions were dominated by prisoners from the criminal category, who frequently considered only their own individual welfare. The functions in the administration such as, for example, camp clerks and block clerks, interpreters, infirmary and sick-camp workers were from 1943 onwards filled mostly by political prisoners. These generally pursued more collective survival strategies and attempted to achieve improvements in conditions for the various groups in the camp. This led to dramatic conflicts between the "greens", thus called because of the colour of the triangular symbol on their clothing, which stood for "criminal", and the so-called "reds", the political prisoners.