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The American public appears to have an insatiable fascination with what goes on inside prisons. Moviegoers flock to see Hollywood films about prison life (e.g., Escape from Alcatraz, Murder in the First, and The Shawshank Redemption). The news media is quick to cover lurid stories about prisons, including prison disturbances (escapes, prison riots, or the killings of inmates or staff members by inmates) and the executions of notorious killers. Media depictions often distort the realities of imprisonment, misleading the public about prison life. Average citizens stereotype prisons as either hell-holes filled with every imaginable evil, or country clubs (complete with swimming pools and golf courses) where inmates are sent to work on their tans. Neither of these stereotypes captures the central realities of incarceration for inmates: crushing routine and relentless boredom.
It is not just the general public that knows little about prison life; most policymakers and criminal justice practitioners are also poorly informed. State legislators authorize and pass bills that dramatically affect the conditions of confinement, but rarely tour prison facilities. Judges’ names do not appear on the visitation lists of the criminals that they sentence to prison. Police officers regularly transport inmates to the gates of prisons without bothering to step inside. Trial judges and police officers often form their impressions of prison life based on the comments that they hear from ex-convicts (who are not the most reliable sources).
This essay discusses the factors that shape the experiences of prison inmates. It begins by reviewing a few facts and figures about the numbers and characteristics of prisoners in America. The official features and procedures of the formal organization of prisons that affect inmate life (e.g., the classification process, the security levels of prisons, and institutional programs) are discussed. The essay concludes by examining the informal organizational responses of inmates to these official procedures, through the development of a peculiar inmate subculture that has its own beliefs, rules, and statuses.
The Characteristics of U.S. Inmate Populations
On 31 December 1985 there were 487,593 inmates confined in America’s prisons; U.S. Department of Justice figures showed that as of 30 June 1998 there were 1,210,034 inmates incarcerated in the United States (Gilliard). This was an amazing rise in the prison population by 772,441 inmates in just over twelve years. Most of these increases can be attributed to tough new laws that give long prison sentences to career criminals (with multiple felony convictions) and drug offenders.
The overwhelming majority of those imprisoned in America in 1998 (1,102,653 inmates, or 91% of the prison population) were confined in state institutions, not federal prisons (Gilliard). This is because most felons—even those who have committed federal offenses—are prosecuted through state court systems. It is significant that most prisoners serve their sentences in state institutions because, for the most part, these facilities are more dilapidated and have fewer resources and programs than federal penitentiaries.
When considering incarceration rates (or the numbers of inmates imprisoned per 100,000 population, as of 30 June 1998) for different regions of the country, southern states had the highest rate of imprisonment (508 inmates per 100,000 population), followed by western states (411 inmates). The incarceration rates for midwestern and northeastern states were lower (respectively, 357 and 318 inmates per 100,000 population). Among individual states, California had the largest number of prisoners (158,742), followed by Texas (143,299). Both of these states had more incarcerated inmates than the entire federal prison system (118,408). The states with the smallest numbers of prisoners were North Dakota (883) and Vermont (1,312). Louisiana and Texas had the highest rates of imprisonment (respectively, 709 inmates and 700 inmates per 100,000 population); Minnesota and Maine had the lowest rates (respectively, 117 and 121 inmates per 100,000 population; Gilliard).
Among the 1,023,572 inmates incarcerated in state and federal prisons as of 31 December 1995, the overwhelming majority (961,210 inmates, or 94%) were male (Stephan). Between 31 December 1990 and 31 December 1995, however, the numbers of incarcerated women in the United States grew at a faster rate (a 56% increase) than the numbers of incarcerated men (a 42% increase; Stephan).
More minority group members are incarcerated in the United States than white, nonHispanics. As of 31 December 1995, there were 488,222 African Americans imprisoned (48% of the prison population), compared to 363,918 white, non-Hispanics (36%) and 147,365 Hispanics (14%). There were very few incarcerated Native Americans (10,519, or 1%) and Asian Americans (8,436, or 1%; Stephan).
Relatively few inmates in America are incarcerated in high security prisons. As of 31 December 1995, 202,174 inmates (20% of the prison population) were imprisoned in maximum security institutions, compared to 415,688 inmates (41%) in medium security facilities and 366,227 inmates (36%) in minimum security facilities (39,483 inmates were confined in prisons with no specified security level classification; Stephan).
Almost half (46%) of the inmates serving time in state prisons in 1996 had current convictions for violent offenses (Mumola and Beck). Among the remaining inmates in these prisons, 24 percent were convicted for property offenses, 23 percent for drug offenses, and 7 percent for public order offenses (e.g., gambling and alcoholrelated crimes; Mumola and Beck). Trends since 1980 showed declines in the numbers of inmates incarcerated for violent and property offenses, with a sharp increase in the numbers imprisoned for drug offenses (Beck and Gilliard). These figures must be interpreted cautiously, because many inmates are versatile offenders who have committed other types of crimes than the ones for which they were convicted.
These statistics offer some general insight into the composition of prison populations. A more comprehensive understanding of prison life, however, requires consideration of the social organization of prisons.
Inmates and The Formal Organization of Prisons
When sociologists study the effect of bureaucracies on their members, they make an important distinction between formal and informal social organization (Blau and Meyer). The formal organization of a bureaucracy includes its official hierarchy and functions, administered through a set of written rules that specify the responsibilities and obligations of members. The warden, the captain of the guard, and the director of vocational training are all examples of the positions within the official hierarchy of prisons. Sociologists use the term informal organization to refer to the casual associations, cliques, and friendships that form within a bureaucracy, affecting its operations. For example, longstanding disputes between several prisoners can significantly disturb peace and harmony within a cellblock. The informal organization includes covert norms, beliefs, and attitudes that may create expectations and practices at variance with official procedures.
The daily experiences of inmates are shaped by the formal and informal social organization of prisons. Some parts of the formal organization of corrections that affect inmates include the classification process, the security levels of institutions, confinement arrangements within the prison, program options and assignments, and specialneeds placements. When criminologists discuss the informal organization among prisoners, they note the existence of a distinctive inmate subculture that thrives apart from the official prison hierarchy and procedures.
Upon arrival in prison following sentencing, inmates spend several weeks in a reception center that introduces them to the formal organization of the prison. During this time, they are segregated (i.e., kept apart) from other inmates, so they can be observed by the prison staff and informed about correctional rules and procedures. The most important purpose of the reception process is the classification of inmates, an essential feature of modern incarceration. Classification includes the risk assessment and needs assessment of inmates. Risk assessment involves some estimation of the threat that inmates pose to themselves or to others. Most correctional departments now use standard instruments that assign numerical scores to assess the risk level of inmates. In general, current and prior convictions for violent offenses result in high risk scores.
In needs assessment, prison staff evaluate the special problems of inmates that might affect institutional adjustment and the potential for treatment. Here, staff investigate such details as the physical and psychological health of inmates, their educational and occupational backgrounds and abilities, community support and the quality of inmates’ family lives, and histories of drug abuse. Needs assessment affects the program assignments of prisoners once they complete classification. For example, inmates with little education will be encouraged to enroll in prison schools; those with few job skills will be targeted toward vocational training.
The purpose of classification is to assign prisoners to an appropriate level of custody (or institutional control). High-risk inmates with many needs must be supervised closely; low-risk inmates with few needs require minimal control. This custody classification assignment has immense consequences for an inmate, because it determines the security level of the institution where they will be confined once leaving the reception center.
The federal and most state correctional systems include an impressive array of institutions with different security level designations. Maximum security prisons operate as armed fortresses, complete with steel gates, high walls (sometimes extending many feet underground to prevent escapes through tunnels), perimeter fences (topped with multiple layers of razorsharp concertina barbed wire), gun towers, and floodlights. Some of these prisons are marvels in advanced technology, containing a complex network of electronic surveillance that includes metal detectors, concealed video cameras, and heat and touch sensors in the walls, floors, and ceilings. Correctional officers in these prisons carefully supervise and control the every move of inmates through detailed schedules and constant head counts.
Inmates in maximum security prisons have little freedom and autonomy; their lives are ruled by the same mind-numbing routines for months and years on end. These prisoners lead a depersonalized existence with little privacy; passersby can gaze into their cells to watch them eat, sleep, or use the toilet. They even shower together in large, open stalls that are closely monitored by correctional officers. In an effort to control the proliferation of drugs, weapons, and other contraband, there are frequent shakedowns (or random searches) of cellblocks in maximum security units. It is little wonder that inmates in these prisons often bitterly complain that they are displayed and managed like animals in a zoo. While life in maximum security prisons is usually monotonous and boring, the tedium is sometimes broken by outbursts of violence. Threats, assaults, and killings are fairly commonplace in these institutions. For example, in 1995 there were 62 assaults reported per 1,000 inmates in maximum security prisons in the United States (Stephan). Reported assaults represent only the tip of the iceberg, since many inmates are highly skilled at concealing the beatings administered to settle disputes. The threat of violence is real enough in maximum security prisons to produce a constant undercurrent of tension, fear, and wariness among inmates and staff; smarter prisoners in these institutions make a habit of looking over their shoulders or standing with their backs to walls whenever they venture outside their cells (Hassine).
A more relaxed atmosphere prevails in most medium and minimum security prisons. Violence is much less common in these facilities: In 1995, there were 34 reported assaults per 1,000 inmates in medium security prisons, and 18 reported assaults per 1,000 inmates in minimum security institutions (Stephan). The conditions of confinement are usually much better in lower security prisons. For example, there are few fences and gun towers around medium security facilities; hidden electronic surveillance devices are often used to prevent assaults and escapes. Inmates in some minimum security institutions face virtually no visible physical restraints; the prison grounds may be encircled only by an easily scaled, low fence. Some lower security prisons have a cottage or campus design, with dormitories and individual rooms, rather than long cellblocks. Inmates have greater freedom of movement and autonomy in these prisons; they are also given more privileges and allowed to have more personal possessions in their cells. These prisons sometimes offer community release programs, where inmates leave the facility during the day to attend school or for work. Prison officials depend on effective classification to ensure that the inmates confined in medium and minimum security institutions are sufficiently responsible and dependable to be trusted with these freedoms. Of course, prisoners know that if they violate this trust, they can be reclassified and transferred to a maximum security prison.
Even within prisons, living arrangements vary considerably. Large maximum security penitentiaries usually have at least three forms of confinement: segregation units, the general population, and honor blocks. Inmates in segregation units are isolated from other prisoners, either for administrative purposes, for disciplinary infractions, or for protective custody. Administrative segregation is a special unit for inmates who need ‘‘greater attention and supervision than would be available in the general population’’ (Stinchcomb and Fox, p. 268). Examples might include older prisoners or those who are mentally retarded. Disciplinary segregation is a punishment unit where inmates who have violated institutional rules are locked in their cells all day, except for an hour or two of recreation time. Protective custody units confine prisoners who were threatened or attacked in the general population, usually because they owed debts, were involved in homosexual triangles, or offered staff members information about the misconduct of others.
Those confined in segregation units have much less freedom of movement and autonomy than the typical mainline inmate confined in the general population cellblocks of maximum security prisons. Unlike prisoners in segregation, those in the general population have unrestricted prison yard, gymnasium, and commissary privileges, and eat together in the prison cafeteria. Due to their exemplary behavior, honor block inmates (called trustees) have the most freedom of movement and autonomy: they usually are cleared through the prison control center to work as janitors in administrative offices, or even as caretakers of the grounds outside the prison. Despite their good institutional behavior, older trustees sometimes are stuck in maximum security prisons because they were convicted for murder.
Institutional programs are another important dimension of the formal organization of prisons. These programs are designed to improve the personal and social circumstances and skills of inmates. As a rule of thumb, a greater number and diversity of prison programs are found in larger institutions that confine inmates who scored high on needs-assessment instruments. In particular, this includes younger, drug-addicted, illiterate inmates with few job skills. It is believed that these prisoners’ lives can be salvaged through effective remediation and treatment intervention. The hope is that this will reduce the recidivism (or repeat offending) rates of these prisoners following release. Certainly, the type and quality of programs available in a prison significantly affect the institutional experiences of inmates.
Perhaps the most important program is remedial and secondary education, aimed toward the goal of inmates completing high school or passing the GED examination (the high school General Equivalency Diploma). Basic education programs are essential in most prisons given the high illiteracy rate among inmates: a U.S. Department of Education study (1992) showed that 59 percent of all imprisoned adults were either functionally illiterate or completely illiterate. As of 31 December 1995, 87 percent of prisons nationwide offered remedial and secondary education programs (Stephan).
Many prisons also feature college programs (usually limited to two-year degrees, with the stipulation that inmates must pay for their own courses and books), work programs (including prison farms, prison industries, and facility support services, such as jobs in the prison cafeteria or the laundry), vocational training (teaching such skills as auto repair, small appliance repair, air conditioner and heating maintenance, and furniture making), recreational programs (including basketball, football, and softball leagues), and counseling services (ranging from drug counseling to marital, parenting, and employment skills training). Work programs and counseling services are found in almost all American prisons (in 1995, 99% contained work programs; 96% delivered counseling services). In contrast, college programs and vocational training are less common (in 1995, 38% of prisons nationwide had college courses offered on site; 64% had vocational training programs; Stephan).
Finally, the formal organization within correctional systems must accommodate specialneeds populations. These inmates have unusual problems, because they are sick, weak, dependent, or infirm. This includes prisoners who are very young or very old, pregnant women, those who are mentally disturbed or retarded, prisoners with AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) or other chronic diseases, and the physically impaired. For example, long prison terms coupled with the aging of the post–World War II babyboomer generation has resulted in the ‘‘graying’’ of inmate populations. (In 1990, 5% of prisoners nationwide were age fifty or older; by 1997, this figure rose to 7%; Camp and Camp.) Deinstitutionalization policies from the 1970s that discharged many patients from mental hospitals have inadvertently increased the numbers of mentally ill prisoners; approximately one-tenth of all inmates are diagnosed with significant to severe psychiatric abnormalities (Allen and Simonsen). There are no precise figures on how many inmates have AIDS, but it is estimated that the extent of infection is six to seven times higher in prison populations than on the streets (Allen and Simonsen). By the mid-1990s, onethird of the deaths in American prisons were attributed to AIDS (Stephan). Special-needs prisoners make convenient targets for all the bullies and predators roaming through the mainline; as a result, prudent correctional officials try to place the most vulnerable of these inmates in administrative segregation or protective custody.
Inmate Subcultures and Informal Organizations
The day-to-day experiences of inmates are not only affected by the official, formal organization of prisons; an informal organization among inmates—known to criminologists as the inmate subculture—is equally influential. The inmate subculture is comprised of a peculiar language and a distinctive set of informal norms, attitudes, beliefs, values, statuses, and roles that give prisoners a different perspective from people on the outside (or as prisoners say, those of us in the freeworld).
To illustrate the existence of this unique subculture, prisons have an inverted status hierarchy that often honors behaviors and activities that are condemned by the law abiding. For most people, the cop killer is the ultimate symbol of a despicable criminal; confined in a men’s maximum security prison, he is admired by other inmates as a stand-up guy, or congratulated for being an outlaw (the highest terms of respect in these institutions). Drug dealers and gang bangers (members of urban street gangs) are hated by society, but they occupy positions of importance and power in the cellblocks. Even strong-arm rapists who sexually assault other inmates are grudgingly admired in prison for their ability to dominate the weak (Hassine).
Prisoners claim that an inmate code (or a set of values and beliefs distinctive to prisons) binds this subculture together. This code is the unofficial rule book for the informal organization of inmates. In particular, the code depicts prison as a chaotic, violent, and predatory jungle; inmates call penitentiaries gladiator schools, where only the strong survive (Abbott). The code admonishes fish (or newcomers to prison) to avoid entanglements and disputes with other prisoners, especially those that involve debts. One inmate’s version of the code is: ‘‘Don’t gamble, don’t mess with drugs, don’t mess with homosexuals, don’t steal, don’t borrow or lend, and you might survive’’ (Hassine, p. 52). Weaker inmates who ignore this advice often become mules for manipulative predators, using their body cavities to smuggle drugs into prison, or they may be turned-out as jailhouse prostitutes.
Academic accounts of the inmate code emphasize its oppositional values to conventional society in general and to prison authorities in particular (Ohlin; Sykes and Messinger). The cardinal sin is to cooperate with officials as a prison informer who snitches, squeals, or rats on other inmates in exchange for parole, favorable work details, or other considerations. (Incredibly gruesome and sadistical accounts of the torture and murder of snitches by other inmates during prison riots resonate throughout the jailhouse grapevine, or prison gossip network.) Other values in the inmate code noted by Gresham M. Sykes and Sheldon Messinger include ‘‘don’t trust the guards,’’ ‘‘maintain yourself’’ (as a tough real man who shows no sensitivity, emotion, or weakness), and ‘‘don’t quarrel with fellow inmates’’ (do your own time by keeping your ‘‘nose out of other people’s business’’) (pp. 6–8).
Another feature of the inmate subculture is the distinctive language used among prisoners. Examples of this slang (or argot) appear in italics throughout this essay. Some other colorful terms include shank or shiv (for prison knives or sharp weapons), pruno or hootch (homemade jailhouse alcohol), the hole or jail (disciplinary segregation), brake fluid (prescription tranquilizers used to calm antisocial inmates), the man (a term used with contempt for persons holding positions of authority), hacks (correctional officers), rapos (inmates who irritate others by constantly complaining that they were wrongly convicted), old heads (middle-aged or elderly inmates), square johns (middle-class, conventional inmates who identify with staff members), and crazies or dings (mentally disturbed inmates). The sentence ‘‘Bill’s an old head square john gone crazy from drinking pruno; the man’s got him on brake fluid’’ is incomprehensible to the average person, but would be immediately understood by almost any prisoner in America.
Prison slang that is used to refer to different types of inmates (e.g., ding or rapo) is indispensable in the identification of stable roles within the prison subculture. Inmates relate to each other based on these roles. In a classic study from the 1950s of inmate types in the New Jersey State Prison (a men’s maximum security institution in Trenton), Sykes described numerous ‘‘argot roles’’ that he claimed offered a blueprint for the informal organization among inmates. For example, he found that the black market distribution of illegal goods and services in the prison was controlled by two inmate types: merchants and gorillas. Merchants bought and sold contraband using cigarettes for script (prison money). Gorillas preyed on the weak through theft and strong-armed tactics (extortion and robbery) to supply themselves and their friends with desired goods. Sykes discovered three inmate roles— wolves, punks, and fags—governing prison sexual relationships. Wolves were older, physically tough inmates who played the aggressive, masculine role; punks were their younger and weaker victims. Wolves and punks were heterosexuals before confinement; Sykes argued that their homosexuality was a situational adjustment to heterosexual deprivation within prison. Fags were homosexuals on the streets, and simply continued this behavior once incarcerated. The slang expressions that Sykes associated with homosexual roles are still used in contemporary men’s prisons, although wolves are now often called pitchers, while punks and fags are generically called catchers. Similar inmate types relating to lesbianism exist in women’s prisons between masculinized butches and the female role, played by femmes.
In prisons today, the illegal distribution of goods and services is controlled by gang members and swag men. Gang members dominate the most lucrative ventures in modern prisons— drug trafficking and gambling—through group intimidation and force. The swag man works alone as an inmate who buys, sells, and steals inexpensive commodities, often sandwiches from the prison cafeteria or snacks from the commissary (among street criminals, the term swag refers to stolen goods).
John Irwin offered another well-known analysis of inmate types. From a study of 116 male parolees released from California state prisons in the mid-1960s, Irwin identified eight key inmate roles: thieves (professional armed robbers and burglars), hustlers (petty con artists), dope fiends (opiate addicts), heads (marijuana, acid, and methamphetamine users), disorganized criminals (a catchall category of criminal ‘‘screw-ups’’ who lack any discernible skills or specializations), stateraised youth (criminals who have spent most of their lives in prison since entering reformatories in their adolescence), lower-class ‘‘men’’ (conventional people from poor neighborhoods who find themselves in prison), and square johns.
There is a longstanding debate among criminologists about what causes inmate subcultures. In an important early sociological study of incarceration and its affect on prisoners completed in the mid-1930s at Menard State Penitentiary (a maximum security men’s prison in southern Illinois), Donald Clemmer coined the term ‘‘prisonization’’ to refer to the learning or transmission of this subculture. Clemmer defined prisonization as ‘‘the taking on in greater or lesser degree of the folkways, mores, customs, and general culture of the penitentiary’’ (p. 299). He believed that the inmate subculture had its sources within the prison; later scholars referred to this as the ‘‘indigenous origin’’ theory. Clemmer argued that the beliefs, values, and behaviors of inmates grow more antisocial the longer they are exposed to this subculture.
What causes the inmate subculture to appear in the first place? Sykes greatly advanced Clemmer’s argument by offering an explanation for the indigenous origin of inmate subcultures. From his study of the New Jersey State Prison, Sykes reasoned that the subculture develops to help inmates adjust to the deprivations of incarceration, or what he called the ‘‘pains of imprisonment.’’ He noted five specific pains that incarceration imposes on prisoners, which include the loses of liberty, material goods and services, heterosexual relationships, autonomy, and personal security. Sykes claimed that particular argot roles within the subculture evolved to compensate for these loses. For example, merchants and gorillas provided inmates with goods and services forbidden in prison but easily acquired in the outside world. Likewise, wolves and punks are role adjustments to the loss of heterosexual outlets. To summarize, Clemmer and Sykes each argued that the ‘‘hardships of confinement lead to the development of a criminal subculture found only in prisons’’ (Wright, 1999, p. 162); this became known in criminology as indigenous origin/deprivation theory.
In the early 1960s, Donald R. and Irwin Cressey challenged indigenous origin/ deprivation theory by proposing a radically different explanation called the importation model. This perspective considers preprison socialization experiences as crucial in shaping the development of inmate subcultures. Cressey and Irwin argued that the roles observed in these subcultures are not adjustments to the deprivations of confinement; rather, these roles are ‘‘composites of various criminal and conventional street identities’’ (Wright, 1999, p. 162). In 1970 Irwin presented data supporting this argument from his interviews with California parolees. The inmate roles identified in this study— for example, thieves, hustlers, dope fiends, and square johns—were produced by interaction and socialization that occurred outside the prison (state-raised youth were the only exception to this argument). Irwin claimed that the unusual features of inmate subcultures emerge through the association of peculiar criminal and conventional personalities imported into the prison.
In 1977, two studies independently appeared that strongly supported the importation explanation for inmate subcultures. Leo Carroll’s 1977 analysis of inmates in Eastern Correctional Institution (his pseudonym for the men’s maximum security prison in Rhode Island) showed that numerous recent correctional reforms (including more liberal visitation privileges, permission to wear street clothes and hairstyles, and permission to bring television sets and radios into prison) meant that inmates were no longer isolated from the outside world. Carroll concluded that these and similar reforms enabled ‘‘prisoners to retain their attachments to reference groups beyond the prison walls. And within the prison freedom to dress and to decorate their cells as they please. . .permits prisoners to interact on the basis of preprison identities, rather than solely as convicts’’ (1977, p. 45).
James B. Jacobs’s mid-1970s study of changes in Stateville Penitentiary (a large men’s maximum security prison in northern Illinois) showed that reforms introduced by liberal prison officials and federal court decisions relieved many of the pains of imprisonment, making it easier for prisoners to retain their criminal and conventional street identities and lifestyles. Jacobs observed that the recent liberalization of visitation, telephone, and mail privileges permitted inmates far greater contact with their relatives, friends, and associates from the outside world. For example, visitation rules in many prisons today allow limited physical contact between inmates and their spouses or lovers. These contacts make it easy to smuggle drugs into prison, enabling street addicts to continue using drugs behind bars.
Jacobs (1977) also examined how U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s and 1970s extended certain basic rights to inmates, allowing greater access to the freeworld. As one example, the 1964 Cooper v. Pate decision cleared the way for considerable freedom of religion in prisons. Following this decision, Nation of Islam ministers were permitted to conduct services in Stateville Penitentiary, enabling Black Muslims to practice their faith and retain their identities in prison. Other Supreme Court decisions— Procunier v. Martinez (1974) and Wolff v. McDonnell (1974)—virtually abolished the censorship of mail by prison officials. Furthermore, in the Wolff decision, the Court offered the opinion that although prisoners had ‘‘diminished rights,’’ they could not be ‘‘wholly stripped of constitutional protections’’ and the due process of the law (Jacobs, 1983, p. 42). The cumulative effect of these and other court decisions has allowed influences from the outside world to stream into prisons: inmates today see the same television shows, hear the same music, and read the same magazines and newspapers as the general public.
In particular, prison reforms and federal court decisions have made it difficult to control the influx and activities of gang bangers in prisons. Jacobs showed that in the mid-1970s, four ‘‘supergangs’’ from the streets of Chicago dominated the inmate subculture in Stateville. Gang members brought into prison ‘‘intact organizational structures, highly charismatic leaders, support from the streets, and a long history of intergang warfare’’ (1977, p. 146). Stateville inmates interacted with each other based on these street-imported gang identities, rather than in terms of their statuses as prisoners. Furthermore, relaxed visitation, telephone, and mail restrictions kept gang members in prison informed about events on the streets, and gang members on the streets informed about developments in prison.
Most prison researchers concur that the importation theory more accurately explains inmate subcultures than the indigenous origin/ deprivation model (Cao et al.; McCorkle et al.; Wright, 1994). Correctional practitioners and scholars now recognize that the imposing walls that surround prisons are surprisingly permeable. ‘‘Prison walls, fences, and [gun] towers still prevent the inside world from getting outside, [but] they can no longer prevent the outside world—with its diverse attractions, diversions, and problems—from getting inside’’ (Wright, 1999, p. 164).
Despite this general conclusion, a number of factors since the 1970s have combined to increase the pains of imprisonment experienced by most inmates. Some scholars have claimed that the public and conservative politicians in America together have spearheaded a penal harm movement, with the intention of increasing the misery associated with incarceration (Clear; Cullen). Some aspects of the penal harm movement that have affected the conditions of confinement include the return of chain gangs and road crews in southern states, the decisions by some prison officials to keep known gang members permanently locked down in disciplinary segregation, the reintroduction of stripped uniforms as standard attire in some prisons, and legislation in several states that closes weight-training and conditioning rooms. A study by Todd R. Clear documented that every state since 1972 has ‘‘altered its penal policy in the direction of greater punitive severity’’ (p. 50) through such measures as the restriction or abolition of parole, the implementation of mandatory sentencing laws (that automatically require prison sentences for those convicted for particular offenses, often drugs and weapons violations), and ‘‘three-strikes-andyou’re-out’’ laws (that mandate life sentences for a third felony conviction). These ‘‘get-tough’’ measures especially have targeted predatory street crime and the crack cocaine epidemic, filling American prisons with ‘‘minority-group, drug-addicted, urban-underclass offenders’’ (Wright, 1999, p. 164).
Rising prison populations and overcrowding have gone hand-in-hand with the penal harm movement. As noted earlier, prison populations have exploded since the early 1980s. From 31 December 1985 to 30 June 1998, there was a 148 percent increase in the number of convictees imprisoned in the United States (Gilliard). During this period, 57,795 new inmates were incarcerated each year. In practical terms, this means that every week in America, correctional officials must find space in existing institutions for over one thousand new inmates, or they must open a new prison with this capacity.
Not surprisingly, prison construction has lagged behind these increases in inmate populations. For example, figures from 1995 showed that the federal prison population was 24 percent over its maximum designed capacity (Stephan). Overcrowding forces prison officials to order the double-celling of inmates, or to introduce open, barracks-style sleeping arrangements in whatever space is available (e.g., gymnasiums or converted warehouses).
The deteriorating conditions of confinement, longer prison sentences, and overcrowding together have increased the suffering that inmates experience in prison. Levels of violence, fear, and hopelessness rise in crowded cellblocks that are saturated with drugs and overrun by gang bangers. This has led to the emergence of new, indigenous prison gangs organized for selfdefense and for buying and sharing drugs (Hunt et al.; Hassine). In a study of men’s prisons in California, Geoffrey Hunt et al. found that for every gang imported into prison from the streets, another gang forms inside for protection. Some of these new prison gangs will be exported into the freeworld once their members are paroled.
The turmoil in modern prisons means that inmate subcultures are in a precarious state. If prison conditions worsen, the pains of imprisonment could become severe enough to breed new values and roles among inmates, fundamentally altering the criminal and conventional personalities imported from the streets. This could signal a return to the ‘‘bad old days’’ in corrections where convicts were irreparably damaged through prisonization, or exposure to the inmate subculture. Some commentators already sense the growing unrest and despair in the cellblocks: Victor Hassine compares the modern prison to a ‘‘runaway train’’ filled with prisoners only concerned about ‘‘how they are going to survive this madness’’ (p. 156).
It is critical to reiterate that the experiences of prison inmates are a product of the complex interplay between the formal and informal organization of prisons. In the 1960s and the 1970s, the relaxation of strict rules by liberal prison officials and by federal court decisions were key forces that enabled the importation of criminal and conventional street identities into the inmate subculture. In the 1980s and the 1990s, the penal harm movement and prison overcrowding reversed these trends, threatening to restore the pains of imprisonment and prisonization. Changes in the official, formal organization of prisons inevitably reshape the informal inmate subculture. The fate of prisoners hangs in this delicate balance.
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