Adaptations to Prison Life
The moment an inmate enters a prison, he enters another world. The norms of prison life differ dramatically from those outside the prison walls. No matter how dangerous, or dysfunctional, the prisoner’s previous environment, the one he now encounters is that much more threatening and unpredictable. Previous rank within the larger society, whether of law-abiding citizens or criminals, counts for nothing within the inmate’s new world. He or she is at the bottom of the heap. From the first moment, inmates must fight to find their places in a frequently brutal hierarchy. Prison knows no laws but the violent and coercive acts of other prisoners, and the often soul-numbing regulations of corrections discipline. The new prisoner exchanges his personal, human identity for that of a number. He exchanges his street clothes for a prison uniform. On the one hand, there is complete anonymity and neglect of humanity, and on the other, a continuing struggle to preserve and reestablish that very individuality and sense of human dignity. The prison world is a violent world, filled with forced sexual encounters, brutal fights, and dangerous drugs. Different groups compete for power and influence. Special rules, a kind of prison etiquette, apply to mundane situations, such as dining, exercise, and work. Additionally, each of these once normal activities is entirely transformed. The prisoner who once ate on his own schedule, and among confidantes, friends, and loved ones, now dines among hundreds, or thousands, of fellow prisoners. He eats what they tell him to eat, and where. He works at jobs that are often demeaning, robbing him of fundamental notions of honor and respect. Even private bodily functions must be performed in public.
In general, the purpose of the American corrections system is perceived as one of rehabilitation. Punishment, too, has its place, but by and large, the aim of the prison system has been to reform criminals — to correct antisocial tendencies, build talents, and stimulate productive potential. However, prisons, on the whole, fall far short of these perceived goals, many inmates,
Serve hard time, as they are meant to, but typically learn little of value during their stint behind bars. They adapt to prison in immature and often destructive ways. As a result, they leave prison no better, and sometimes considerably worse, than when they went in. Similarly, Reiman (1995) argued that the correctional system was designed to “maintain and encourage the existence of a stable and visible ‘class’ of criminals.”
(Richards & Ross, 2001, p. 177)
Prison is a trying environment, one that encourages an almost adolescent standard of behavior. Such attitudes are encouraged not only by the competition for status among the inmates themselves, but also by the various rehabilitation programs imposed by the correction system. Prisoners are compelled, much like high school students, to sit through tedious courses of instruction, to train at vocational skills, and attend mandatory counseling sessions with prison psychologists and psychiatrists. Length of sentence is often affected by the successful completion of these programs. A common response among prisoners; therefore, is simply to play along, mouthing the expected responses, and mimicking the required behaviors (Frase, 2004, p. 87).
The prison environment is almost entirely artificial, subject to constant intrusive discipline and regimentation. Prisoners are analyzed for progress based on how well they adhere to this regimen. As pointed out by Morris (2002), adherence to the rules of the prison environment is in no way indicative of a prisoner’s actual attitudes, motivations, and future conduct outside of prison (Frase, 2004, p. 208). Reacting to this system, prisoners create their own by specifically rejecting the code of conduct imposed by the corrections regime. Inmates create their own hierarchy, earning respect by assuming positions of prestige and authority within the inmate population. In particular, prisoners actually gain respect and status by specifically refusing to follow the dictates of corrections personal, refusing to cooperate with corrections officers and prison staff, regardless of the nature of that cooperation (Gillespie, 2003, p. 40). The attitude reveals both the existence of an “us and them” mentality, and also the deep-seated human need to attain to some measure of personal dignity and respect. A status system exists even in the criminal world outside the prison walls. This, too, is often different from the usual hierarchy of the larger society. These different forms of acquiring status are most similar to those found within the prison, and apply most directly to criminals who might have belonged to gangs, or other criminal organizations prior to their incarceration. Alternatively, white collar criminals may actually have enjoyed high status within the larger society. The prison pecking order is an attempt to recreate general notions of status and inculcate respect for the individual. It gives hope to those who participate in the artificial prison system. Condemned to spend years as mere numbers, they now possess the opportunity to advance and gain power. Prisoners frequently undergo initiation ceremonies in which their loss of physical safety is graphically demonstrated, and prisoners are humiliated and degraded, suffering near-complete “disculturation” (Gillespie, 2003, p. 45-46). The only choice is to submit to the new hierarchy, and the new rules.
Counteracting these influences is a major challenge for corrections officers and officials. Prison staff and administrators must remember the essential humanity of prisoners. Many prisoners have indeed committed terrible crimes, while others have become involved enterprises and lifestyles that have conditioned, or encouraged, them to break various government laws and regulations. The less dehumanizing the prison environment, the more likely it is that prisoners will not become so completely “discultured.” Corrections officers and personnel must avoid the temptation to react with violence and cruelty equal to prisoner provocations. Rules must be enforced, but draconian measures should be used only as an absolute last resort. The aim is not to endlessly remind inmates that they are prisoners. The walls, the discipline, the communal living arrangements — these alone convey the sense of loss of freedom, of punishment, of being set apart from the general society. Antisocial inmate hierarchies could be dismantled by paying attention to the very things that cause the formation of these groups, and that tend to augment the prestige of group leaders. Brutal treatment, and even the suspension of privileges for prisoners who disobey minor commands, can have the effect of enhancing the standing of those who disobey. Direct confrontations should be avoided where possible. Prisoners should be given as many opportunities as possible to duplicate the normal hierarchies of society within the prison walls. This is not to say that wealthy, or influential, inmates should be given preferential treatment, but rather that genuine skills, talents, and abilities should be favored. Prisoners should not be made unduly dependent on the inmate hierarchy for the fulfillment of their basic needs, or even for the small luxuries that may make prison life more bearable. In short, prison authorities must avoid the creation of a culture of dependency in which prisoners turn entirely to each other, and the inmate hierarchy, for the fulfillment of basic needs of guidance, approval, and support. Nor should they be led to believe that they are utterly powerless, unable to control their own fates, function independently, or protect themselves from harm or abuse (Stanko, Gillespie & Crews, 2004, p. 77). Prisoners must be encouraged to feel that they continue to belong to the larger, normal society.
Thus, adaption to prison life commonly involves a process of maladaptation to the rules and mores of general, normal society. Upon crossing through the prison doors, inmates enter a world that is utterly unlike anything they have ever known. They are subjected to rigid restrictions from corrections staff. They are stripped of their privacy and of their social standing. Furthermore, they are exposed to humiliations and outright abuse from fellow prisoners — all in a battle to reestablish a semblance of the normal world outside. Prisoners feign conformity with rehabilitation programs merely in an effort to get ahead. Prison stays involving the shedding of one’s former self, and its replacement with a new prison self that conforms to all the expectations and behavioral patterns of inmate culture. This inmate culture is inherently hostile to the aims of corrections staff. Corrections staff must avoid doing anything that would tend to enhance the validity of inmate culture. They must resort to equal measures in reaction to prisoner provocations. Prisoners must not be stripped of their humanity. They must be maintained as independent men and women capable of surviving on their own, in a reasonably normal society. Notions of status, respect, and hope for the future, must be maintained as they would outside the prison walls. Corrections personnel must enable prisoners to continue to follow, and believe in, the rules of normal society, even if, in the beginning, this can be achieved only by convincing prisoners that they continue to hold some sort of real position in that society.
Frase, R.S. (2004). 4 Limiting Retributivism. In The Future of Imprisonment, Tonry, M. (Ed.) (pp. 83-112). New York: Oxford University Press.
(2003). Prisonization: Individual and Institutional Factors Affecting Inmate Conduct. New York: LFB Scholarly Publishing.
Richards, S.C., & Ross, J.I. (2001). Introducing the New School of Convict Criminology. Social Justice, 28(1), 177.
Stanko, S., Gillespie, W., & Crews, G.A. (2004). Living in Prison: A History of the Correctional System with an Insider’s View. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
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