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It is important for students to understand that prison staff are not immune to the effects of the profound social learning that occurs, and, over time, as they become more enmeshed in the prison social setting, they begin to internalize many of the beliefs and norms held by the prison subculture. While this may seem to be counterproductive and/or even backward from what one might wish within the prison environment, this is an inevitable process as prison staff find themselves interacting with the street men- tality on a day-to-day basis. In actuality, this is a maturing of correctional workers as they begin to see a world that is not necessarily black and white but instead has many shades of gray. Issues become more complicated than being simple “good guy and bad guy” situations as correctional workers work with offenders on a personal level. The nuances and differences between different offenders tend to complicate what initially might seem like simple decisions.

Because correctional staff interact with these offenders on a daily basis, a sense of understanding develops both among correctional staff and between staff and the inmate population. Inmates come to expect certain reactions from correctional staff, and, just as certain, staff come to expect certain reactions from inmates. Amidst this are informal rules of conduct where loyalty to one’s own group must be maintained, yet, at the same time, individual differences in personality among security staff and among inmates will affect the level of “respect” that an officer will get from the inmate population, and, for inmates, their conduct will also affect the amount of respect that they gain from others serving time. Likewise, correctional staff learn which inmates have influence, power, or control over others, and this may affect the dynamics of interaction. Further still, some inmates may simply wish to do their time whereas others produce constant problems; to expect security staff to maintain the same reaction to both types of inmates is unrealistic.

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The dynamics involved in inmate-inmate, inmate-staff, and staff-staff interactions create circum- stances that do not easily fall within the guidelines of prison regulations. Further, as a means of maintain- ing control of an inmate population that greatly outnumbers the correctional staff, many security officers will learn the personalities of inmates and will become familiar with the level of respect that they receive within the world of the convict. Likewise, and even more often, inmates watch and observe officers who work the cell block, the dormitory, or other areas where inmates congregate. They will develop impres- sions of the officer, and this will determine how inmates react to the officer. The officer is essentially labeled by the inmate population, over time, as one who deserves respect or one who deserves contempt. In some cases, officers may be identified as being too passive or “weak” in their ability to enforce the rules. In such cases, they are likely to be conned, duped, or exploited by streetwise convicts.

The various officer-inmate interactions impact the daily experiences of the individual officer and the inmate. Understanding how these various nuances impact these interactions is critical to understand- ing how and why prisons may operate as they do. In prisons that have little technology, few cameras, and shortages of staff, the gray areas that can emerge in the inmate-staff interactional process can lead to a number of ethical and legal conundrums. It is with this in mind that we now turn our attention to factors that create and complicate the social landscape of American prisons.

 

 

Chapter 10: Prison Subculture and Prison Gang Influence 237

IMPORTATION THEORY

The key tenet of importation theory is that the subculture within prisons is brought in from outside the walls by offenders who have developed their beliefs and norms while on the streets. In other words, the prison subculture is reflective of the offender subculture on the streets. Thus, behaviors respected behind the walls of a prison are similar to behaviors respected among the criminal population outside of the prison. There is some research that does support this notion (Wright, 1994).

Regardless of what research may exist on this matter, most any correctional officer and most any inmate knows that the background of the offender (as well as the correctional officer) has a strong impact on how that person behaves, both inside and outside of a prison; this simply makes good intuitive sense. There are two key opposing points to consider regarding importation theory. First, the socialization pro- cess outside of prison has usually occurred for a much longer period of time for many offenders and is, therefore, likely to be a bit more entrenched. Second and conversely, the prison environment is intense and traumatic, being capable of leaving a very deep and lasting influence upon a person in a relatively short period of time. While this second point may be true, most offenders in prison facilities have led a life- style of offending and will tend to have numerous prior offenses. These offenses are only those for which they have been caught; there are still a wide range of criminal and noncriminal behaviors that may be unknown to the correctional system. This means that inmates will likely have led a lifestyle of dysfunction that is counter to what the broader culture may support. Thus, these individuals come to the prison with years of street life and bring their criminogenic view of the world to the prison.

It has been concluded by some (Bernard, McCleary, & Wright, 1999; Wright, 1994) that though cor- rectional institutions may seem closed off from society, their boundaries are psychologically permeable. In other words, when someone is locked up, they still are able to receive cultural messages and influences from outside the walls of the prison. Television, radio, and mail all mitigate the immersion experience in prison. Visitation schedules, work opportunities outside of the prison, and other types of programming also miti- gate the impact of the prison environment. Indeed, according to Bernard et al. (1999), “prison walls, fences, and 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” (p. 164). This statement serves as a layperson explanation of importation theory that is both accurate and practical.

INDIGENOUS PRISON CULTURE AND EXPORTATION THEORY

In contrast to the tenets of importation theory is the notion that prison subculture is largely the product of socialization that occurs inside prison. It was the work of Gresham Sykes (1958) that first introduced this notion in a clear and thorough manner. His theory has been referred to as either the deprivation theory of prisonization or the indigenous model of prison culture. Sykes (1958) referred to the pains of imprison- ment as the rationale for why and how prison culture develops in the manner that it does. The pains of imprisonment is a term that refers to the various inconveniences and deprivations that occur as a result of incarceration. According to Sykes, the pains of imprisonment tended to gather around five general areas of deprivation, and it was due to these deprivations that the prison subculture developed, largely as a means of adapting to the circumstances within the prison. Sykes included the following five categories as being particularly challenging to men and women who do time:

1. The loss of liberty.

2. The loss of goods and services readily available in society.

3. The loss of heterosexual relationships, both sexual and nonsexual.

4. The loss of autonomy.

5. The loss of personal security.

Inmates within the prison environment essentially create value systems and engage in behaviors that are designed to ease the pains of deprivation associated with these five areas. Research has examined the effects of prison upon inmates who are forced to cope with the constrained prison existence.

 

 

238 Introduction to Corrections

For instance, Johnson and Dobrzanska (2005) studied inmates who were serving lengthy sentences. They found that, among those inmates who coped maturely to prison life, incarceration was a painful but constructive experience. This was particularly true for inmates who were serving life sentences (defined to include offenders serving prison terms of 25 years or more without the benefit of parole). As a general matter, lifers came to see prison as their home and made the most of the limited resources available in prison; they established daily routines that allowed them to find meaning and purpose in their prison lives, lives that might otherwise seem empty and pointless. The work of Johnson and Dobrzanska points toward the notion that, regardless of the environment, humans can be highly adaptable.

However, aside from the need to cope with prison life, there is also the idea that many of the mannerisms and behaviors observed among street offenders have their origins within the prison environment. Indeed, certain forms of rhym- ing, rap, tattoos, and dress have prison origins. For example, the practice known as “sagging” where adolescent boys allow their pants to sag— exposing their underwear—originates from jail and prison policies denying inmates the use of belts (because they could be used as a weapon or means to commit suicide). This practice is thought to have been exported to the streets dur- ing the 1990s as a statement of African American solidarity as well as a way to offend White society.

Other examples might be the notion of “blood in—blood out,” describing the idea that in order for inmates to be accepted within a prison gang, they must draw blood (usually through killing) in an altercation with an identified enemy of the gang. Once in the gang, they may only leave if they draw blood of the gang’s enemy sufficient to meet the demands of the gang leadership or by forfeiting their own blood (their life). This same phrase is heard among street gangs, including juvenile street gangs, reflecting the fact that these offend- ers mimic the traditions of veteran offenders who have served time in prison. Consider also certain attire that has been popular, off and on, during the past decade, such as when Rhino boots became popular footwear, not due to their stylishness or functionality, but because they were standard issue for working inmates in many state prison systems.

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