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Prisonization is the process of being socialized into the prison culture. This process occurs over time as the inmate or the correctional officer adapts to the informal rules of prison life. Unlike many other textbook authors, the author of this text thinks that it is important to emphasize that correctional officers also experience a form of prisonization that impacts their worldview and the manner in which they oper- ate within the prison institution. Within his text on prisonization, Gillespie (2002) makes the following introductory statement:

Prison is a context that exerts its influence upon the social relations of those who enter its domain. (p. 1)

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The reason that this sentence is set off in such a conspicuous manner is because it has profound meaning and truly captures the essence of prisonization. However, for this chapter, students should understand that the influence of the prison environment extends to all persons who enter its domain, particularly if they do so over a prolonged period of time. Thus, prisonization impacts both inmates and staff within the facility. While the total experience will, of course, not be the same for staff as it is for inmates, it is silly to presume that staff routinely exposed to aberrant human behavior will not also be impacted by that behavior.

Indeed, to some extent, prison is a traumatizing experience, even for those who work there. For security staff who must be involved in altercations (e.g., uses of force, the need to contain riots, observing and responding to inmate-on-inmate assaults), the impact of prisonization can be particularly traumatiz- ing. The impact that prisonization has upon staff as well as inmates is an important consideration since it does, in part, dictate the contours of the guard subculture, which stands in competition with the inmate subculture. The prison experience can and often does impact relationships that guards have with persons who do not work in the prison setting, such as their spouses and/or children.

With respect to inmates, Gillespie (2002) found that both the individual characteristics of inmates and institutional qualities affect prisonization and misconduct. However, he found that individual-level antecedents explained prisonization better than did prison-level variables. This means that experiences of inmates prior to being imprisoned were central to determining how well inmates would adapt to the prison experience. For this text, this contention will also be extended to prison guards; their prior experi- ences and their individual personality development prior to employment within the prison will dictate how well they adapt to both the formal and informal exchanges that occur within.


This area of discussion is both controversial and open to a great deal of debate. However, one reason for developing this text and providing a discussion on this particular topic is to provide students with a realistic and no-nonsense appraisal of the world of corrections, particularly as practiced in the prison environment. In providing a glimpse of the guard subculture (and this text does contend that a guard subculture exists), it is important to keep in mind that the specific characteristics of this subculture vary from prison system to prison system and even from prison to prison within the same state system. The reasons for this are manifold but are mostly due to the fact that, unlike inmates, guards are not forced to remain within the environment all day and night each day of the week. Rather, guards have the benefit of time away from the institution, and they can (and sometimes do) transfer from facility to facility, depend- ing on their career formation.

Further, since guards are routinely exposed to external society (contact with family, friends, the general public, the media, etc.), they are able to mitigate many of the debilitating effects of the prison environment. Likewise, their integration into society mitigates the depth to which prison socialization will impact them personally and professionally. Thus, there is a greater degree of

Prison Tour Video Link 10.3 Watch an interview with prisoners about prison culture and behavior.



248 Introduction to Corrections

variability in the required adaptations of prison guards when compared to inmates. In addition, the type of institution that they find themselves working within can also impact this socialization. A guard who works at a maximum-security or violent institution will likely experience a different type of socialization than a guard assigned to a minimum-security dormitory. All of these factors can impact how the prison culture affects individual officers and the degree to which they become enmeshed into the guard subculture.

The discussion that follows is intended to address guard culture in maximum-security prisons or those institutions that have histories of violence among inmates. Larger facilities that have more challeng- ing circumstances tend to breed the type of subculture that will be presented here. Though modern-day correctional agencies seek to circumvent and eliminate these subcultural dimensions, they nonetheless still exist in various correctional facilities.

The popular Hollywood image of prison guards is that they are brutal and uncaring and that their rela- tionships with inmates are hostile, violent, and abusive. However, this is a very simplistic and inaccurate view of prison guards that simply makes good movies but does not reflect the reality behind why many people go to work at a prison. For many, it is a stable job available to persons in rural areas where few other jobs exist, producing a workable wage for the effort. For others, prison work may be a stepping-stone to further their career, particularly if they are interested in criminal justice employment. Indeed, the author of this text worked at Eastham Unit in Texas while attending school at a state university in the area, and this was a com- mon practice among many students of criminal justice or criminology studies. This means that, at least in this context, many of the prison guards employed in the region actually possessed an above-average educa- tion, and they most likely possessed depth and purpose that exceeded the Hollywood stereotype.

The author of this text would like to acknowledge the work of Kelsey Kauffman (1988) in relaying the overall processes behind prison guard socialization and the development of prison guard subcultures. Like Kauffman, the author of this text encountered a similar transition experience where, over time, the aloof and distant feeling between himself and his fellow coworkers grew into a feeling of camaraderie and close connection in identity. To this day, this author considers himself, first and foremost, a prison guard at heart. However, it is Kauffman who so eloquently and correctly penned the formation and description of the guard subculture, and it is her work that will be used as the primary reference for this section.

According to Kauffman (1988), the guard subculture does not develop due to prisonization, indig- enous factors, or importation of values. Rather, the culture is a product “of a complex interaction of impor- tation, socialization, deportation, and cultural evolution” (Kauffman, 1988, p. 167). Kauffman notes that prison guards have a distinct and identifiable subculture that separates them from other professionals. The central norms of this subculture dictate how they proceed with the daily performance of their duties, such as with the example scenarios provided earlier when discussing the impact of the inmate subcul- ture on custodial staff. In describing the prison guard subculture, Kauffman produced a basic structure that captures the main tenets behind this subculture. This same structure is presented in this text due to the author’s own perception that Kauffman’s description of prison guard subculture is reflective of most encountered throughout the United States. The following are the central tenets of the prison guard sub- culture’s structure:

1. Always go to the aid of an officer in distress. This is the foundation for cohesion among custo- dial staff. This tenet also can, in times of emergency, provide justification for violating norms within the bureaucratic system. This tenet applies to all guards, regardless of how well accepted the officer in distress may or may not be. This norm is key to officer safety and is fundamental. If an officer fails to uphold this norm, he or she will likely be ostracized from the group and will be treated as an outsider.

2. Do not traffic drugs. This is also considered fundamental because of the danger that it can create as inmates fight for power over the trade of these substances. In addition, the use of drugs is illegal and does not reflect well on officers who are supposed to keep such offenders behind bars. If an officer violates this tenet, it is considered justified within the subculture to inform authorities. While the guard subcul- ture may allow members to inform authorities, most will not do so due to feelings of betrayal. However, it would not be uncommon for guards, amongst themselves, to put pressure on the officer who violates this norm through threats, intimidation, and coercion. In addition, officers will likely isolate the officer from interactions and will not invite him or her to functions outside of work. The officer will be treated as persona non grata.

Audio Link 10.1 Hear more about prison

guard subcultures.



Chapter 10: Prison Subculture and Prison Gang Influence 249

3. Do not be a snitch. In many respects, this is a carryover from the inmate subculture. This comes in two forms of prohibition. First, officers should never tell information to inmates that they can use to get another officer in trouble. Generally speaking, officers are expected to not discuss other officers, their business, or their personal lives with inmates. The second prohibition applies to investigative authorities of the prison system. Officers are expected to stay silent and not divulge information that will “burn” another officer, particularly when the Internal Affairs Division (IAD) is investigating an incident. While it is expected that officers will not knowingly place their coworkers in legally compromising situations where they must lie for their coworkers (this would be considered abuse of the prohibition that places others in potential legal peril), it is still expected that coworkers not snitch on their fellow officer.

This tenet is perhaps one of the most difficult tenets because, in some cases, it puts officers in a position where they must lie to cover their coworkers, even when they were not directly involved. This can occur during investigations and even if officers are brought to court in a lawsuit. Officers who maintain their own behavior to comply with institutional rules still cannot be assured that they will be safe from liability because, in order to be trusted by their coworkers, they must be willing to “cover” for their fellow officer in circumstances where trouble might arise. This is regardless of whether the officer initiating the situation was or was not acting responsibly.

4. Never disrespect another officer in front of inmates. This tenet reflects the importance of respect and the need to maintain “face” within the prison culture. Officers who are ridiculed or made to look weak in front of inmates have their authority subject to question by inmates since inmates will talk, and the word will get around that the officer is not respected (and therefore not well supported) by his peers. This sets the officer up for potential manipulation in the future.

5. Always support an officer who is in a dispute with another inmate. This applies to all types of instances ranging from verbal arguments with inmates to actual physical altercations. Simply put, one’s coworker is always right, and the inmate is always wrong. However, behind the scenes, officers may not get along and, in fact, may disagree on different issues related to the management of inmates. Indeed, one officer may conduct a write-up for disciplinary of an inmate while the other overtly objects when in the office out of earshot of the inmate population. The reasons for this may be many, but generally older more seasoned officers will be adept at informally addressing inmate infractions whereas junior officers will tend to rely on official processes. However, given the threat of employee discipline that exists within the system and given the need for control of the inmate population, most officers will ultimately maintain loyalty during the final stages where their official support is necessary.

6. Do not be friends with an inmate. This is another tenet that has complicated shades and distinctions. For veteran officers, this tenet is not much of a concern. They have already proven themselves to be reliable and/or are known to not be snitches. Further, most veteran officers are capable of enforcing the rules, regard- less of their prior conversations with an inmate. However, it is not uncommon for veteran officers (and even supervisors) to have one or two inmates whom they talk with, at least on a topical level. Though they may not consider themselves friends with the inmate, they may allow that inmate some privileges and opportunities that others would not, simply because they have developed a symbiotic prison relationship with that inmate that has existed for a long period of time. In return, these inmates may do the officer small favors like reserv- ing higher-quality food from the kitchen for that officer or even, in prisons where the subculture has truly created permeable boundaries, letting the officer know when supervisors or others are watching him or her while on duty. This allows the officer to operate his or her cell block in a more leisurely manner and, as such, the entire cell block benefits from the officer’s laid-back approach.

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