THE INMATE SUBCULTURE OF MODERN TIMES
In all likelihood, the inmate subculture is a product of both importation and indigenous factors. Given the complicated facets of human behavior and the fact that inmates tend to cycle in and out of the prison system, this just seems logical. In fact, attempting to separate one from the other is more of an academic argument than a practical one. The work of Hochstellar and DeLisa (2005) represents an academic attempt to negotiate between these two arguments. These researchers used a sophisticated statistical technique known as structural equation modeling to analyze the effects of importation and indigenous deprivation theories. They found evidence supporting both perspec- tives but found that the key factor that determined which perspective was most accountable for inmates’ adaptation to prison subculture was their level of participation in the inmate economy (Hochstellar & DeLisa, 2005).
These items are the “Prison Blues” line of clothing, manufactured by inmates in the correctional system of the state of Oregon. Their slogan is “Made on the inside, worn on the outside.”
This inmate proudly displays his gang- affiliated tattoos.
Journal Article Link 10.1 Read about inmate
adaptation to imprisonment.
Chapter 10: Prison Subculture and Prison Gang Influence 239
This is an important finding because it corroborates practical elements just as much as it navigates between academic arguments regarding subculture development. The prison economy is one of the key measures of influence that an inmate (and perhaps even some officers) may have within the institution. An inmate who is active in the prison economy is one who is likely to have currency within the prison system. This currency can come in the form of actual money shifted in the inmate’s commissary accounts, the possession and trafficking of cigarettes, ownership of desirable items, power over other inmates who can be prostituted for the pleasure of those willing to pay, or any number of other potentially valuable resources that can be brokered within the inmate economy.
Regardless, the more resources an inmate has, the wealthier he or she will be in the eyes of the inmate population. Oftentimes, those inmates who are capable of obtaining such wealth are either stron- ger, more cunning, or simply smarter (usually through training and literacy, such as with jailhouse law- yers) than most other members of the inmate population. Thus, these inmates are likely to be more adept at negotiating the prison economy, and they are likely to have more influence within the prison subculture. They are also more likely to be successfully adapted to the prison culture (the influence of indigenous prison cultural factors) while being able to procure or solicit external resources (being a source of expor- tation outside the prison walls). In short, those who master the economy often have effective and/or pow- erful contacts both inside and outside of the prison. This is consistent with the findings of Hochstellar and DeLisa (2005).
THE CONVICT CODE AND SNITCHING
Going beyond the arguments related to this subculture’s association with factors internal and external to the prison facility, the subculture itself has numerous characteristics that are often portrayed in film, in academic sources, and among practitioners (see Focus Topic 10.1). Chief among these characteristics is the somewhat fluid code of conduct among inmates. This is sometimes referred to as the convict code, which is a set of standards in behavior attributed to the true convict—the title of convict being one of respect given to inmates who have proven themselves worthy of that title. Among academic sources, this inmate code emphasizes oppositional values to conventional society in general and to prison authorities in particular. The most serious infraction against this code of conduct is for an inmate to cooperate with the officials as a snitch. A snitch is the label given to an inmate who reveals the activity of another inmate to authorities, usually in exchange for some type of benefit within the prison or legal system. For example, an inmate might be willing to tell prison officials about illicit drug smuggling being conducted by other inmates in the prison in exchange for more favorable parole conditions, transfer to a different prison, or some other type of benefit.
Among all inmates, it is the snitch who is considered the lowest of the low. In traditional “old school” subcultures (i.e., those of the 1940s through the 1970s), snitches were rare and were afforded no respect. Their existence was precarious within the prison system, particularly because protection afforded to snitches was not optimal. During riot situations and other times where chaos might reign, there are recorded incidents where inmates have specifi- cally targeted areas where snitches were housed and protected from the general population. In these cases, snitches were singled out and sub- jected to severely gruesome torture and were usually killed within the facility. Perhaps the most notorious of these incidents occurred at the New Mexico Penitentiary in Santa Fe. This prison riot occurred in 1980 and resulted in areas of the prison being controlled by inmates. These inmates eventually broke into “cell block 4,” which housed known snitches in the prison. The details of how the snitch-informers were tortured and killed shocked the public con- science as news media provided reports.
Jonathan W. Hilbun is an inmate at Richwood Correctional Center who is a dorm mentor in the Successful Treatment and Recovery (STAR) program. He stands here in front of a bookshelf that is part of the inmate library for the STAR program.
Video Link 10.1 Watch a video about prison economy.
Video Link 10.2 Watch a video about snitching in prison.
FOCUS TOPIC: 10.1 Focus From the Inside With Jonathan Hilbun, Inmate with Richwood Correctional Center.
The hyenas are the inmates who only prey on the weak inmates, and they will back off if the weaker inmate strikes back. But, if the weak one does not fend for himself, then the hyenas will devour him. A good description of a hyena attack is as follows:
A new inmate arrives at a prison and is fresh on the dorm. There are all kinds of rules that go unspoken among the men in the dorm, and, in conjunction with the rules and regs of the prison, this is penitentiary law. The new inmate does not know the code, so he breaks a law and a “peni- tentiary G” checks him on it. If the new inmate does not fight the penitentiary G, then the hyenas will move in as well. Usually, the main hyena will move in first to take the bite, and, by this time, all have figured that the new inmate will not bite because they observed him get called out to fight and he did not. However, the main hyena will venture forth just in case the new inmate gives them a surprise.
The first form of engagement is based on the offer of false pro- tection status. This is largely a psychological game where the hyenas try to instill fear into the new inmate, known as the “prey,” and offer to assist him. A smart prey will turn the situation on the hyenas by fighting back against the leader. However, most new inmates are nervous and edgy, so if they are scared enough they will do anything the hyenas require. Sex, money, and whatever else the prey can offer are all on the table. But, if the prey fights the first hyena that approaches, then the penitentiary G who called him out at first will usually develop a little respect for the new inmate. This gives the new inmate some breathing space on the dorm, and his stay is then much easier. On the other hand, if the prey does not fight, then he is likely to go “under someone’s wing,” which can be good or bad, depending on who the protector is.
Another interesting point regarding inmate behavior, particularly hyena behavior, has to do with the inmates’ interactions with security. In many cases, hyenas will have no respect for authority but, at the same time, be hesitant to directly challenge authority. Rather, they will tend to use subversive or indirect means of ridiculing the officer. For instance, when the “Freeman” (another term for a prison guard) comes on the dorm to count, an inmate may holler something across the dorm that is crude and crass. Comments may include “F—k that count,” or “You don’t even know how to count ’cause you flunked kindergarten,” or “This dorm don’t need no more police—go find a real crisis,” or any other number of comments intended to disrespect the officer.
It is at this point that the officer must make a stand, and he really needs to do it quickly. If he or she does not, then the other hyenas will join along and will taunt and tease the officer to see how much they can get away with. This can actually get pretty bad as it may even set up an ongoing officer-inmate dynamic that can go on for the remainder of the officer’s employment at the facility, if such misbehavior is left unchecked enough times.
In response, the officer will usually react by applying some type of punitive measures to inmates on the dorm. For instance, he will usu- ally restrict the TV privileges and secure the phone lines as well, if the facility allows inmates to make phone calls. Likewise, he may decide to do a “special count” that requires all inmates to sit or lie in their own rack, prohibiting them from getting up and walking about the dorm. It can get pretty frustrating, over time, to sit in the bed for prolonged peri- ods of time, and the officer knows this. It is doubly frustrating for those inmates who did not make the comment and who do not really respect the cowardly actions of the hyena.
During this time, the officer will usually leave the dorm and go back to the control room or observation post, leaving the dorm under observa- tion until his return. Those who do not comply with the officer’s order to stay on their rack will likely “catch a charge,” meaning that they will get written up for disciplinary action. After a period of time, some inmates will begin to mumble and make statements like “Whoever said that coward sh__ better just take their charge,” or “I gotta call my people, so you better just take your charge and get on with it,” or “Whoever said that sh__ gots to get up outta here.” This type of behavior can be the begin- ning of a long day or night, and it can even shape the meaning of life for this dorm and the officer(s) involved if it turns into a long-term problem.
Usually, one of the inmates will finally tell the officer the identity of the hyena who made the unruly comments, and, in many cases, this results in a type of understood bond of respect between the officer and the inmate. Though there is nothing necessarily spoken between the two, the officer knows that the inmate is going against the common wisdom of the prison subculture in doing this, and, at the same time, the inmate knows that the officer cannot get compliance until he or she breaks through the veneer of the hyenas who have openly and publicly challenged his or her authority and mocked the officer for all to see. It is a delicate interplay, in this middle-ground area, between officer and inmate, where both groups must learn to coexist with one another within a set of informal and formal parameters.
Naturally, it takes quite a bit of courage to tell on another inmate. Inmates usually will view the act of disclosing the identity of the person who commits an infraction as an act of snitching. Snitching, as we all know, is not respected in jail or prison and can be dangerous. This is usually not respected, but, in cases where a hyena has acted in a cowardly manner and where the rest of the dorm is made to pay for his action, respect is lost for the hyena, especially if he does not step forward and take his charge, so to speak. In addition, there is one other aspect that can make this approach actually respectable in the eyes of other inmates. This is when the informing inmate talks to the officer on behalf of the dorm and makes it clear that he cannot and will not take any incentives or benefits for the information. If he also makes it clear that he is not trying to get too cozy with the officer but, instead, is try- ing to simply live under the conditions of détente that exist within the prison subculture between inmates and officers, this will be considered acceptable. This is especially true if other inmates know, in advance, that this inmate will likely inform on behalf of the dorm.