Life Inside Prisons

In recent years increased attention has been paid to the custodial institution in terms of general sociological theory rather than in terms of social problems, notably with reference to aspects of prison life commonly identified in the relevant literature as the “inmate culture,” the “prisoner community,” or the “inmate social system” (Wortley 26). What is life in prison like? Most of the 250 or so million Americans have little idea what life behind bars is all about. Even though some of us may know someone who is doing time, or who works inside prison walls, a realistic picture of prison life is absent for most people.

Much of what we think we know is based on television or motion picture depictions of prisons. This system of social relationships – its underlying norms, attitudes, and beliefs – as found in the American prison, and a general but truer portrayal of prison life will be examined in this paper. After summarizing the salient features of prisoners as presented in the sociological literature of the last two decades, we comment briefly on the major theoretical approach that has been used in discussing prison life. Then we consider a theory of the structure and functioning of the inmate social system, primarily in terms of inmate values.

The “penitentiary” has existed in America since 1790 and the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Wortley 52). Although our country has witnessed numerous reforms since the early nineteenth century, prison as punishment has remained a mainstay of corrections in the United States. State departments of corrections vary considerably in how many facilities they operate, depending primarily on the size of the inmate population but also on the willingness of taxpayers to subsidize additional prisons. They vary as well as to the size, type, and location of those facilities and in the number of staff assigned to each prison.

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Work assignments are usually also considered “programs” and can involve work as a porter doing maintenance, a cook or kitchen worker, or a clerk of some type, plumbing or electrical work in the prison, or in prison industry work, making license plates or furniture. Some job assignments are better than others, either in terms of pay (ranging from $.15 to $4.00 an hour), the challenge it affords (law clerk versus porter), the housing that accompanies it (such as honor block for model inmates), or the particular perks that go along with it (working outside in fresh air) (Wortley 45). Other activities to keep inmates busy and out of trouble may include visitation (on set days/hours), recreation, religious services, tutoring, and so on.

The routine of prison is occasionally interrupted by disruptions of various sorts and violence. When we think of prison violence we tend to think of riots, but full-scale riots are relatively rare events. For example, there were five riots throughout the over 1,500 state and federal prisons in 1995. Some are planned and instrumental (a means to an end) and controlled by a small group of inmates (such as Attica, New York), while others have been spontaneous, expressive, and deadly (such as Santa Fe, New Mexico).

Evidence indicates that incarceration adversely affects some prisoners while others adapt relatively well. Research shows that most inmates, however, cannot escape feeling some impact of imprisonment. While individuals enter prison with a range of coping abilities, those with the most difficulty in adjustment tend to be individuals who have lived a marginal lifestyle prior to prison and those with the least successful experience coping with life. Those inmates most susceptible to coping problems in prison are those who (a) have unstable family, living, work, and/or education histories, (b) are single, young, and male, and (c) have histories of chronic substance abuse or psychological difficulties or who have otherwise had significant problems with other major aspects of life. Individual factors, prison environmental forces, and a history of low-level coping, both inside and outside prison, interact to determine the degree of adaptive or maladaptive responses to the prison experience.

Despite the number and diversity of prison populations, observers of such groups have reported only one strikingly pervasive value system. This value system of prisoners commonly takes the form of an explicit code, in which brief normative imperatives are held forth as guides for the behavior of the inmate in his relations with fellow prisoners and custodians. The maxims are usually asserted with great vehemence by the inmate population, and violations call forth a diversity of sanctions ranging from ostracism to physical violence.

Examination of many descriptions of prison life suggests that the chief tenets of the inmate code can be classified roughly into five major groups:

1. There are those maxims that caution: Don’t interfere with inmate interests, which center of course in serving the least possible time and enjoying the greatest possible number of pleasures and privileges while in prison. The most inflexible directive in this category is concerned with betrayal of a fellow captive to the institutional officials. In general, no qualification or mitigating circumstance is recognized; and no grievance against another inmate – even though it is justified in the eyes of the inmate population – is to be taken to officials for settlement. Other specifics include: Don’t be nosey; don’t have a loose lip; keep off a man’s back; don’t put a guy on the spot. In brief and positively put: Be loyal to your class – the cons. Prisoners must present a unified front against their guards no matter how much this may cost in terms of personal sacrifice.

2. There are explicit injunctions to refrain from quarrels or arguments with fellow prisoners: Don’t lose your head. Emphasis is placed on the curtailment of affect; emotional frictions are to be minimized and the irritants of daily life ignored. Maxims often heard include: Play it cool and do your own time. There are important distinctions in this category, depending on whether the prisoner has been subjected to legitimate provocation; but in general a definite value is placed on curbing feuds and grudges.

3. Prisoners assert that inmates should not take advantage of one another by means of force, fraud, or chicanery: Don’t exploit inmates. This sums up several directives: Don’t break your word; don’t steal from the cons; don’t sell favors; don’t be a racketeer; don’t welsh on debts. More positively, it is argued that inmates should share scarce goods in a balanced reciprocity of “gifts” or “favors,” rather than sell to the highest bidder or selfishly monopolize any amenities: Be right.

4. There are rules that have as their central theme the maintenance of self: Don’t weaken. Dignity and the ability to withstand frustration or threatening situations without complaining or resorting to subservience are widely acclaimed. The prisoner should be able to “take it” and to maintain his integrity in the face of privation. When confronted with wrongfully aggressive behavior, whether of inmates or officials, the prisoner should show courage. Although starting a fight runs counter to the inmate code, retreating from a fight started by someone else is equally reprehensible. Some of these maxims are: Don’t whine; don’t cop out (cry guilty); don’t such around. Prescriptively put: Be tough; be a man.

5. Prisoners express a variety of maxims that forbid according prestige or respect to the custodians or the world for which they stand: Don’t be a sucker. Guards are hacks or screws and are to be treated with constant suspicion and distrust. In any situation of conflict between officials and prisoners, the former are automatically to be considered in the wrong. Furthermore, inmates should not allow themselves to become committed to the values of hard work and submission to duly constituted authority – values prescribed (if not followed) by screws – for thus an inmate would become a sucker in a world where the law-abiding are usually hypocrites and the true path to success lies in forming a “connection.” The positive maxim is: Be sharp.

In the literature on the mores of imprisoned criminals there is no claim that these values are asserted with equal intensity by every member of a prison population; all social systems exhibit disagreements and differing emphases with respect to the values publicly professed by their members (Wortley 37). But observers of the prison are largely agreed that the inmate code is outstanding both for the passion with which it is propounded and the almost universal allegiance verbally accorded it.

In the light of this inmate code or system of inmate norms, we can begin to understand the patterns of inmate behavior so frequently reported; for conformity to, or deviation from, the inmate code is the major basis for classifying and describing the social structures of prisoners. Social groups are apt to characterize individuals in terms of crucial “axes of life” (lines of interests, problems, and concerns faced by the groups) and then to attach distinctive names to the resulting roles or types. This process may be discerned in the society of prisoners and its argot for the patterns of behavior or social roles exhibited by inmates; and in these roles the outlines of the prison community as a system of action may be seen.

An inmate who violates the norm proscribing the betrayal of a fellow prisoner is labeled “a rat” or “a squealer” in the vocabulary of the inmate world, and his deviance elicits universal scorn and hatred. Prisoners who exhibit highly aggressive behavior, who quarrel easily and fight without cause, are often referred to as “toughs”. The individual who uses violence deliberately as a means to gain his ends is called “a gorilla”; a prisoner so designated is one who has established a satrapy based on coercion in clear contravention of the rule against exploitation by force.

The term “merchant”, or “peddler”, is applied to the inmate who exploits his fellow captives not by force but by manipulation and trickery, and who typically sells or trades goods that are in short supply. If a prisoner shows himself unable to withstand the general rigors of existence in the custodial institution, he may be referred to as a weakling or “a weak sister”. If, more specifically, an inmate is unable to endure prolonged deprivation of heterosexual relationships and consequently enters into a homosexual liaison, he will be labeled “a wolf” or “a fag”, depending on whether his role is an active or a passive one.

A “right guy” is always loyal to his fellow prisoners. He never lets you down no matter how rough things get. He keeps his promises; he’s dependable and trustworthy. He isn’t nosey about your business and doesn’t shoot off his mouth about his own. He doesn’t act stuck-up, but he doesn’t fall all over himself to make friends either – he has a certain dignity. The right guy never interferes with other inmates who are conniving against the officials.

From the studies describing the life of men in prison, two major facts emerge: (1) Inmates give strong verbal support to a system of values that has group cohesion or inmate solidarity as its basic theme. Directly or indirectly, prisoners uphold the ideal of a system of social interaction in which individuals are bound together by ties of mutual aid, loyalty, affection, and respect, and are united firmly in their opposition to the enemy out-group.

The man who exemplifies this ideal is accorded high prestige. The opposite of a cohesive inmate social system – a state in which each individual seeks his own advantage without reference to the claims of solidarity – is vociferously condemned. (2) The actual behavior of prisoners ranges from full adherence to the norms of the inmate world to deviance of various types. These behavioral patterns, recognized and labeled by prisoners in the pungent argot of the dispossessed, form a collection of social roles which, with their interrelationships, constitute the inmate social system.

Works Cited

Wortley, Richard. Situational Prison Control: Crime Prevention in Correctional Institutions. Cambridge University Press, 2002.

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