The U.S. prison culture is distinct in that it is defined in terms of a social hierarchy unlike the hierarchy of free society. Individuals are often placed in an unwritten social class system based on their age, race, offense, and temperament, thus influencing their ability to interact and get along with one another. It is for these reasons that the U.S. prison culture generally consists of inmates striving for power and control while also yearning for self-identification. Based upon these characteristics, there are different forms of violence and ways in which violence transpires in a prison environment.
Examples of physical prison violence include fighting, pushing, kicking, punching, and stabbing. Sexual prison violence includes any sexual act within a prison that is unwanted and/or forced upon an inmate. Group violence often results from hostility between guards and inmates or between individuals in different or opposing prison groups/gangs. Additionally, social relationships formed within the prison setting (either between inmates or between inmates and correctional staff) often provoke violence.
Physical (nonsexual) violence has been studied in various ways and applied to many different prison populations. In order to understand physical violence in prisons, three major models have been used. The first is the importation model. Originally developed by John Irwin and Donald Cressey in 1962, the model suggests that behaviors practiced within free society will naturally transcend into prison society. Typically used to describe individual trends, this model suggests that a primary component in the creation of a violent prison culture is the reality that the inmate population consists of individuals who come from violent, disadvantaged communities with lower socioeconomic standing. From these communities, inmates are said to transport violence-oriented subcultural attitudes into the prison environment upon arrival. This transference of violence is problematic for several reasons. Consider the experiences of those individuals coming from nonviolent backgrounds and serving time for nonviolent crimes. Their prison sentence guarantees that they become exposed to a violent environment, thus forcing them to fend for themselves and adopt violent tendencies to avoid becoming a victim of violence.
The second model also initially employed by Irwin and Cressey is the deprivation model of violence. This model suggests that inmate violence is the result of oppressive conditions unique to prison life. Incarcerated individuals who find themselves deprived of physical living space, visitation rights, and involvement in prosocial activities also experience strict formal rule enforcement via correctional staff and harsh informal rule enforcement via other inmates. Research suggests that inmates living in such an environment have a higher likelihood of committing acts of physical violence. Perhaps the prison environment alone increases individuals’ violent tendencies, ultimately shaping their propensity toward becoming violent even when they would not have otherwise behaved in such a way.
The third model of violence is the management perspective, originally created by John DiIulio in 1990. Focusing on prison management, this model suggests that disorder within prison administration naturally creates disorder among inmates. Although research has suggested that this model speaks best to problems of group violence, there is also an element to which this model alters individual behavior as well. For example, when prison management seems to be well organized and high functioning, there will also be a greater sense of order among inmates. This perception of orderliness leads to less group violence, which ultimately leads to fewer individual victimizations. For this model, the opposite is also true: When a prison is poorly organized and management is failing, the likelihood of an inmate learning and adopting a violent demeanor could increase as well.
A fourth and final model is the “not-so-total” institutions perspective, originally coined by J. Jacobs in 1976. This model suggests there is a prominent link between external social forces (racial tensions, gender dynamics, limited economic opportunity) and internal prison order. Specifically, this perspective focuses on how social forces increase overall feelings of social deprivation, which, in turn, intensify psychological tensions among incarcerated individuals living together in close quarters. The combination of the societal (macro), the local (micro), and the individual (psychological) all link up and promote inmate violence.
Previous research conducted on prison culture has highlighted occurrences of physical violence, but much of the research misses elements of sexual victimization. Within the literature, sexual violence in prison is described as an act of dominance and an assertion of power rather than of sexual pleasure. For example, research has documented that exploitation on behalf of an aggressor to a weaker inmate is a way for incarcerated individuals to assert their “manhood” and determine where inmates fall within the social hierarchy of the prison culture. One of the few attempts to document the effects of prison rape suggested that 55 percent of inmates who were raped experienced extreme fear. Furthermore, 42 percent felt uncontrollable anger and 33 percent acknowledged feelings of extreme anxiety. As a consequence of their rape while incarcerated, many of these individuals also engaged in self-mutilation, attempted suicide, and became mentally ill.
It is important to note that prison rape is rarely an isolated incident. The psychological effects of sexual victimization are amplified with each re-offense. Thus far, no studies have included long-term psychological effects of prison rape. However, direct experience of or exposure to prison sexual victimization has been shown to increase an inmate’s likelihood of developing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. Those who are sexually victimized while incarcerated often leave prison with various antisocial tendencies. Many will rely on substance abuse to cope with the mental strain of victimization they experienced. Other concerns postrelease include the reality that many ex-convicts were sexually victimized while they were serving time and, once released, these individuals often exert sexually violent behavior upon their intimate partners. These behaviors also lead to increased rates of domestic abuse, child abuse, and other violence within the family. All of these consequences lead to higher risks of recidivism including rape, murder, and suicide.
Research on prison gangs has also been used to understand prison culture and the violence that ensues. Current research suggests that individual gang affiliation within a prison environment is an essential predictor of behavioral misconduct and violent outbursts. Even though gang affiliation is sometimes viewed as a method of protection, it is also a factor used to predict rates of prison violence all together. For example, inmates in prison gangs are 74 percent more likely to violate formal prison rules, thus leading to disorder and ultimately an increased likelihood of violent outbursts. In addition, inmates affiliated with a gang are 30 percent more likely to act violently than inmates not associated with a gang.
Another useful factor in understanding prison violence includes an assessment of incarcerated individuals’ ability to self-control. Research on self-control can be divided into two primary categories: risk taking behavior and anger-control management. Inmates who engaged in risky behaviors were found to antagonize other inmates, thus provoking violence. Higher instances of risk-taking behavior also lead to more acts of violence being committed against the initial instigator. Furthermore, previous research conducted on incarcerated individuals’ ability to self-control also suggests that younger inmates experienced higher rates of aggression and were more likely to commit prison infractions. Older inmates were found to have higher levels of self-control and, overall, did not violate prison procedures. Those individuals with higher levels of self-control have also been found less likely to be victimized by other inmates.
- DiIulio, John. Governing Prisons: A Comparative Study of Correctional Management. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990.
- DiLisi, Matt, Mark T. Berg, and Andy Hochstetler. “Gang Members, Career Criminals and Prison Violence: Further Specification of the Importation Model of Inmate Behavior.” Criminal Justice Studies, v.17/4 (December 2004). http://www.soc.iastate.edu/staff/delisi/Gang%20Members%20Career%20Criminals%20%26%20Prison%20Vioolence.pdf (Accessed April 2013).
- Irwin, John and Donald Cressey. “Thieves, Convicts, and the Inmate Subculture.” Social Problems, v.54 (1962).
- Jones, Tonisha R. and Travis C. Pratt. “The Prevalence of Sexual Violence in Prison: The State of Knowledge Base and Implications for Evidence-Based Correctional Policy Making.” International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, v.52 (2008).
- Kerley, Kent R., Andrew Hochstetler, and Heith Copes. “Self-Control, Prison Victimization, and Prison Infractions.” Criminal Justice Review, v.34 (2009).
- Lahm, Karen. “Physical and Property Victimization Behind Bars: A Multilevel Examination.” International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, v.53 (2009).
- McCorkle, Richard D., Terance D. Miethe, and Kriss A. Drass. “The Roots of Prison Violence: A Test of the Deprivation, Management and ‘Not-So-Total’ Institution Models.” Crime and Delinquency, v.41 (1995).
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