Prisonization and Prison Subcultures

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Prisonization and Prison Subcultures

The interactions between inmates within a prison, and the behaviors thereof, has always held a special level of interest to psychologists. Sure, institutions are developed such that there are set strict rules to provide structure to the inmates. From limited access to the outdoors or cafeteria, to which jobs which inmates can have, the rules should be the end-all be-all for residents of the institution. However, there is one set of rules and expectations that is even more valued than those set forth by correctional officers.

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Though there is some debate about how and why it is developed, most prisons have an unwritten and informal, however desperately important, prison code. How inmates adopt these unwritten rules and the behaviors required by them is referred to as prisonization. Prisonization and the prison subculture developed as a result have piqued the interest of many psychologists within the past 80 or so years, yielding an extensive amount of research and two prevailing theories as to why this happens.

The first theory that describes why a prison code would develop and why inmates would prisonize to the code even if they were processed post-code-formation is the deprivation theory. This theory holds that inmates are generally all fairly affected by the depriving nature of the rules and conditions of prisons. A prison code, then, is formed to cope with the lack of liberty, autonomy, security, goods and services, and heterosexual relationships.

In some ways, this is a genius coping mechanism, in which humans in adverse conditions develop their own set of rules to understand their unique situation. It forces inmates to solve problems collectively and develop a society amongst themselves. The prevailing idea as to why this happens is that prison changes people, and their behavior is a direct effect of the fact that they have been put in prison.

The second theory as to why prisonization occurs is a criticism of the deprivation theory. Understanding that not every inmate becomes highly prisonized, the importation theory maintains that inmates are more or less themselves within a prison, and they do not have to alter their behavior to adopt the code. In fact, their receptivity and willingness to adapt to the code is shaped by how the inmates were socialized before they ever came to prison.

This means that age, race, religion, gender, socioeconomic status, criminal records, and even attitudes towards the legal system on the whole, can all affect how well an inmate will prisonize. Instead of holding to the idea that inmates are changed by prison, the importation theory holds that who you are in prison is a reflection of who you are in other scenarios, but prison cannot make you a different person.

In my opinion, prisonization is actually a result of both theories. While some inmates may be processed into a prison with a violent record or a desire to be at the top of the food chain, others will follow along with the rules simply to survive. Prison can change people and make them act in ways that they have never imagined they would have, but some people fully embrace themselves and their internal natures in prison. Both are valid arguments, which lead to the same end. In that case, the reason for which some inmates prisonize differently than others is because they could be experiencing the prisonization process differently.

It’s either eat or be eaten, or strictly a method of survival.
No matter how they come about, prison codes hold a great level of influence over the inmates in a prison. There are expectations for behavior, who certain individuals can talk to, how one is expected to treat a correctional officer, and an acceptance of homosexual relationships between inmates which could have otherwise been frowned open in general society. Furthermore, these social rules can lead to intense feelings of loyalty to certain leaders of prison society, and even the development of gangs within the prison. Prison codes also yield their own economy, generally based on what is offered in the commissary.

In the past, many prisons held an economic system based on cigarettes, as they held their value for long periods of time, and had different denominations (single, pack, carton) within the system. The value that each denomination had was largely based on those higher up in the societal chain, who could determine how much a cigarette was worth. This system was obviously not put into place by correctional officers or other prison officials, but was legitimate nonetheless.

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Prisonization and Prison Subcultures. (2019, Nov 18). Retrieved February 5, 2023 , from
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