Week 3b Readings
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Week 3b:  Inmate Subcultures



  • Blomberg & Lucken, Chapters 9 and 13
  • Latessa et al., Chapters 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11
  • Johnson, Chapter 4, 5, and 6
  • Blomberg & Cohen, Chapters 4, 15, and 16


Until the 1940s, the study of penology predominately focused on the prison as a potential reform mechanism for convicted offenders.  Even though regimes of the penitentiary and reformatory movement were documented and analyzed, very little was known about the inmate social world and how this unique society could facilitate and/or hamper reform of inmates.  During the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, penologists in America began a new inquiry into the American prison, with these specific questions in mind:


  • How do prisons shape the behavior of those incarcerated?

o       What deprivations do inmates experience?

o       What experiences to inmates bring to the prison setting?

§         How do these experiences shape behavior?

o       Why do prison subcultures exist?

·        How do inmates adapt to prison life?

·        How are prisons governed?

o       What roles do inmates fulfill?

o       How do inmates affect prison operations?

Chapter 9 in Blomberg and Lucken’s American Penology provides an excellent overview of how the literatures of the prison subculture developed, both theoretically and methodologically.  The auxiliary readings in the Latessa et al. edited volume provide the reader with in-depth discussions of the classic themes relevant to the study of the prison subculture.  In fact, several of the readings (i.e., Chapter 7 by Clemmer) are derived from the original sources.  The selections from the Blomberg and Cohen volume, as well as the chapters from the Johnson text, provide the reader with contemporary in-depth analyses of the classic literatures.  Thus, the nature of this week’s reading allows for a synthesized presentation, and students will be encouraged to use Chapter 9 of Blomberg and Lucken as a guide and thus follow-up with the selections in the edited volumes for further detail.  (Note:  In some instances, the author of this online guide has referenced the original sources that are included as selections in Latessa et al.)


In 1940, Donald Clemmer brought the study of assimilation of norms to the prison setting.  Drawing on the scholarly tradition that was at the forefront of American Sociology during the early 20th century, he was the first scholar to write about the prison as a functional whole (see Chapter 15 in Blomberg and Cohen).  Clemmer’s intensive study was based on his experiences as a correctional officer at Menard Penitentiary, a 2300 person prison for men in Illinois.  In his book The Prison Community, he described the unique ways that inmates assimilate to the social world of the prison.  He termed this process prisonization. 

Clemmer characterized the process of prisonization in terms similar to those used by early sociologists to capture processes of socialization and assimilation in communities at large.  Just as humans assimilate to the norms, customs, and laws of society, inmates must assimilate to the self-contained community of a prison.  However, since the values of the prison are discordant with societal values, inmates must re-adjust and learn new norms, rules, and expected patterns of behavior.  What is considered unacceptable in the free world may be encouraged and rewarded inside the walls of the institution.  Prisonization is the assimilation process in prison where inmates take on “in greater or less degree . . . the folkways, mores, customs, and general culture of the penitentiary” (Clemmer, 1940, p. 299).

Clemmer argues that the prisonization process, to an extent, affects every inmate; however, several variables influence to what degree prisonization shapes the inmates time in the institution.  Nevertheless, it has been argued by Clemmer and other scholars that upon entering the institution, every inmate encounters situations where his status is challenged.  For instance, upon entrance to a correctional facility, every inmate “is immediately stripped of his wonted supports, and his self is systematically, if often unintentionally, mortified.  In the accurate language of some of our oldest total institutions, he is led into a series of abasements, degradations, humiliations, and profanations of self” (Goffman, 2001, p. 75).  From intake into the institution, the inmate is referred to by a number, not his name, and he is given state-issued clothing to be worn.  Replacing one’s name with a number and requiring the inmate to wear uniform clothing strips the new inmate of his uniqueness.  This intake process was considered the first step in becoming prisonized (Clemmer, 1940).       

The ensuing process of the “stripping” procedures leads the inmate to the next stage of prisonization.  The inmate responds to his new identity and begins to question his daily routine that includes things he previously took for granted.  The inmate is now told when and what to eat, when to sleep, and when and where to work.  Eventually, he may question his work assignment, or he may engage in behaviors considered deviant outside the walls of the prison.  Examples of such behavior include gambling and abnormal sexual practices (Clemmer, 1940).       

It is important to note that not all inmates become prisonized to the same degree.  Generally, men who have served long terms in prison tend to be the most prisonized, but the key variables contributing to prisonization lie within the offender.  Other determinants of prisonization include intra-prison experiences such as the extent of social relationships, work involvement, the acceptance of roles bestowed on the inmate by other social actors in the institution.  Furthermore, demographic variables compound with the above factors to create a “schemata of prisonization which may serve to illustrate its extremes” (Clemmer, 1940, p. 301).  Generally, men with shorter sentences, stable personalities, healthy relationships with members of the outside community as well as fellow inmates who refrain from excess abnormal conduct within the walls are the least prisonized.  On the other hand, men with long terms of incarceration, unstable personalities, and relationships not conducive to proper adjustment will find themselves associating with primary prison groups, which tend to be the most prisonized men.  Since the characteristics and experiences of these men counter those of the least prisonized inmates, these prisoners are considered to be the most prisonized men of a penal institution.  Because these characteristics and experiences are differentiated between and within men throughout an inmate’s term of imprisonment, the degree of prisonization will occur at different rates for different inmates.  The process may even occur in a cyclical fashion (Clemmer, 1940). 

The Deprivation Model      

Early penal subculture theorists hypothesized that the subculture of the prison originated with the walls of the institution.  The unique subculture of characterized by the process of prisonization was said to originate in the deprivations that the inmate faced and attempted to cope with everyday.  Inmates were said to experience deprivations to such an extreme that healthy relationships could not be formed with members of the community outside the walls.  Although these issues elucidated scholars on the origin and implications of the inmate subculture, it also raised key issues.  What were the deprivations that inmates experienced?  How did inmates cope with such deprivations?     

A landmark work by Gresham Sykes in 1958 attempted to address these questions.  In The Society of Captives, Sykes described the pains of imprisonment that inmates experience during their time in a correctional facility.  Thus, the pains of imprisonment are experienced within the walls of the prison; hence, the origin of the subculture is not outside the institution, but inside.  These pains can be described as losses or deprivations that arise “from the indignities and degradations suffered by becoming an inmate” (Massey, 1986, p.2).  Sykes delineates five deprivations: the loss or deprivation of liberty, the loss or deprivation of goods and services, the loss or deprivation of heterosexual relationships, the loss or deprivation of autonomy, and the loss or deprivation of security.  These deprivations will be discussed in detail below.

Deprivation of Liberty 

By imprisoning the felon behind the walls of the institution, society is communicating that he is no longer a person that can live in a respected and trusted manner in the free world.  The moral rejection that is implied through this practice and reaction by society is what Sykes called the loss of liberty.  The nature of the institution, as described by Goffman (2001), conveys, through symbols such as numbers and uniforms, this loss.  Civil rights are lost, often not to be regained even upon release (Sykes, 1958).

Nevertheless, even though it is important to note that even though prisoners suffer the deprivation of liberty in relation to the free community, this loss was most pronounced when inmates described “the loss of liberty that existed within the institution.  Inmates had to obtain permission to eat, sleep, shower, and interact, the latter of which restricted the ability to maintain relations with family and friends” (Blomberg & Lucken, 2000, p. 121).

Deprivation of Autonomy 

The deprivation of autonomy can be interpreted as the result of the deprivation of liberty.  As inmates are stripped of the rights and held in disdain by their fellow inmates and keepers of the gate, they begin to lose their autonomy.  As an inmate realizes that he cannot make choices for himself, he too realizes that the officials have complete control over him and he has no power to make decisions for himself.  The inmate questions rules and feels more of a sense of deprivation when inadequate answers that lack rationale are given by officials.  These measures are seen as “irritating, pointless gestures of authoritarianism . . . prisoners are denied parole but are left in ignorance of the reasons for the decision.  Prisoners are informed that the delivery of mail will be delayed—but they are not told why” (Sykes, 1958, p. 74).  This loss of autonomy reduces the inmate to a state of childlike helplessness.  Inmates often are unable to help themselves in normal social situations upon release due to this stripping (Blomberg & Lucken, 2000).   

Deprivation of Goods and Services

Prisons confine offenders in poverty-like conditions that are perceived by inmates from disadvantaged backgrounds as more inadequate than the conditions from which they came.  Furthermore, even if the institution’s conditions are considered to be adequate, prisoners are likely to see their imprisonment as depriving of things they could obtain in the community if they were free.  Examples of these commodities include food cooked at home and cigarettes of preference.  Compounded by Western society’s ideal that the goods people own and the services they receive comprise their self worth, the loss of goods and services is especially depriving.  Some inmates in Sykes’ study took a radical approach in commenting that the prison system condemns prisoners to live in poverty conditions so they can be economically regulated and controlled.  It is important to note that this critical approach was only adopted by a handful of inmates in Sykes’ study; nevertheless, even though the majority of the inmates took responsibility for the conditions in which they lived, the deprivation of goods and services still brought about a sense of failure to most persons serving time within the walls (Sykes, 1958).      

Deprivation of Heterosexual Relationships

Just as the lack of goods and services stripped the inmate of self worth and definition, so too does the lack of female companionship.  Because the inmate defines portions of himself through his interactions with women, Sykes defined the man in prison as only a “half-self” in accordance with the fracturing of Cooley’s (1902) looking glass self concept. When this happens, sexual outlets become other males, which causes the inmate to question his masculinity.  For the heterosexual male, these encounters produce anxiety.  Thus, imprisonment deprives the inmate of relationships as well as ideas of self that are related to the feelings generated in such relationships (Sykes, 1958).  Today, the pains of sexual deprivation have been reduced by correctional policies such as weekend furloughs and conjugal visits.  

Deprivation of Security

The last deprivation formulated by Sykes is the loss of security. Although disturbances within the walls of the institution do not affect every inmate, the potential threat to personal security increases anxiety levels in inmates.  Inmates in Sykes’ study described their fellow inmates as “vicious and dangerous” (Sykes, 1958, p. 77) even if, in reality, the majority of inmates pose no general threat to the prison population.       

It is important to note that variables affecting deprivation are institution-specific.  Issues to consider include the characteristics of the prison such as facility type and security level.  Offender factors include phase of sentence, inmate relationships with custodial staff as well as other inmates, and the coping behaviors of each inmate.  Thus, the inmate subculture is composed based on factors relevant only after confinement has commenced (Massey, 1986).  Furthermore, “the greater the duration of exposure to the influence of this subculture as well as to the pressures created by the organization of the prison, the greater the impact on the inmate” (Thomas, 1975, p. 486).

Neutralization of the Pains of Imprisonment

Inmates cope with the pains of imprisonment in several ways.  Some choose to escape physically, either through escape of the institutional walls, which is virtually impossible or unsuccessful when attempted, or through seclusion in one’s cell or living space.  Some inmates choose to psychologically withdraw into fantasy.  Further still, at the highest extreme, inmates may choose to rebel in the form of violence, such as a disturbance (Johnson, 2002; Sykes, 1958).  The many facets of mature coping within the prison walls are discussed in Chapter 4 of Johnson’s Hard Time.  Johnson focuses on the role of positive social relationships in mature coping.  Many parallels can be drawn from Johnson’s discussion of mature coping and its role in the prison culture to the overview of the functionalist view of imprisonment discussed in the Sykes chapter in the Blomberg and Cohen text (specifically, how mature coping promotes the functionalist nature, and respective niches, of the prison institution).

The Importation Model

As with Clemmer’s hypothesis, the deprivation model has not been without criticism.  In 1962, John Irwin and Donald Cressey presented a counter argument to Sykes’ thesis.  Drawing on preliminary work by Schrag (1961), these scholars purported that the inmate subculture was derived from offender characteristics and experiences prior to incarceration; hence, these were the key components of the dynamic relationships developed within the walls of the prison.  This view of the inmate world was termed by Irwin and Cressey as the importation model.    

The importation model departs from the structural-functionalist explanations discussed thus far.  Instead of characterizing the prison as a social system organized around common values, Irwin and Cressey (1962) argued that the prison is composed of multiple subcultures that rival each other with respect to values and norms.  These smaller subcultures are derived from “normative systems developed on the outside . . . inevitably imported into the prison” (Blomberg & Lucken, 2000, p. 124) as well as social-demographic characteristics and criminal career variables, such as time served in institutions and offense record (Massey, 1986).  Therefore, instead of viewing the inmate as a solely influenced by common processes, the importation model proposes that the inmate subculture is comprised of conflicting groups with origins that exist outside institutional walls (Irwin & Cressey, 1962).

What is noteworthy is the fact that Irwin and Cressey argue that early theories of prison subculture, such as those developed by Clemmer (1940), Goffman (2001), and McKorkle and Korn (1954) purport that inmates import norms and values into the institution; however, these theories maintained a holistic view of the institution itself.  Irwin and Cressey departed from these theories by developing a typology of conflicting inmate subcultures.  These inmate groups were denoted as the thief subculture, convict subculture, and straight subculture (Blomberg & Lucken, 2000; Irwin & Cressey, 1962).  These subcultures will be discussed below.     

The Thief Subculture

Inmates who belonged to the thief subculture adhered to norms and values developed and adopted by the thief subculture that existed in the criminal world.  With central values such as trustworthiness and dependability, it is not surprising that Irwin and Cressey (1962) maintained that these offenders were most likely to refer to fellow thieves in the prison as their primary reference group.  The codes of this group were held in high reverence, not the inmate code (Blomberg & Lucken, 2000).  This may be related to the idea that prison is regarded as only a temporary break in the thief’s criminal career.       

The Convict Subculture

Convicts are inmates who have been raised in the prison system.  Unlike the thief subculture, “convicts” strictly adhere to the inmate code.  The convicts’ primary reference group is that of the convicts within the walls of the prison.  Irwin and Cressey (1962) stated that convicts were most likely to turn to maladaptive forms of coping.  This conclusion is explicated in Chapter 5 of Johnson’s Hard Time.  Interestingly, Irwin and Cressey do note the importance of deprivation when examining the convict subculture, as the deprivations of Sykes’ have the most impact on the full development of the convict subculture.  Nevertheless, the values of this subculture are imported from outside the walls of the institution (Blomberg & Lucken, 2000). 

The Straight Subculture

“Straights” were characterized by Irwin and Cressey as one-time offenders.  These inmates often identified more with the officers and administrative staff.  This group looked to receive as much as they could while in prison by way of educational and rehabilitative programs, and brought little threat of conflict and disturbance to the institution (Irwin & Cressey, 1962).


Female Inmate Subcultures       

The importation thesis of Irwin and Cressey gave the field of penology yet another model prison subculture.  With a body of theory becoming more robust and applicable in nature, it was not long before the subculture of women’s prisons was explored.  Through historical analyses, scholars have attempted to understand many issues that surround the imprisonment of women (see Rafter’s selection from Week #2).  Penologists have used similar historical techniques to retroactively examine the female inmate subculture as it has developed since the early 1900s.  The current state of research is mixed, as support has been found for both the deprivation and importation models in understanding the female inmate subculture.

The subculture of women’s prisons is a relatively new active arm of research (especially considering that all of the research on prison subculture conducted in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s took place in male institutions).  Scholarly work has, in recent years, been devoted towards the relationships of female offenders.  This body of knowledge is continually expanding (see the Gartner and Kruttschnitt selection in the Blomberg and Cohen text).  As it is evident in men’s prisons, female offenders also engage in homosexual behavior.  However, the nature of female homosexual behavior differs from male inmates.  For instance, women appear to engage in homosexuality on a more voluntary basis.  Scholars have reported that female offenders develop stronger bonds with the other members of their social groups rather than identify with the prisoner subculture. This presents unique challenges to correctional personnel of women’s facilities as they try to adapt to the uniqueness of the female inmate.  Further complicating matters is the finding by Morris and Wilkinson (Chapter 11 in Latessa et al.) that much of the programming in female institutions does little to meet the criminogenic needs of female inmates; furthermore, staff who work with female inmates often feel inadequately trained to work with female offenders.  These issues must be addressed in light of the rapidly changing female subculture discussed in the Gartner and Kruttschnitt selection in the Blomberg and Cohen text.  One change that reformers must take note of is the threat of individual and collective violence in female institutions.  This threat was not a prominent concern in the 1960s and 1970s.


Power In Prison

Who manages in prison institutions?  Naturally, one may likely conclude that the correctional workers fulfilling administrative roles are solely responsible for all aspects of management inside prison walls.  This is far from correct.  Because the prison is a total institution and the fact that the line staff interacts closely with inmates, correctional officers fulfilling those roles play an important part in management of inmates and related activities.

Can inmates participate in management?  Obviously, not from an administrative perspective, but inmates do influence an ongoing balance between the staff and inmates.  This balance is based on fair exchange and reciprocity.  Peaceful relations (and perhaps mature coping) are likely to ensue when a balance exists.  However, inmates feel that correctional officers will exercise abuse of power to coerce inmates into following the rules.  This leads to the opposite effect in many cases.  A good example is the effect of coercion when inmates are confined in a supermax facility (see Chapter 12 in Latessa et al.).  The total control and loss of autonomy in such an environment are not conducive to mature coping.


Additional References

Clemmer, D. (1940). The prison community. Boston: The Christopher Publishing House.

Cooley, C. H. (1902). Human nature and social order. New York: Scribner.

Irwin, J., & Cressey, D. (1962). Thieves, convicts, and the inmate subculture. Social Problems, 54, 590-603. 

Massey, D. M. (1986). The effects of black radicalism and race cohesiveness on black female inmates. Unpublished master’s thesis, East Tennessee State University, Johnson City, Tennessee.

McKorkle, L. W., & Korn, R. (1954). Resocialization within the walls. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, 293, 88-98.

Schrag, C. (1954). Leadership among prison inmates. American Sociological Review, 19, 37-42.

Sykes, G. M. (1958).  The society of captives. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.