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Prisons: Prisoners - Inmates And The Formal Organization Of Prisons

security programs maximum institutions

When sociologists study the effect of bureaucracies on their members, they make an important distinction between formal and informal social organization (Blau and Meyer). The formal organization of a bureaucracy includes its official hierarchy and functions, administered through a set of written rules that specify the responsibilities and obligations of members. The warden, the captain of the guard, and the director of vocational training are all examples of the positions within the official hierarchy of prisons. Sociologists use the term informal organization to refer to the casual associations, cliques, and friendships that form within a bureaucracy, affecting its operations. For example, longstanding disputes between several prisoners can significantly disturb peace and harmony within a cellblock. The informal organization includes covert norms, beliefs, and attitudes that may create expectations and practices at variance with official procedures.

The daily experiences of inmates are shaped by the formal and informal social organization of prisons. Some parts of the formal organization of corrections that affect inmates include the classification process, the security levels of institutions, confinement arrangements within the prison, program options and assignments, and special-needs placements. When criminologists discuss the informal organization among prisoners, they note the existence of a distinctive inmate subculture that thrives apart from the official prison hierarchy and procedures.

Upon arrival in prison following sentencing, inmates spend several weeks in a reception center that introduces them to the formal organization of the prison. During this time, they are segregated (i.e., kept apart) from other inmates, so they can be observed by the prison staff and informed about correctional rules and procedures. The most important purpose of the reception process is the classification of inmates, an essential feature of modern incarceration. Classification includes the risk assessment and needs assessment of inmates. Risk assessment involves some estimation of the threat that inmates pose to themselves or to others. Most correctional departments now use standard instruments that assign numerical scores to assess the risk level of inmates. In general, current and prior convictions for violent offenses result in high risk scores.

In needs assessment, prison staff evaluate the special problems of inmates that might affect institutional adjustment and the potential for treatment. Here, staff investigate such details as the physical and psychological health of inmates, their educational and occupational backgrounds and abilities, community support and the quality of inmates' family lives, and histories of drug abuse. Needs assessment affects the program assignments of prisoners once they complete classification. For example, inmates with little education will be encouraged to enroll in prison schools; those with few job skills will be targeted toward vocational training.

The purpose of classification is to assign prisoners to an appropriate level of custody (or institutional control). High-risk inmates with many needs must be supervised closely; low-risk inmates with few needs require minimal control. This custody classification assignment has immense consequences for an inmate, because it determines the security level of the institution where they will be confined once leaving the reception center.

The federal and most state correctional systems include an impressive array of institutions with different security level designations. Maximum security prisons operate as armed fortresses, complete with steel gates, high walls (sometimes extending many feet underground to prevent escapes through tunnels), perimeter fences (topped with multiple layers of razor-sharp concertina barbed wire), gun towers, and floodlights. Some of these prisons are marvels in advanced technology, containing a complex network of electronic surveillance that includes metal detectors, concealed video cameras, and heat and touch sensors in the walls, floors, and ceilings. Correctional officers in these prisons carefully supervise and control the every move of inmates through detailed schedules and constant head counts.

Inmates in maximum security prisons have little freedom and autonomy; their lives are ruled by the same mind-numbing routines for months and years on end. These prisoners lead a depersonalized existence with little privacy; passersby can gaze into their cells to watch them eat, sleep, or use the toilet. They even shower together in large, open stalls that are closely monitored by correctional officers. In an effort to control the proliferation of drugs, weapons, and other contraband, there are frequent shakedowns (or random searches) of cellblocks in maximum security units. It is little wonder that inmates in these prisons often bitterly complain that they are displayed and managed like animals in a zoo.

While life in maximum security prisons is usually monotonous and boring, the tedium is sometimes broken by outbursts of violence. Threats, assaults, and killings are fairly commonplace in these institutions. For example, in 1995 there were 62 assaults reported per 1,000 inmates in maximum security prisons in the United States (Stephan). Reported assaults represent only the tip of the iceberg, since many inmates are highly skilled at concealing the beatings administered to settle disputes. The threat of violence is real enough in maximum security prisons to produce a constant undercurrent of tension, fear, and wariness among inmates and staff; smarter prisoners in these institutions make a habit of looking over their shoulders or standing with their backs to walls whenever they venture outside their cells (Hassine).

A more relaxed atmosphere prevails in most medium and minimum security prisons. Violence is much less common in these facilities: In 1995, there were 34 reported assaults per 1,000 inmates in medium security prisons, and 18 reported assaults per 1,000 inmates in minimum security institutions (Stephan). The conditions of confinement are usually much better in lower security prisons. For example, there are few fences and gun towers around medium security facilities; hidden electronic surveillance devices are often used to prevent assaults and escapes. Inmates in some minimum security institutions face virtually no visible physical restraints; the prison grounds may be encircled only by an easily scaled, low fence. Some lower security prisons have a cottage or campus design, with dormitories and individual rooms, rather than long cellblocks. Inmates have greater freedom of movement and autonomy in these prisons; they are also given more privileges and allowed to have more personal possessions in their cells. These prisons sometimes offer community release programs, where inmates leave the facility during the day to attend school or for work. Prison officials depend on effective classification to ensure that the inmates confined in medium and minimum security institutions are sufficiently responsible and dependable to be trusted with these freedoms. Of course, prisoners know that if they violate this trust, they can be reclassified and transferred to a maximum security prison.

Even within prisons, living arrangements vary considerably. Large maximum security penitentiaries usually have at least three forms of confinement: segregation units, the general population, and honor blocks. Inmates in segregation units are isolated from other prisoners, either for administrative purposes, for disciplinary infractions, or for protective custody. Administrative segregation is a special unit for inmates who need "greater attention and supervision than would be available in the general population" (Stinchcomb and Fox, p. 268). Examples might include older prisoners or those who are mentally retarded. Disciplinary segregation is a punishment unit where inmates who have violated institutional rules are locked in their cells all day, except for an hour or two of recreation time. Protective custody units confine prisoners who were threatened or attacked in the general population, usually because they owed debts, were involved in homosexual triangles, or offered staff members information about the misconduct of others.

Those confined in segregation units have much less freedom of movement and autonomy than the typical mainline inmate confined in the general population cellblocks of maximum security prisons. Unlike prisoners in segregation, those in the general population have unrestricted prison yard, gymnasium, and commissary privileges, and eat together in the prison cafeteria. Due to their exemplary behavior, honor block inmates (called trustees) have the most freedom of movement and autonomy: they usually are cleared through the prison control center to work as janitors in administrative offices, or even as caretakers of the grounds outside the prison. Despite their good institutional behavior, older trustees sometimes are stuck in maximum security prisons because they were convicted for murder.

Institutional programs are another important dimension of the formal organization of prisons. These programs are designed to improve the personal and social circumstances and skills of inmates. As a rule of thumb, a greater number and diversity of prison programs are found in larger institutions that confine inmates who scored high on needs-assessment instruments. In particular, this includes younger, drug-addicted, illiterate inmates with few job skills. It is believed that these prisoners' lives can be salvaged through effective remediation and treatment intervention. The hope is that this will reduce the recidivism (or repeat offending) rates of these prisoners following release. Certainly, the type and quality of programs available in a prison significantly affect the institutional experiences of inmates.

Perhaps the most important program is remedial and secondary education, aimed toward the goal of inmates completing high school or passing the GED examination (the high school General Equivalency Diploma). Basic education programs are essential in most prisons given the high illiteracy rate among inmates: a U.S. Department of Education study (1992) showed that 59 percent of all imprisoned adults were either functionally illiterate or completely illiterate. As of 31 December 1995, 87 percent of prisons nationwide offered remedial and secondary education programs (Stephan).

Many prisons also feature college programs (usually limited to two-year degrees, with the stipulation that inmates must pay for their own courses and books), work programs (including prison farms, prison industries, and facility support services, such as jobs in the prison cafeteria or the laundry), vocational training (teaching such skills as auto repair, small appliance repair, air conditioner and heating maintenance, and furniture making), recreational programs (including basketball, football, and softball leagues), and counseling services (ranging from drug counseling to marital, parenting, and employment skills training). Work programs and counseling services are found in almost all American prisons (in 1995, 99% contained work programs; 96% delivered counseling services). In contrast, college programs and vocational training are less common (in 1995, 38% of prisons nationwide had college courses offered on site; 64% had vocational training programs; Stephan).

Finally, the formal organization within correctional systems must accommodate special-needs populations. These inmates have unusual problems, because they are sick, weak, dependent, or infirm. This includes prisoners who are very young or very old, pregnant women, those who are mentally disturbed or retarded, prisoners with AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) or other chronic diseases, and the physically impaired. For example, long prison terms coupled with the aging of the post–World War II babyboomer generation has resulted in the "graying" of inmate populations. (In 1990, 5% of prisoners nationwide were age fifty or older; by 1997, this figure rose to 7%; Camp and Camp.) Deinstitutionalization policies from the 1970s that discharged many patients from mental hospitals have inadvertently increased the numbers of mentally ill prisoners; approximately one-tenth of all inmates are diagnosed with significant to severe psychiatric abnormalities (Allen and Simonsen). There are no precise figures on how many inmates have AIDS, but it is estimated that the extent of infection is six to seven times higher in prison populations than on the streets (Allen and Simonsen). By the mid-1990s, one-third of the deaths in American prisons were attributed to AIDS (Stephan). Special-needs prisoners make convenient targets for all the bullies and predators roaming through the mainline; as a result, prudent correctional officials try to place the most vulnerable of these inmates in administrative segregation or protective custody.

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