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Prisons: Prisoners - Inmate Subcultures And Informal Organizations

inmates gang roles

The day-to-day experiences of inmates are not only affected by the official, formal organization of prisons; an informal organization among inmates—known to criminologists as the inmate subculture—is equally influential. The inmate subculture is comprised of a peculiar language and a distinctive set of informal norms, attitudes, beliefs, values, statuses, and roles that give prisoners a different perspective from people on the outside (or as prisoners say, those of us in the freeworld).

To illustrate the existence of this unique subculture, prisons have an inverted status hierarchy that often honors behaviors and activities that are condemned by the law abiding. For most people, the cop killer is the ultimate symbol of a despicable criminal; confined in a men's maximum security prison, he is admired by other inmates as a stand-up guy, or congratulated for being an outlaw (the highest terms of respect in these institutions). Drug dealers and gang bangers (members of urban street gangs) are hated by society, but they occupy positions of importance and power in the cellblocks. Even strong-arm rapists who sexually assault other inmates are grudgingly admired in prison for their ability to dominate the weak (Hassine).

Prisoners claim that an inmate code (or a set of values and beliefs distinctive to prisons) binds this subculture together. This code is the unofficial rule book for the informal organization of inmates. In particular, the code depicts prison as a chaotic, violent, and predatory jungle; inmates call penitentiaries gladiator schools, where only the strong survive (Abbott). The code admonishes fish (or newcomers to prison) to avoid entanglements and disputes with other prisoners, especially those that involve debts. One inmate's version of the code is: "Don't gamble, don't mess with drugs, don't mess with homosexuals, don't steal, don't borrow or lend, and you might survive" (Hassine, p. 52). Weaker inmates who ignore this advice often become mules for manipulative predators, using their body cavities to smuggle drugs into prison, or they may be turned-out as jailhouse prostitutes.

Academic accounts of the inmate code emphasize its oppositional values to conventional society in general and to prison authorities in particular (Ohlin; Sykes and Messinger). The cardinal sin is to cooperate with officials as a prison informer who snitches, squeals, or rats on other inmates in exchange for parole, favorable work details, or other considerations. (Incredibly gruesome and sadistical accounts of the torture and murder of snitches by other inmates during prison riots resonate throughout the jailhouse grapevine, or prison gossip network.) Other values in the inmate code noted by Gresham M. Sykes and Sheldon Messinger include "don't trust the guards," "maintain yourself" (as a tough real man who shows no sensitivity, emotion, or weakness), and "don't quarrel with fellow inmates" (do your own time by keeping your "nose out of other people's business") (pp. 6–8).

Another feature of the inmate subculture is the distinctive language used among prisoners. Examples of this slang (or argot) appear in italics throughout this essay. Some other colorful terms include shank or shiv (for prison knives or sharp weapons), pruno or hootch (homemade jailhouse alcohol), the hole or jail (disciplinary segregation), brake fluid (prescription tranquilizers used to calm antisocial inmates), the man (a term used with contempt for persons holding positions of authority), hacks (correctional officers), rapos (inmates who irritate others by constantly complaining that they were wrongly convicted), old heads (middle-aged or elderly inmates), square johns (middle-class, conventional inmates who identify with staff members), and crazies or dings (mentally disturbed inmates). The sentence "Bill's an old head square john gone crazy from drinking pruno; the man's got him on brake fluid" is incomprehensible to the average person, but would be immediately understood by almost any prisoner in America.

Prison slang that is used to refer to different types of inmates (e.g., ding or rapo) is indispensable in the identification of stable roles within the prison subculture. Inmates relate to each other based on these roles. In a classic study from the 1950s of inmate types in the New Jersey State Prison (a men's maximum security institution in Trenton), Sykes described numerous "argot roles" that he claimed offered a blueprint for the informal organization among inmates. For example, he found that the black market distribution of illegal goods and services in the prison was controlled by two inmate types: merchants and gorillas. Merchants bought and sold contraband using cigarettes for script (prison money). Gorillas preyed on the weak through theft and strong-armed tactics (extortion and robbery) to supply themselves and their friends with desired goods. Sykes discovered three inmate roles—wolves, punks, and fags—governing prison sexual relationships. Wolves were older, physically tough inmates who played the aggressive, masculine role; punks were their younger and weaker victims. Wolves and punks were heterosexuals before confinement; Sykes argued that their homosexuality was a situational adjustment to heterosexual deprivation within prison. Fags were homosexuals on the streets, and simply continued this behavior once incarcerated. The slang expressions that Sykes associated with homosexual roles are still used in contemporary men's prisons, although wolves are now often called pitchers, while punks and fags are generically called catchers. Similar inmate types relating to lesbianism exist in women's prisons between masculinized butches and the female role, played by femmes.

In prisons today, the illegal distribution of goods and services is controlled by gang members and swag men. Gang members dominate the most lucrative ventures in modern prisons—drug trafficking and gambling—through group intimidation and force. The swag man works alone as an inmate who buys, sells, and steals inexpensive commodities, often sandwiches from the prison cafeteria or snacks from the commissary (among street criminals, the term swag refers to stolen goods).

John Irwin offered another well-known analysis of inmate types. From a study of 116 male parolees released from California state prisons in the mid-1960s, Irwin identified eight key inmate roles: thieves (professional armed robbers and burglars), hustlers (petty con artists), dope fiends (opiate addicts), heads (marijuana, acid, and methamphetamine users), disorganized criminals (a catchall category of criminal "screw-ups" who lack any discernible skills or specializations), state-raised youth (criminals who have spent most of their lives in prison since entering reformatories in their adolescence), lower-class "men" (conventional people from poor neighborhoods who find themselves in prison), and square johns.

There is a longstanding debate among criminologists about what causes inmate subcultures. In an important early sociological study of incarceration and its affect on prisoners completed in the mid-1930s at Menard State Penitentiary (a maximum security men's prison in southern Illinois), Donald Clemmer coined the term "prisonization" to refer to the learning or transmission of this subculture. Clemmer defined prisonization as "the taking on in greater or lesser degree of the folkways, mores, customs, and general culture of the penitentiary" (p. 299). He believed that the inmate subculture had its sources within the prison; later scholars referred to this as the "indigenous origin" theory. Clemmer argued that the beliefs, values, and behaviors of inmates grow more antisocial the longer they are exposed to this subculture.

What causes the inmate subculture to appear in the first place? Sykes greatly advanced Clemmer's argument by offering an explanation for the indigenous origin of inmate subcultures. From his study of the New Jersey State Prison, Sykes reasoned that the subculture develops to help inmates adjust to the deprivations of incarceration, or what he called the "pains of imprisonment." He noted five specific pains that incarceration imposes on prisoners, which include the loses of liberty, material goods and services, heterosexual relationships, autonomy, and personal security. Sykes claimed that particular argot roles within the subculture evolved to compensate for these loses. For example, merchants and gorillas provided inmates with goods and services forbidden in prison but easily acquired in the outside world. Likewise, wolves and punks are role adjustments to the loss of heterosexual outlets. To summarize, Clemmer and Sykes each argued that the "hardships of confinement lead to the development of a criminal subculture found only in prisons" (Wright, 1999, p. 162); this became known in criminology as indigenous origin/deprivation theory.

In the early 1960s, Donald R. and Irwin Cressey challenged indigenous origin/deprivation theory by proposing a radically different explanation called the importation model. This perspective considers preprison socialization experiences as crucial in shaping the development of inmate subcultures. Cressey and Irwin argued that the roles observed in these subcultures are not adjustments to the deprivations of confinement; rather, these roles are "composites of various criminal and conventional street identities" (Wright, 1999, p. 162). In 1970 Irwin presented data supporting this argument from his interviews with California parolees. The inmate roles identified in this study—for example, thieves, hustlers, dope fiends, and square johns—were produced by interaction and socialization that occurred outside the prison (state-raised youth were the only exception to this argument). Irwin claimed that the unusual features of inmate subcultures emerge through the association of peculiar criminal and conventional personalities imported into the prison.

In 1977, two studies independently appeared that strongly supported the importation explanation for inmate subcultures. Leo Carroll's 1977 analysis of inmates in Eastern Correctional Institution (his pseudonym for the men's maximum security prison in Rhode Island) showed that numerous recent correctional reforms (including more liberal visitation privileges, permission to wear street clothes and hairstyles, and permission to bring television sets and radios into prison) meant that inmates were no longer isolated from the outside world. Carroll concluded that these and similar reforms enabled "prisoners to retain their attachments to reference groups beyond the prison walls. And within the prison freedom to dress and to decorate their cells as they please. . .permits prisoners to interact on the basis of preprison identities, rather than solely as convicts" (1977, p. 45).

James B. Jacobs's mid-1970s study of changes in Stateville Penitentiary (a large men's maximum security prison in northern Illinois) showed that reforms introduced by liberal prison officials and federal court decisions relieved many of the pains of imprisonment, making it easier for prisoners to retain their criminal and conventional street identities and lifestyles. Jacobs observed that the recent liberalization of visitation, telephone, and mail privileges permitted inmates far greater contact with their relatives, friends, and associates from the outside world. For example, visitation rules in many prisons today allow limited physical contact between inmates and their spouses or lovers. These contacts make it easy to smuggle drugs into prison, enabling street addicts to continue using drugs behind bars.

Jacobs (1977) also examined how U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s and 1970s extended certain basic rights to inmates, allowing greater access to the freeworld. As one example, the 1964 Cooper v. Pate decision cleared the way for considerable freedom of religion in prisons. Following this decision, Nation of Islam ministers were permitted to conduct services in Stateville Penitentiary, enabling Black Muslims to practice their faith and retain their identities in prison. Other Supreme Court decisions—Procunier v. Martinez (1974) and Wolff v. McDonnell (1974)—virtually abolished the censorship of mail by prison officials. Furthermore, in the Wolff decision, the Court offered the opinion that although prisoners had "diminished rights," they could not be "wholly stripped of constitutional protections" and the due process of the law (Jacobs, 1983, p. 42). The cumulative effect of these and other court decisions has allowed influences from the outside world to stream into prisons: inmates today see the same television shows, hear the same music, and read the same magazines and newspapers as the general public.

In particular, prison reforms and federal court decisions have made it difficult to control the influx and activities of gang bangers in prisons. Jacobs showed that in the mid-1970s, four "supergangs" from the streets of Chicago dominated the inmate subculture in Stateville. Gang members brought into prison "intact organizational structures, highly charismatic leaders, support from the streets, and a long history of intergang warfare" (1977, p. 146). Stateville inmates interacted with each other based on these street-imported gang identities, rather than in terms of their statuses as prisoners. Furthermore, relaxed visitation, telephone, and mail restrictions kept gang members in prison informed about events on the streets, and gang members on the streets informed about developments in prison.

Most prison researchers concur that the importation theory more accurately explains inmate subcultures than the indigenous origin/deprivation model (Cao et al.; McCorkle et al.; Wright, 1994). Correctional practitioners and scholars now recognize that the imposing walls that surround prisons are surprisingly permeable. "Prison walls, fences, and [gun] towers still prevent the inside world from getting outside, [but] they can no longer prevent the outside world—with its diverse attractions, diversions, and problems—from getting inside" (Wright, 1999, p. 164).

Despite this general conclusion, a number of factors since the 1970s have combined to increase the pains of imprisonment experienced by most inmates. Some scholars have claimed that the public and conservative politicians in America together have spearheaded a penal harm movement, with the intention of increasing the misery associated with incarceration (Clear; Cullen). Some aspects of the penal harm movement that have affected the conditions of confinement include the return of chain gangs and road crews in southern states, the decisions by some prison officials to keep known gang members permanently locked down in disciplinary segregation, the re-introduction of stripped uniforms as standard attire in some prisons, and legislation in several states that closes weight-training and conditioning rooms. A study by Todd R. Clear documented that every state since 1972 has "altered its penal policy in the direction of greater punitive severity" (p. 50) through such measures as the restriction or abolition of parole, the implementation of mandatory sentencing laws (that automatically require prison sentences for those convicted for particular offenses, often drugs and weapons violations), and "three-strikes-andyou're-out" laws (that mandate life sentences for a third felony conviction). These "get-tough" measures especially have targeted predatory street crime and the crack cocaine epidemic, filling American prisons with "minority-group, drug-addicted, urban-underclass offenders" (Wright, 1999, p. 164).

Rising prison populations and overcrowding have gone hand-in-hand with the penal harm movement. As noted earlier, prison populations have exploded since the early 1980s. From 31 December 1985 to 30 June 1998, there was a 148 percent increase in the number of convictees imprisoned in the United States (Gilliard). During this period, 57,795 new inmates were incarcerated each year. In practical terms, this means that every week in America, correctional officials must find space in existing institutions for over one thousand new inmates, or they must open a new prison with this capacity.

Not surprisingly, prison construction has lagged behind these increases in inmate populations. For example, figures from 1995 showed that the federal prison population was 24 percent over its maximum designed capacity (Stephan). Overcrowding forces prison officials to order the double-celling of inmates, or to introduce open, barracks-style sleeping arrangements in whatever space is available (e.g., gymnasiums or converted warehouses).

The deteriorating conditions of confinement, longer prison sentences, and overcrowding together have increased the suffering that inmates experience in prison. Levels of violence, fear, and hopelessness rise in crowded cellblocks that are saturated with drugs and overrun by gang bangers. This has led to the emergence of new, indigenous prison gangs organized for self-defense and for buying and sharing drugs (Hunt et al.; Hassine). In a study of men's prisons in California, Geoffrey Hunt et al. found that for every gang imported into prison from the streets, another gang forms inside for protection. Some of these new prison gangs will be exported into the freeworld once their members are paroled.

The turmoil in modern prisons means that inmate subcultures are in a precarious state. If prison conditions worsen, the pains of imprisonment could become severe enough to breed new values and roles among inmates, fundamentally altering the criminal and conventional personalities imported from the streets. This could signal a return to the "bad old days" in corrections where convicts were irreparably damaged through prisonization, or exposure to the inmate subculture. Some commentators already sense the growing unrest and despair in the cellblocks: Victor Hassine compares the modern prison to a "runaway train" filled with prisoners only concerned about "how they are going to survive this madness" (p. 156).

It is critical to reiterate that the experiences of prison inmates are a product of the complex interplay between the formal and informal organization of prisons. In the 1960s and the 1970s, the relaxation of strict rules by liberal prison officials and by federal court decisions were key forces that enabled the importation of criminal and conventional street identities into the inmate subculture. In the 1980s and the 1990s, the penal harm movement and prison overcrowding reversed these trends, threatening to restore the pains of imprisonment and prisonization. Changes in the official, formal organization of prisons inevitably reshape the informal inmate subculture. The fate of prisoners hangs in this delicate balance.

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