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Prisons: Prisoners

The Characteristics Of U.s. Inmate Populations, Inmates And The Formal Organization Of Prisons

The American public appears to have an insatiable fascination with what goes on inside prisons. Moviegoers flock to see Hollywood films about prison life (e.g., Escape from Alcatraz, Murder in the First, and The Shawshank Redemption). The news media is quick to cover lurid stories about prisons, including prison disturbances (escapes, prison riots, or the killings of inmates or staff members by inmates) and the executions of notorious killers. Media depictions often distort the realities of imprisonment, misleading the public about prison life. Average citizens stereotype prisons as either hell-holes filled with every imaginable evil, or country clubs (complete with swimming pools and golf courses) where inmates are sent to work on their tans. Neither of these stereotypes captures the central realities of incarceration for inmates: crushing routine and relentless boredom.

It is not just the general public that knows little about prison life; most policymakers and criminal justice practitioners are also poorly informed. State legislators authorize and pass bills that dramatically affect the conditions of confinement, but rarely tour prison facilities. Judges' names do not appear on the visitation lists of the criminals that they sentence to prison. Police officers regularly transport inmates to the gates of prisons without bothering to step inside. Trial judges and police officers often form their impressions of prison life based on the comments that they hear from ex-convicts (who are not the most reliable sources).

This essay discusses the factors that shape the experiences of prison inmates. It begins by reviewing a few facts and figures about the numbers and characteristics of prisoners in America. The official features and procedures of the formal organization of prisons that affect inmate life (e.g., the classification process, the security levels of prisons, and institutional programs) are discussed. The essay concludes by examining the informal organizational responses of inmates to these official procedures, through the development of a peculiar inmate subculture that has its own beliefs, rules, and statuses.



Cooper v. Pate, 378 U.S. 546 (1964).

Procunier v. Martinez, 416 U.S. 396 (1974).

Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539 (1974).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law