Print Сite this

Prison Culture: Term Definition


There has been contention in the area of literature whether prison culture results from the environment within the prison or is as a result of the culture that inmates bring into prison. The importance of the culture that the convict brings into prison, in shaping or bringing out a prison culture has been captured by analysts such as Irwin and Cressey (1977; cited in Hunt et al., 1993). Such authors have stood in opposition to the views of the likes of Goffman that the prison environment is responsible for the prison culture. In their study, Hunt et al., (1993) found new dynamics that could not be attributed to the outside or inside forces. This paper will look into the issue of prison culture, prison gangs, the causes and the driving forces, as well as the likelihood for elimination of negative prison culture. The understanding of the forces giving rise to and influencing prison culture is important because it would help the formulation of strategies as well as proper mechanisms to control negative effects such as where inmates come out of prison worse criminals or where the inmates are recruited to prison gangs to boost their activities while or after serving imprisonment.

We will write a
custom essay
specifically for you

for only $16.05 $11/page
308 certified writers online
Learn More

Inmate Behavior and Prison Culture

It has been argued by Donald Clemmer that the inmate’s behavior in prison is a reflection of his internalization of the prison culture (Clemmer, 1940; cited in Colwell, 2009; 1). Inmates like other individuals use culture to perform social action. The deprivation model has proposed the prison to be self-regulated closed system and this has been criticized by the proponents of the importation model, which has presented an over-determined model of human behavior (Colwell, 2009). The behavior of an inmate must be viewed in the context of the person’s character, and at the same time the result of social forces that influence the character of the person. Like other individuals, self-identity is important in influencing social interaction of one person with others.

Individual first develop a shared definition of a situation before they orient their subsequent action, according to the symbolic interactionist framework (Blumer, 1969; Goffman, 1959; cited in Colwell, 2009). Self-identity is the meaning people give to themselves in a particular situation, and it may influence their behaviors and activities. Relational as well as group identities are the two types which inform an individual’s self-identity during social interaction (Burke, 2000; Hogg, Terry and White, 1995b; Colwell, 2009; 4). The abstraction of the cultural expectation of an individual to behave in a particular way as the role-identity dictate, do not however override the actual practical relations of the individual with others. This is to means that although an individual may understand his or her expectation of what role he would play in a society; his actual interaction may modify the real action towards fulfillment of these roles. Relational identity focus on the individuals’ identities activated through interactions with their actual network of relationship. It is evident that there is more than one identity that an individual can give to himself or herself, and his/her commitment to one identity or another will be influenced by the sheer number and the emotional importance of the relationships linked to that identity (Stryker & Serpe, 1994; cited in Colwell, 2009; 4). Demarcation of in-group/out-group boundaries promotes inter-group polarization. In prison settings, group identity may be channeled through gangs, racial and other group organizations. Group identity is not tied to actual attachment as is relational identity. The individuals in a prison must therefore claim membership to particular groups so as to ensure that there is group identity. But even group relationships may exist within social groups. But it is very likely that group identities may coincide or conflict with a person’s self-identity because particular groups in prison may want an individual to behave in particular manner.

California prisons have been identical of prison and street-based gangs, as well as racial groups. Polarization of inmates along racial and ethnic lines was boosted by the intergroup contention of the civil rights era in the 1960’s. These social groupings may first begin with social networks that propagate differences within the inmates and therefore promoting group relationships among individuals. Racial hatred between the whites and blacks has been indicated by Bunker (2000; cited in Colwell, 2009; 5) to have risen in San Quentin prison. This hatred was projected in a series of racially motivated assaults in the prison. In a prison society, it is possible that while individuals may bring into prison internalized personal beliefs and norms, the latter may be modified by the prison social context and existing relationships at the prison. However, the two must be interpreted differently because the general features of prison culture cannot be attributed to individual beliefs or social identities of the inmate population since there is evidence that a powerful minority has the ability to monitor and sanction the behavior of others in the institutionalization of normative beliefs and behavioral practices (Kurzman 1996; Tarrow, 1994; cited in Colwell, 2009; 6); but it must be also considered that inmates bring into prison social context with them. Prisoners may also modify their understanding of conditions depending on the experiences they have gone through while at prison. The facts that prisoners may at the end of the day fail to reveal their real and actual identity, and force to show a public figure, has been brought forward. This is because these inmates may be obligated to show allegiance to the particular social networks through conforming to certain behaviors, while these behaviors may not project their inward personal identities or interest (Colwell, 2009). But the actual commitment to these social networks is compromised because of conflicting interests of group and personal relationships.

Racism has been identified as a dominant force in the American prison populations inducing sexual assault and activity. Prisoners affiliate to the gangs in order to be able to pay their debt to the society. Individuals are motivated by the mentality of separation and superiority from these associations. The racial groups have been indicated as important in protecting the individual who subscribes to them, and without the group, it would be difficult for the individual. Member prisoners on the other hand will be required to perform certain functions for that group. These activities will mostly be of criminal nature. This implies that individuals may be forced to culturization of the prison culture relating to performance of certain activities and behaviors because they in turn need certain favor from these groups such as protection.

Whereas imprisonment may be important in controlling crime and enhancing public safety, it is important to consider that it results sometimes to break of families and social relationships and therefore may have other underlying impacts (Hagan & Dinovitzer, 1999; cited in Tonry & Joan, 1999; 4). Social relationships between family members are important for any person and where imprisonment results in its breakdown, the inmates may suffer. Therefore, it is important to consider that prisoners may have their status deteriorate when they go to prison and suffer problems during relationships because of stress. Therefore, we may question the causative for the prison culture itself, because all inmates end up being separated with their relatives. The theorization by e.g. Adams (1992; cited in Tonry & Joan, 1999; 4) has been doubted by the likes of Liebling (1999; cited Tonry & Joan, 1999; 4). The probability exists for the prisoners to lead miserable lives after imprisonment because the latter affects their finances, employment status and family involvement. The prisoners may result as worse criminals even after imprisonment. Sometimes younger criminal prisoners are introduced to a culture where they are trained to more criminal activities by the more experienced criminals and may come out of prison as more experienced criminals. This may reduce the effects of the need for imprisonment to reduce criminal activity.

There is a possibility of offering prison treatment programs that can help reduce prisoners’ later recidivism and this can increase public safety. This can be very helpful if the impact of social culture and prison relationships is perceived to have negative results. The relationship between inmates and prisoners has changed while the literature has shifted away from the focus of literature on socialization of inmates and on prison subcultures. In addition, the working staff may also influence to some extent, the culture at prison because they may influence the development or inhibition of some behaviors. There is the likelihood of the increased number of prisoners causing a shift in the trend of the inmate relationships because of the difficulty of managing them. In addition, increase in the number of inmates has resulted to increased demand for services like medical care and those people requiring more attention because of those serving long-term sentences (Tonry & Joan, 1999; 6).

Get your
100% original paper
on any topic

done in as little as
3 hours
Learn More

The effects of the conditions of prison are very important because they either increase or decrease the chances of prisoners becoming angry with staff and administration, as well as fellow prisoners. The conditions may partly be blamed for the arising of these angry incidents between the staff and the prisoners although other factors such as individual stress as a result of previous experiences may also be witnessed. Moreover, it may be that some individuals working as staff members may still collaborate with the prisoners or the gangs they subscribe to so as to carry out activities such as drug dealing where they are meant to gain. Thus the quality of the officers and their integrity may also influence prison culture. Theory supporting the fact that pains of imprisonment and the deprivation of inmates while in prison, may cause culture of prison to emanate, includes Goffman (1961), Goward (1977), and Messinger (1977) (Leger and Stratton, 1977; 93; cited in Hunt et al., 1993). Prisoners would become gradually cultured into prison through a series of status degradation ceremonies. Changes in prison in relation to formation of new gangs, changes in population demographics, policy changes especially touching the gangs were likely to cause turmoil among inmates and therefore disrupting the clear cut whether it was outside or the inside forces that were responsible for prison culture (Hunt et al., 1993).

Prisons are never free of the cultural and societal changes such as interferences by civil rights groups, political changes and impacts of behaviors that for example affect the spread of diseases like the HIV & AIDs. It is evident that negative impacts of customization to prison may be reduced or controlled by some actions such as increasing staff at the prison to cater for the needs of the prisoners and improving the conditions of the prison.

Corrective steps to prisoners while at prison are very important because at one time or the other, prisoners would be expected to get back to the society. Under normal circumstances, assimilation back into the society may prove to be very tricky because prisoners do not find it possible to escape hatred and have differing personal views of social relations. Thus the impact of prison culture may be far-reaching if individuals fail to reach the expectation of the society to improve on their behavior, and if they become even worse criminals after imprisonment. It is necessary to note that adjustment may be difficult, and hence the authorities need to focus on the programs aimed at helping these individuals morally, if they cannot improve on the prison culture. The fact that the American society outside the prison has itself been supportive in propagating racism and other social grouping agendas (including street gangs), may make it more difficult for prisoners to be corrected while at prison or cope to better behavior when they get outside. In fact, there has been documented collaboration between the prison gang members while at prison, and street gang members while outside in order to participate in criminal activities such as drug dealing. This may tend to encourage the prisoners to conform to negative prison culture rather than change for the better, because they know that they will still continue with similar activities once the imprisonment term is over.

The United States is characterized with the prisoners training other prisoners with an intention of having them collaborate with them for terrorist activities after imprisonment. Kevin James is reported to be the first person to radicalize prisoners to join a prison gang with a terrorism agenda, while still in prison. Why prisoners would accept to be used for ill-motive may be as a result of adopting extreme views of political or religious perspective, which also may be viewed as important in influencing prison culture. Individuals are made to believe that there is need for taking measures for religious or political purposes.

Hamm has researched on the process of radicalization and found that potential terrorism plans were found at Florida and California. Hamm has reported that a linkage between prison gangs and radicalization, and observed that the most important factor during radicalization was inmate leadership. James Kevin deceived inmates at Tehachapi that it was the duty of Muslims to violently attack enemies of Islam including the United States. The ability of inmate leadership in radicalization cannot be overemphasized in James’s case who propagated his beliefs and justifications for the killing of “infidels” through a document called the JIS Protocol that he had handwritten. Members would also be required prospective members to swear obedience and confidentiality of the group’s existence. His former prison gang 76th Street Crips was also vital in helping him to spread the aforementioned document containing beliefs and killing justifications.

The questions as to why prison gangs still exist within the United States’ prison yet they remain a threat to public safety may be alarming. A study by Hamm, which found that two thirds of 30 inmates belonged to a prison gang, also revealed that each of the converts had experienced conversion be it to Wicca, Odinism, Christian Identity, Hinduism, and other religions while at prison. Primarily, the reason why the prisoners resulted to conversion was to seek a religious meaning to interpret and resolve discontent although some sought it for protection purposes (Lofland & Stark, 1965). The medium of conversion included hip-hop music, rituals, literature, practices, sacred texts as well as the media.

The role of social networks in the religious conversion during radicalization at prison, studied by Mark, was important as the advice of fellow gang members, cellmates and parents played a role of advisor in the conversion to non-Judeo-Christian.

We will write a custom
for you!
Get your first paper with
15% OFF
Learn More

Although conversion mentioned above could play an important role in helping criminals improve on relations with staff and other inmates, the study findings could be used to argue that overcrowding, few chaplains to provide religious guidance could boost radicalization and terrorist group infiltrating, recruiting and operate behind the walls. This study did not implicate outside influences in radicalizing inmates. Gangs today operate across racial boundaries to increase protection, and according to the study, unity among the gangs may also be witnessed. The impact of the religious influence on prison culture may be contemplated with the fact that the study found competing factions of the Islamic faith in search for members and this may result to conflict among inmates. There are competing interests among Islamic groups to win converts, with differences based on “cut-and-paste” interpretations of the Quran and gang values. Competition exists between Sunnis against Shiites, and Nation of Islam against Sunnis and Prison Islam. These aforementioned groups compete against all other forms of inmate Islam (NIJ, 2008).


In conclusion, the causes of prison culture are more than one. These are environmental conditions within the prison which may cause the inmates to react angrily for example to fellow inmates and officials. Secondly, convicts are themselves a result of social culture and relationships in the society. Thirdly, there are other dynamics that are important in understanding inmates’ experiences. Changes in prison in relation to formation of new gangs, changes in population demographics, policy changes especially touching the gangs were likely to cause turmoil among inmates and therefore disrupting the clear cut whether it was outside or the inside forces that were responsible for prison culture. Group relations as well as personal identity as potential forces of molding prison culture have also been raised in this paper. The United States prisons have been characteristic of gang members recruiting other members to be able to support criminal activities once they are out of prison. It is important to take into consideration the corrective measures that may help to eliminate negative prison culture or to help individuals to cope with life after imprisonment.

Reference List

A Review of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Selection of Muslim Religious Service Providers, Washington, DC: Office of the Inspector General, U.S. Department of Justice, 2004: 85

Atchison Samuel. Prison Ministry: Understanding prison culture inside and out. Christian Century. Web.

Colwell, Brian. Relational and Group Identities: The Dynamic Use of Culture in Prison. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, Montreal Convention Center, Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Web.

Lofland, J., and R. Stark. (1965). Becoming a World-Saver: A Theory of Religious Conversion. American Sociological Review 30, 862-874

Hamm Mark. (2008). Prisoner Radicalization: Assessing the Threat in U.S. Correctional Institutions. National Institute of Justice. Web.

Hunt G., Stephanie R., Tomas M., and Dan W. Changes in prison culture: Prison gangs and the case of “Pepsi Generation. Web.

Need a
100% original paper
written from scratch

by professional
specifically for you?
308 certified writers online
Learn More

National Institute of Justice. (NIJ). (Eds)Michael Tonry and Joan Petersilia. Prisons Research at the Beginning of the 21st Century. Crime and Justice: A Review of Research. Vol. 26.

Webika Ltd. (2009). The effect of racism on American prison population: A look at prison racism and survival requirements. Web.

Cite this paper

Select style


StudyCorgi. (2021, November 8). Prison Culture: Term Definition. Retrieved from


StudyCorgi. (2021, November 8). Prison Culture: Term Definition.

Work Cited

"Prison Culture: Term Definition." StudyCorgi, 8 Nov. 2021,

1. StudyCorgi. "Prison Culture: Term Definition." November 8, 2021.


StudyCorgi. "Prison Culture: Term Definition." November 8, 2021.


StudyCorgi. 2021. "Prison Culture: Term Definition." November 8, 2021.


StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Prison Culture: Term Definition'. 8 November.

This paper was written and submitted to our database by a student to assist your with your own studies. You are free to use it to write your own assignment, however you must reference it properly.

If you are the original creator of this paper and no longer wish to have it published on StudyCorgi, request the removal.