Inmate Code

In sociological literature on prisons, early researchers were fascinated with the assimilation of prisoners into the inmate social system (Adams, 1992). As highlighted by Clemmer (1958), Skyes (1958), Sykes and Messinger (1960), Goffman (1961), and others, the principle feature of the inmate social system is the ‘inmate code'; an unwritten set of explicit prisoner values and norms which exist alongside the formal rules of the institution (Wellford, 1967; Asher, 1986) and assist in defining the idealised archetype of inmate behaviour (Cole & Smith, 2010). The code also performs a cohesive function, uniting inmates in a common bond against the staff through the promotion of values opposed to the administrative code of conduct (Wellford, 1967; Einat & Einat, 2000).

The origins and nature of the inmate code have not been collectively agreed upon in the academic sphere (Wellford, 1967) and have been routinely operationalised in the literature by two contending perspectives; the ‘deprivation' and ‘importation' model (Grapendaal, 1990; Gover, Mackenzie & Armstrong, 2000). The deprivation model affords a functionalist approach to the emergence of the inmate normative system, (Feld, 1981) arguing that the code materializes as an adaptive reaction to mitigate the “pains” inherent to the incarceration experience (Sykes, 1958; Sykes and Messinger, 1960 as cited in Johnson, Savitz & Wolfgang, 1962; Goffman, 1961). This theoretical model perceives prisons to be a closed social system in which pre-prison socialisation from the outside world are essentially disregarded (Krebs, 2002). This basic tenet, however, forms the core foundation of the importation model (Grapendaal, 1990). The importation model challenges this closed system orientation, advocating for the systematic consideration of pre-prison encounters (Feld, 1981) and individualistic qualities of inmates, which are deemed to be the principle influential factors in the degree of code adherence (Irwin & Cressey, 1962; Hartnagel & Gillian, 1980; Asher, 1986). In spite of the sometimes oppositional arguments posed by these two models, in recent years, a number of authors have recognized that there is a need to amalgamate the two positions into a more comprehensive model to explain the nature of the inmate code (Hartnagel & Gillian, 1980; Krebs, 2002). This knowledge has led to the third model of assimilation- the ‘integration model' (Wellford 1967; Adams, 1992).

The existence of a prison “code” with explicit rules and principles remained largely unknown until Clemmer (1958) observed that an unwritten normative code inflicted a sense of loyalty upon the inmate subculture, shielding their welfare and survival (Clemmer, 1958 as cited in Johnson, et al., 1962; Winfree, Newbold & Tubb, 2002). To define this process of code adoption, Clemmer coined the term “prisonization” (Grapendaal, 1990; Mays & Winfree, 2009) or the “taking on in greater or lesser degree of the folkways, mores, customs and general culture of the penitentiary” (Clemmer, 1958, p. 299 as cited in Johnson, et al., 1962).

In the years succeeding Clemmer's (1958) pioneering research, sociologists became fascinated with the concept of prisonization and began to expand on the content that constituted the normative code (Winfree, et al., 2002). Early research literature on the content of the inmate code (for e.g. Sykes, 1958; Sykes and Messinger, 1960 as cited in Johnson, et al., 1962) emphasized a number of cyclic themes including: “(1) maxims that caution- ‘don't interfere with inmate interests', ‘never rat on a con', and ‘be loyal to your class of cons' (2) injunctions to refrain from arguments with fellow inmates- ‘don't lose your head', and ‘play it cool and do your own time' (3) admonitions to avoid the exploitation of others- ‘don't exploit inmates' and ‘be right' (4) rules which advise the maintenance of self- ‘don't weaken' and ‘be tough- be a man' and (5) maxims which forbid giving prestige or respect to the prison staff- ‘don't be a sucker' and ‘be sharp' (Bartollas, Miller & Dinitz, 1975; pp. 33; also cited in Wellford, 1967; Liebling & Maruna, 2005; Mays and Winfree, 2009).

As reported by Sykes and Messinger (1960) inmates are “vehement” in their statements regarding approved behaviour (Sykes and Messinger, 1960; pp. 9 as cited in Johnson, et al., 1962), and thus the code is accorded “almost universal allegiance” (Liebling & Maruna, 2005; pp. 179). Other researchers, coinciding with this notion of code universality argue, notwithstanding the number and diversity of prison populations, that the code remains a markedly pervasive mediator of socialisation which inmates advocate collectively and with which they must identify (Sykes & Messinger, 1960 as cited in Johnson, et al., 1962). Any inmate, whose conduct infringes the norms of the code, confronts a diverse range of punishments spaning from physical and sexual violence, social ostracism and occasionally death (Sykes & Messinger, 1960 as cited in Johnson, et al., 1962).

The prison regimen stipulates acute barriers for adequate inmate assimilation (Einat & Einat, 2000). As highlighted in studies carried out by Goffman (1961), institutional guidelines and their practical application enclose an apparent sense of mercilessness and malevolence towards inmates. One of the principle functions of a prison is to guarantee inmate subordination via the infliction of harsh penalties and strict regulations for noncompliance (Goffman, 1961; Einat & Einat, 2000). Consequently so, it is of little surprise that many inmates associate the prison and its regime with notions of cruelty and malice (Cole & Smith, 2010). As exemplified by Irwin's (1962), in order to overcome the callous and authoritarian environment formulated by prison administration, inmates seek out optimal ways to evade anguish and gain social support (Einat & Einat, 2000). Accordingly, McCorkle and Korn (1954) describe the cohesive inmate code as a functional method of providing prisoners with a significant social faction with which they bolster a sense of self worth and dignity (Bartollas, et al., 1979; Adams, 1992). Sykes & Messinger (1960) asserted that as the inmate moves in “the direction of solidarity, as demanded by the inmate code, the pains of imprisonment becomes less sever” (Sykes & Messinger, 1960; pp. 14 as cited in Johnson, et al., 1962).

In addition to acting as a binding agent for the inmate community, Mays and Winfree (2009) highlight that, “the code presents an organisation of criminal values in clear cut opposition to the values of conventional society, and to prison officials as that society's agent” (Mays & Winfree, 2009; pp. 194). As a rule, inmates tied to the codes sense of solidarity, relate to the prison authorities in a negative manner, expressing contempt and tremendous anger toward them (Einat & Einat, 2000). The code allows prisoner's to "reject their rejectors rather than themselves" (McCorkle and Korn 1954, pp. 88). In this way the inmate code is regarded as crimogenic because the inmate subculture gains efficacy, power and solidity from its collective denunciation of the prison staff, which operate as descriptors of the external punitive and rejecting society (Sykes & Messinger, 1960 as cited in Johnson, et al., 1962; Ramirez, 1984).

Socialisation literature on the inmate code primarily exploits two competing frames of thought within which to illustrate and translate prisoner's adoption of the inmate code (Akers, R. Hayner, N., & Gruninger, 1977); the importation and deprivation models (Gover, MacKenzie & Armstrong, 2000).

Deprivation theory can be traced back to early sociological research, including the works of Clemmer (1958) on ‘prisonization', in which he depicted the code as an adaptive retort to the deprivations intrinsic to imprisonment (Grapendaal, 1990; Stohr & Hemmens, 2004). Borrowing from Clemmer's original thought, Gresham Sykes and Sheldon Messinger, the chief exemplars of the deprivation model (Schwartz, 1971), maintained that the adoption by inmates of the prison subculture and values is a functional responses to what Gresham Sykes (1958) in his classic study ‘The Society of Captives', termed the "pains of imprisonment" (Sykes, 1958; Goffman, 1961; Thomas & Foster, 1973). In accordance with this formula, the inmate is alleged to undergo a diversity of frustrations, deprivations and mortifications that are indigenous to institutionalism (Sykes, 1958; Goffman, 1961; Hartnagel & Gillian, 1980; Ramirez, 1984), including the loss of goods and services, heterosexual relations, liberty, independence, and safety (Krebs, 2002; Cole & Smith, 2010). These distressing and autonomy stripping encounters are understood to be mitigated by way of involvement in and internalisation of the normative code (McCorkle & Korn, 1954; Ramirez, 1984).

Exercising the tenets of the deprivation model many academics have conducted research analysing prison-specific factors that influence the degree of code assimilation (Gover, et al., 2000). One of the strongest examples to highlighting the derivation models principle concepts is the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, conducted by Professor Phillip Zimbardo (Liebling & Maruna, 2005; Pollock, 2006). Within this study, twenty five average male college students were randomly assigned either the role of prisoners or guards in a simulated mock prison, housed in the basement of the psychology department (Haney, Banks & Zimbardo, 1973). These psychologically healthy, normal college students (Pollock, 2006), whom displayed no personal characteristics or background of violence, gang membership, or generally irresponsible behaviours (Liebling & Maruna, 2005), were momentarily but considerably altered by the influential power of the prison environment (Haney, et al., 1973). Haney and Zimbardo (1998) explain:

“Otherwise emotionally strong college students who were randomly assigned to be mock prisoners suffered acute psychological trauma and breakdowns. Some of the students begged to be released from the intense pains of less than a week of merely stimulated imprisonment, where as others adapted be becoming blindly obedient to the unjust authority of the guards” (Haney and Zimbardo, 1998, pp. 709).

In addition there was evidence of “inmates” overtly disobeying guards, surrendering, exiling fellow inmates, and even coordinating united efforts to undermine the staff (Pollock, 2006). Ultimately Zimbardo's controlled prison study exposed the astonishing control of the prison surrounding to manipulate those who are incapacitated in them (Haney et al., 1992; Haney & Zimbardo, 1998).

Although the deprivation model has found increasing support amongst the academic community there are those who asset that a disproportionate emphasis has been placed on the prison experience as the determinant of prison behaviour (Schwartz, 1971; Stohr & Hemmens, 2004). As highlighted by Irwin and Cressey (1962) there has been a growing consensus in the literature to focus discussions of code adherence primarily “in terms suggesting that the behaviours systems of various types of inmates stem from the conditions of imprisonment themselves…there has been a glossing over of the older notion that inmates bring a culture with them into prison” (Irwin & Cressey, 1962; pp. 225). As a means of closing this gap in the literature, the importation model was formulated by Clarence Schrag (1961) (Schwartz, 1971). Schrag alleged that the ideals of the prison subculture are imported into prison from the outside world (Schrag, 1961; Krebs, 2002). Essentially, importationalists dispute the claim that the prison is a closed system in which inmates adopt the code as a means of mitigating deprivational factors (Schrag, 1961; Irwin & Cressey, 1962). Rather offenders cultivate specified viewpoints in society and these inclinations remain integral upon arrival into the prison system (Krebs, 2002). In this way Irwin and Cressey (1962) saw inmate behaviour as merely an extension of previously externally held norms, attitudes, and incentives. In accordance with this perspective the characteristics of the individual precede factors associated with incarceration (Akers, et al., 1977). Personal attributed such as race, age, social class, educational attainment prior to arrest, pre-prison employment, income prior to incarceration, and prior criminal history, are critical factors in determining modes of inmate adjustment (Akers, et al., 1977; Adams, 1992; Gover, et al., 2000).

A key example to demonstrate the importation model is Asher's 1986 study of juvenile delinquents at Turana Youth Training Center. Asher's research aimed to observe and evaluate the methods in which male juveniles encountered and adjusted to institutional confinement (Asher, 1986). Through interviewing the Turana youths, Asher observed those juveniles from particular areas such as Broadmeadows, Prahran, Preston and those from identifiable gangs such as the Flinders Street Sharpies were inclined to band together within the prison (Asher, 1986). Drawing from this study, the code presents to be “more applicable to social interactions in the outside milieux among the boys valued peer groups” (Asher, 1986; pp 128). The subcultures that emerged within Asher's study are a clear demonstration of how specific mechanisms of the inmate social system subsist in the outside population and follow inmates into the institution, determining inmate conduct, the nature of the subculture, and inmate values (Irwin & Cressey, 1962; Krebs, 2002).

Traditionally the deprivation and importation models have been cast as mutually exclusive explanations of inmate behavior (Grapendaal, 1990; Krebs, 2002). Early researchers endorsed either the importation model which seeks to measure the extent to which inmates transport their subcultures into the prison system, or they endorsed the deprivation model and attempted to verify to what extent inmates adjust to imprisonment by adhering to the institutionally born inmate code (Wellford 1967; Akers, et al., 1977; Grapendaal, 1990; Krebs, 2002). In spite of the insight afforded by these models of adaption, a number of academics have arrived at the realisation that the greatest potential for advancing our comprehension of the inmate code is to integrate the two theories into a more comprehensive model (integration studies include Akers, et al., 1977; Grapendaal, 1990; Krebs, 2002).

Krebs' (2002) study, concentrating on inter-prison high risk HIV transmission, is a prime exemplar of how an integration theoretical framework can be employed to examine prison subculture behaviour. Data from this study indentifies various pre-prison lifestyle characteristics that place certain inmates at risk of contracting HIV (Krebs, 2002). As highlighted by Irwin (1970), inmates who partake in homosexual relations within prisons are either “true” homosexuals who resume participation in homosexual relations whilst imprisoned, “submissive” inmates whom become victims of rape, and “control” inmates who desire to sexually dominate others (Irwin, 1970). Homosexual relations in prison pose as high risk HIV behaviours because many prisoners do not have access to clean condoms or safe practises (Stohr & Hemmens, 2004). Krebs (2002) also recognized inmates who import their drug use/injection behaviours into prison, where sterile needles and safe injecting practises are foreign (also in Cole & Smith, 2010). Though these high risk factors are evidently supportive of the importation model of adaption, Krebs (2002) also distinguished characteristics associated to the deprivation model of behavior (Krebs, 2002). A significant number of inmates enter the prison system with no sign of importing pre-prison HIV risk behaviours; however subsequent to the experience of the derivational conditions of confinement, several react through high risk behaviours (Krebs, 2002). The deprivations of heterosexual relations are often mitigated via experimental sexual activity with same sex inmates (Adams, 1992). Others respond to the deprivations of imprisonment by seeking psychological escape in the form of intravenous drugs (Krebs, 2002). The risk of these behaviours is exacerbated by the reality that many inmates do not have access to clean needles or condoms (Krebs, 2002; Cole & Smith, 2010). Ultimately this case example highlights the integration model as a critical theory in lending insight into the deprivational circumstances in which the inmate code is adhered to and the individualistic characteristics of the inmate subculture who partake in adopting the code (Grapendaal, 1990).

Much of the ground breaking sociological literature analysing inmate adherence to the normative code draws on descriptors and concepts that are several decades old (Akers, et al., 1977). Early researchers focused their concerns on analysing notions of inmate solidarity and norms formulated at a time when prison conditions and the inmate population was substantially different to contemporary prison settings (Cole & Smith, 2010). Accordingly, modern inmate behaviour is perhaps being appraised against a stencil of discarded ideals of conduct that are no longer employed to navigate inmate activities (Liebling & Maruna, 2005).

Several early theoretical studies examining the inmate code made fleeting citation to racial heterogeneity, with the majority illustrating a picture of inmate homogeneity (Stohr & Hemmens, 2004). However the white dominated prisons described by Irwin and Cressey (1962) have changed significantly over the years, with a substantial increase in ethnic minorities and gang affiliated members entering prisons (Irwin & Cressey, 1962; Johnson, 2002; Pollock, 2006). According to Jacobs (1977) African American inmates form more cohesive cliques or gangs within prison, than their fellow Caucasian counterparts. It is argued that “Black” inmates are more successful at adjusting to the prison culture because many have come from the same gang or ghetto and due to racial unity based on pre-prison discrimination (Stohr & Hemmens, 2004). In this way, inmate associations are typified as weakly detached and loyalty to an “inmate class” has malformed to “loyalty to one's race, ethnic group, clique or gang” (Mays & Winfree, 2009, pp. 199).

Drugs in prison have also become of significant factor in undermining inmate solidarity, often serving to countermand the superiority of collective inmate loyalty. In a study carried out by Einat and Einat (2000), several inmates testified to partaking in drug educed debt related violence and theft and readily admitted to betraying fellow drug uses and the code for the sake of obtaining or concealing personal drug supply (also found in Liebling & Maruna, 2005; Cole & Smith, 2010).

New instruments of institutional management, including early/ temporary release and privilege incentive systems, function as mitigating factors that stimulate prisoners need to abide by administration regimes (Liebling & Maruna, 2005).

“Here…..people don't want to stick together. Even though it would work in their benefit if there did stick together. But at the same time you think- Well, if we stick together, officers are going to take my enhance status off me and I'm going to lose my job. Is it worth the risk…..I don't think so…….. I'd rather keep my enhanced and make life a little bit easier” (Liebling & Maruna, 2005; pp. 181).

Utilising this method of thought, dedication to one's principle clique is not beyond negotiation (Pollock, 2006). It is generally acknowledged that inmates can characterize their confines of loyalty based on disregarding actions that endanger or protract their movement through the system (Liebling & Maruna, 2005).
Ultimately though the inmate code has not vanished form prison institutions, the contemporary code is no longer a single, overarching system of proscription (Pollock, 2006; Cole & Smith, 2010). Rather the code has been fragmented and transformed considerably with many prisoners seeking loyalty following racial and individual lines (Jacobs, 1977; Mays & Winfree, 2009).

The inmate code symbolises a vital and pragmatic theoretical foundation utilised by sociologists to analyse penal subculture adoption (Liebling & Maruna, 2005). Identified as the idealised template of the inmate behaviour, the ‘code' has been examined by two competing models of thought- the ‘deprivation model' which seeks to analyse the deprivations indigenous to the prison environment (Wellford, 1967) and the ‘importation model' which highlights the inmate system as simply a reflection of subcultures existing outside the prisons and which inmates transport into the institution (Irwin & Cressey, 1962; Asher, 1986). In addition to these two models, many studies have found supportive evidence for both perspectives with researchers asserting the need to amalgamate the two theories into a more inclusive model of inmate code adherence (Wellford 1967; Hartnagel & Gillan, 1980; Adams, 1992). Historically, these early models have offered crucial insight into the specific factors, both environment and individual, that result in the development and maintenance of the prison subculture and corresponding code (Krebs, 2002).

However, as noted by Simon's (2000) contemporary studies focusing on the inner life of the prison is almost non existent. Indeed, there are few detailed, descriptions of the everyday social structure, values and practises of the modern prison system that has undergone significant change in recent years (Liebling & Maruna, 2005). For instances, recent accounts highlight the influence of racial heterogeneity, gang and clique formation and the development of a serious drug culture within prisons as factors that have caused the need for solidarity to erode substantially (Cole & Smith, 2010). Prison researchers are in danger of losing sight of the shifts in the transformation of the contemporary normative system because they are blinded by early theories that may be nothing but historical artefacts (Irwin, 1970; Winfree, et al., 2002; Liebling & Maruna, 2005).

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