Prison is a place where, for the protection of society, those found guilty of crimes are sent to be incarcerated. Prisons are a relative new invention, being created in the modern world, and therefore the social effects on inmates are not well-known. It is known that within prisons, the inmates go through a process by which they are transformed from members of society in general, to members of a prison society. The rules, responsibilities, obligations, and relationships are all very different to the outside world. In order to understand the society which is created when a group of criminals are confined together, researchers have studied the social dynamics of prison life. These researchers have begun to understand the changes in an inmate's psychology as they transform from a traditional member of human society to a member of a prison society. This essay will discuss the evolution of the prison system, the creation of societies with prisons, both male and female, as well as discuss the effects of prison society on the prison guards and staff.
French philosopher Michael Foucault, in his book Discipline and Punishment, extensively detailed the evolution of punishment in Western culture. Foucault asserted that during the Middle Ages, when Monarchies were the major form of government, the ruler was responsible for the dispensing of justice. As crime became seen as an offense against the ruler, it was the ruler who assumed to undertake the dispensing of punishment. Torture and execution were the most common forms of punishment at this time, but because they were dispensed unevenly and in an ineffective manor, executions became more of a form of political statement than a state sponsored form of social punishment. As Foucault stated, "The public execution is to be understood not only as judicial, but also as a political ritual." (Foucault, 1995, p. 47) This later evolved into a period where individual communities assumed the responsibility for dispensing justice and the idea that public punishment was an effective form of justice became part of Western thought.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, great social changes made their way into Western culture. The idea of organizing mass numbers of people toward a specific goal became part of the Western way of life. Discipline, as this concept was called, also influenced the idea of punishment and justice. Through the concept of discipline, it became possible, to organize and control large numbers of criminals in a system. A system that not only organized the inmates in a disciplined manner, but also the support structures necessary for the entire justice system. Prisons required builders, guards, doctors, supplies, probation officers, etc., and an entire system was formed, and it was based on scientific principles.
Once a system of prisons is in place, the question of what happens to a person when they enter that system becomes important. Donald Clemmer discussed the concept of "prisonization" as a sociological and psychological process by which individuals become acclimated to the environment inside the prison system. Clemmer was careful to point out that prisonization is not the same as assimilation, which involves the merging of individuals and groups. Prisonization, according to Clemmer, begins when the individual enters the system and is "swallowed by the system." The individual must adapt to the conditions inside the prison, "wising up" as fast as possible and accept that they are now in an inferior position in relation to the rest of society, but most particularly to the guards and other prison personnel. New inmates must learn the daily routine that they will be forced to endure, as well as the values and the language of prison society. How well they become prisonized depends to a great deal on the nature of the individual and the amount of contact and support they receive from the outside world.
As Foucault asserted, in the past those who were punished usually received physical pain or death, but the modern world sees this type of punishment as inhumane, and so the idea that an inmate should be physically harmed is no longer considered a sound punitive measure. But Gresham Sykes discussed the idea that simply being incarcerated in a prison system can inflict pain on an individual, albeit, psychological and emotional pain. As Sykes asserts "the depredation or frustrations of prison life today might be viewed as punishments which the free community deliberately inflicts on the offender for violating the law." (Sykes, 1971, p. 285) Just the act of depriving an inmate of liberty, ordinary goods and services, heterosexual relations, autonomy, and security is a type of pain that can be inflicted on a person in prison, according to Sykes.
Once inside a prison, the inmates form a type of society that is unlike anything on the outside. Sykes, along with Sheldon Messinger, in the 1960 book Theoretical Studies in the Social Organization of the Prison discussed the inmate social system. "This value system commonly takes the form of an explicit code, in which brief normative imperatives are held forth as guides for the behavior of the inmate in his relations with fellow prisoners and custodians." (Sykes and Messinger, 1960, pp. 5-11) The authors assert that there are five main rules that inmates must accept as part of the social norms in prison. First of all do not interfere in the interests of other inmates, keep to yourself. Second, do not lose your head and get into trouble. Third, do not exploit other inmates. Fourth, never weaken or lose your resolve to continue, if you do, you will be destroyed. And finally, don't be a sucker, always remember that it is inmates against all others; and inmates should not allow themselves to become used by the system against other inmates.
Foucault, Clemmer, Sykes, and Messinger all researched prison populations, but only studied prisons with male populations. As Rose Giollombardo discussed in Society of Women, the system of social values in a prison populated by women is quite different. The vast majority of inmates adapt to prison life by establishing a lesbian relationship as a marriage unit. "Marriage alliances, family groups, and other kinship ties formed by the inmates integrate inmates into a meaningful social system." (Giollombardo, 1966, p. 270) Unlike male prisons, sexual relationships in female prisons are not coerced, but made willingly between consensual partners.
In the study of the prison system, in is important to study the relationship between the inmates and the officers in charge of their incarceration; the prison guards and staff. In 1973, researchers at Stanford University conducted a famous experiment where students simulated a prison experience from the point-of-view of the prisoners and the guards. While the experiment was slated to last 14 days, it was cancelled after just 6 days because, as the researchers state on their web site, "our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress." (Zimbardo, 1973) While this particular experiment has been touted as the extreme to which prison can affect people, critics claim that a simulation is not the best way to discover the social effects of prison. And since this experiment was conducted in 1973, this type of simulation has not been widely repeated.
When it comes to an analysis of the prison system, it is difficult to argue with the positions of the mentioned authors, as their studies were mainly observational in nature. But their observations do shed light on the changes in social structures that inmates must face when entering prison society. With the advent of the modern prison system, inmates have created a new type of society, separate from society in general, and have gone on to develop independent values, attitudes, language, and relationships. And this prison society not only affects the inmates, but the guards and staff as well.