the criminology and criminal justice network
The prison as we know it is a social institution or an agent of the state as Gresham Sykes calls it, that houses and confines convicted individuals (the increasing amount of wrongful convictions have proved that they all are not criminals) serving sentences of one year or more. Due to mass media and the prevalence of fictional crime dramas, misconceptions of prison and prison life has heavily influenced the public consensus on the actualities of life behind bars. Moreover, misconceptions of prison life have led the public to believe that the only confinement within the prison setting are the walls, bars, and correctional personnel. However, the restraints unseen by the free world are the psychological restraints enforced by the prison setting, staff, and the barbaric living conditions in every maximum security prison.
The setting of most maximum security prisons especially in the United States, are located in rural areas far from any urban landmarks such as malls, theme parks, and nightclubs. The location in itself reminds those convicted individuals especially of color, of a time period which their great grandparents lived in and experienced the racial bigotry of white plantation owners. The analogy of the prison setting and slavery is one that carries much validity. The overt white supremacist acts committed during the 19th century have not vanished, they have simply been redesigned and assimilated into America's penal system. The resemblance of an oppressive era has great effect on the mind of the inmate because he foresees the institutionalized oppression before he even arrives to his new home of literally brick and mortar. According to Gresham Sykes (1958), "The society of prisoners, however, is not only physically compressed; it is psychologically compressed as well, since prisoners live in an enforced intimacy where each man's behavior is subject both to the constant scrutiny of his fellow captives and the surveillance of the custodians" (p. 4). The psychological restraints imposed by the correctional staff increases the pains of imprisonment and keeps the inmate depressed, repressed, and oppressed.
To the outside world looking in, correctional officers are the police inside prison. The simplicity of that notion would be perfect if the prison society was that simple. Unfortunately, the society behind prison walls is much more complex and far more catastrophic than apparent to the outside world. As a "dog eat dog" world in which correctional staff often take part in, the prison holds a power matrix between the guards and the inmates. The constant threat and fear of an inmate revolution frightens prison guards, therefore they use paramilitary tactics to consistently reinforce their superiority. On the other hand, the prison is a permanent home for the inmates until their sentence is completed which means they often see the vulnerability of correctional staff to engage in criminal activity within the prison underground economy. Also, the superior status of the prison guards are often internalized and used to aggressively enforce that superiority over the helpless inmates. Many inmate-staff assaults take place not because of rebellion as the media portrays it, but because of the built up rage from being physically abused and psychologically castrated by correctional staff. So to refer back to the notion that correctional officers are the police inside prison, who is policing the correctional officers inside prison?
The living conditions inside prison have been the complaint of many offenders throughout America's penal history. The humanity of the convicted individual is stripped right from under him once he enters the prison. According to Gresham Sykes (1958), "In a very fundamental sense, a man perpetually locked by himself in a cage is no longer a man at all; rather, he is a semi-human object, an organism with a number" (p. 6). The identity of the inmate is replaced with a number that has no personality, emotion, or life. The prisoner is essentially a dead man walking. Every man in society is known by at least one or many things whether its his name, character, personality, or status. However, in a prison setting, no man is considered a human being because a human being has an identity. This is why convicted individuals are called inmate, prisoner, or convict, after he enters the prison and even after he is released back into society. This in result leaves the offender psychologically wounded and restrained because he no longer views himself as a man. A man provides for himself and his family, but an inmate has no responsibility in prison. His every move is controlled by the correctional staff who sometimes use their position and power to oppress the inmates. Each and every day the inmate is attempting the break loose from the psychological restraints that overpower the physical restraints that the free world can only see.
The reality of what prisoners endure in prison may never be understood by the free world, however a change in media portrayals may create a more accurate picture of what really goes on in prison. Before penal policy changes, the public consensus must change. The sooner the public consensus changes, the sooner positive change within America's penal system in particular and America's criminal justice system in general changes.
Sykes, Gresham. (1958). The Society of Captives. NJ: Princeton University Press.
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