Subculture: Prison and Inmates

Topics: Prison, Crime, Gang Pages: 8 (2651 words) Published: September 25, 2005

In a valiant attempt to clean the streets of societies, criminals are put away in rehabilitation institutions called prisons. It was a belief that they would learn their mistakes, repent and rejoin societies as better people. On the contrary, what happened was the cultivation of an environment leading to the evolution of prison subculture. In a constant power struggle amongst nations, politicians and people within society, many fail to perceive or notice a battle of another sort. That is the battle of those trying to survive in an environment predominant with racism, hate, violence and gangs. Prison subculture evolved, when doing time wasn't just about doing your time but became an intricate experience of politics, power, domination and overall supremacy. They formed a definite opposition against mainstream culture as its members felt that they have been ostracized and segregated as misfits. As criminals, they have nothing to lose and everything to go against. Prisoners follow the ‘inmate code' where meanings were mainly circulated throughout the prison through pledges of allegiance, tattoos, racial identities and physical strength over others. This communication was vital as it identified the member with a specific group and provided protection for him. Semiotic analysis and performance theories on this subculture further reveals the structure and how the norms are very similar to mainstream culture, only that it's at the other end of the spectrum. There is however a debate on whether the subculture was bred within the walls of the prison or brought into the prison from the mainstream cultures itself.


Ancient civilizations bore evidence of prison structures, which consisted of a vast network of dungeons under the city's main sewer. These subterranean cells held political dissidents and criminals for short periods of time in cramped, miserable conditions. However it was not until the 15th century that long-term confinement became a form of criminal punishment. Almost every nation in the world today punishes its criminals by locking them up within the prison walls, the maximum period being up to a life sentence. Ruling government bodies took upon themselves to construct and operate these prisons. Nevertheless in some countries including the United States, private corporations are given contracts to build and run prisons for the government. The ideology behind imprisonment was the protection of the society, prevention of crime, retribution (revenge) against criminals and the rehabilitation of inmates. It is also a system where the wrong doers are punished and given a chance to repent inside the prison to reintegrate into the community following their sentences. Prison life was expected to cause the inmates to regret their criminal acts, and that when most prisoners are released they will be deterred from committing future crimes. The maximum punishment of incarceration of criminals also aimed to deter other individuals from following criminal behaviour for fear of that punishment. However the truth was that the social structure of prisons and prison practices actually impeded any form of rehabilitation and reintegration.

The prison became a learning institution for various types of criminals. The inmates acquired attitudes and knowledge from other inmates that improved their criminal skills and the desire to engage in a similar criminal behaviour upon release. American sociologist Erving Goffman has described U.S. prisons as "total institutions- that is, self-contained, self-sufficient social systems that are unique and distinct." Isolated within a total institution, inmates are cut off from the rights and responsibilities of society. This lack of connection with societal norms can prevent successful reintegration into society when inmates are released. This stand-alone environment developed its own code rules apart from the institutional rules that inmates had to abide. Thus,...

References: Prisoner Subcultures. Lexington Books: Lexington Mass, 1977
Chapter Six
John Hartley
Communication, Cultural and Media Studies, Third Edition, 2002
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