Inmate Code and Prison Culture

Authored by: Eileen M. Ahlin , Don Hummer , Daniela Barberi

Routledge Handbook of Corrections in the United States

Print publication date:  September  2017
Online publication date:  September  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138183353
eBook ISBN: 9781315645179
Adobe ISBN:


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Inmate violence and adaptations to prison life via the inmate code are depicted quite vividly in popular culture, including movies (e.g., Shawshank Redemption, Attica), television shows (e.g., Orange is the New Black), and first-person accounts (e.g., In the Belly of the Beast). Scholarly literature on the topic is equally powerful, detailing the inter-workings of prison life often through the qualitative narratives of inmates and correctional officers that demonstrate how prisons—a total institution where all aspects of inmates’ lives are governed by the state or federal government (see Goffman 1961)—operate and routinely maintain order among those who were convicted of violating the social contract. Some of the earliest scholarly writings on the inmate code and prison culture can be dated to 1940 when Donald Clemmer wrote “The Prison Community”. This important piece was further developed in 1962 when sociologists John Irwin (a former inmate) and Donald Cressey described how inmates adapt to the prison environment using the skills and attitudes already possessed by those convicted of crimes. These classic writings shaped the academic study of the inmate code and prison culture; however, Garland and Wilson’s study (2013) evidenced a problem in this line of research. As the authors mentioned, research about inmates’ belief system and adaptations to prison life is in dire need of updating. The inmate code and prison culture is currently under studied in the modern era. Much has changed in prisons and among offenders since the original inmate code and prison culture studies were published in the mid-twentieth century and it is not clear whether the classical literature applies to prisons and their inmates in contemporary times. According to Trammell (2009a: 748), the prison setting of today is substantially different than prisons of the past: “American prisons now hold ten times more inmates than they did in 1974 and this incarceration trend is unprecedented in the history of the United States.” To frame the current review of literature on the inmate code and prison violence, we begin with a contextualization of the current demographics of inmates in the U.S. to examine the evolution of the prison setting and how it has changed in recent history.

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