The sociology of imprisonment

Authored by: Ben Crewe

Handbook on Prisons

Print publication date:  February  2016
Online publication date:  February  2016

Print ISBN: 9780415745659
eBook ISBN: 9781315797779
Adobe ISBN:


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It is because of the prison’s social role and function that studies of its interior life always hold more than abstract or intrinsic interest. At the same time, the prison’s distinctive qualities – pain, deprivation, inequalities of power, social compression – are such that its inner world provides particularly striking illustrations of a range of social phenomena. There are few other environments in which the relationship between constraint and agency can be so clearly observed, in which the consequences of power and powerlessness are so vividly manifested, and in which groups with divergent values and interests are put into such close proximity. Few other social contexts expose so barely the terms of friendship, conflict, loyalty and alienation, make questions of order and stability so germane, or bring into such sharp relief the qualities and capacities of humanity and inhumanity. Such issues will be returned to throughout this chapter, following a detailed exposition of Sykes’s The Society of Captives, which will provide the basis for discussion of a range of debates, concepts and concerns. The chapter’s main focus will be the inner world of the prison rather than its broader social and political functions. 1 However, in elaborating the debate about how prison culture is best explained, the chapter will explore the relationship between the prison and its external environment as well as its interior features.

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