Prison Culture

Published 22 Dec 2016

It is commonly acknowledged that in prisons, inmates’ influence on one another deepens criminal behavior that is already present. Inmates begin to learn the criminal ideology of the correctional facility. Generally, they also develop new habits of dressing, sleeping, eating. They develop a new language and become dependent upon others for food, work assignments, and protection. Further on, inmates without allies can find their time difficult. In order to better ensure self-protection, then, it is only natural that an inpidual inmate turns toward a gang affiliation, even within a context of zero tolerance of gang formation by institutional policy.

Even within the restricted confines of a prison, gangs may have as much influence as they would normally have on streets. All such close-knit interactions between inmates and group dynamics inside a prison create and reinforce a distinct prison subculture. There develops a general culture of the penitentiary, in terms of folkways, mores, customs, as well as language (Hensley 2002).

Language is normally very closely associated with culture. In prisons, the fact that inmates have a “language” to relate to the experiences of their daily life inside, with gangs communicating in a lingo interlaced with special terminologies, reflects the extent of prevalence and influence of prison culture upon inmates. A prison culture helps create a sense of identity, encourages a set of expected behaviors, and promotes distinct goals in the actions of those people who are incarcerated (Huft, Kite 2003). The prison culture, in effect, becomes a synthetic culture bringing together people from various criminal backgrounds, levels of education, cultures and ethnicities to share a new set of values and attitudes that would better suit the conditions of the prison.

Any culture in normal human society consists of distinctive characteristics in regard to values and norms, beliefs and attitudes of the people that constitute it; a culture also covers such perse areas as relationships, communication and language, sense of self and space, appearance and dress, work habits and practices, and food and eating habits of the people, in short it creates a special mould for the entire lifestyle of a people making up a community. Prison cultures, even within often their highly abnormal settings, mirror cultures of normal societies in terms their wide-ranging influence on the thoughts and behavior of people.

However, when compared to cultural patterns in normal societies, the cultural norms within prison societies appear highly skewed and understandably so, given the overly oppressive, dangerous and debilitating environment of a typical large-scale prison. There is a marked tendency for prison cultures to value order and obedience, power over the weak or disenfranchised, and strict adherence to policies and procedures. Such authoritative and fascist regime is almost inevitable in view of criminal psychology that understands only the language of power and not that of fairness and equality. As a consequence, many prisons are characterized by a culture of fear. Further, minorities are often over-represented in prison, and such a situation can lead to an overt manifestation of racism and sexism from the side of prison staff as well as bullies in the dominant group of a prison.

Often, drugs and alcohol would have affected a very high percent of inmates in their former lives, and prisons normally encourage this tendency by making way for widespread use of drugs. Physical and mental abuse in various senses of the word would also be a common and fairly accepted practice among offenders inside a prision. Prison is a place that is concerned with the issue of security over and above anything else, in order to see that offenders do not escape or commit more atrocities within the prison; as a result, prison culture reflects this high orientation towards security, with inmates being kept excessively powerless so that they are forced to rely on correctional officers for too many number of reasons.

Many adult offenders would have served considerable time in juvenile correctional facilities and thus been acculturated to the social and material conditions of prison. However, many other offenders would experience culture shock and psychological disorientation upon entering a prison community. The prison would seem a strange environment demanding considerable degree of adaptation. The new inmates would have to quickly learn to adhere to sets of formal and informal policies dictating every act of theirs from those concerning eating and sleeping to dressing and speaking and work schedules. It must be remembered that the new inmates would have hard time in adjusting to lack of privacy and isolation from family and social support systems.

These freshly convicted offenders would soon grasp the peculiar vocabulary and gestures that would make them better fit in their new environment. They would quickly identify the power hierarchy within the offenders and within the staff, as well as in between the inmates and the staff. The ruthlessness and lack of mercy inside a prison must be stressed in this context. Offenders with physical or mental problems or other evident weaknesses would be extremely vulnerable for victimization. However, the common misery they experience, in terms of deprivation of goods and services, love and sexual relationships, and inpidual autonomy helps in forming a particularly strong bond among the inmates and therefore often a surprising unity characterizes prison culture.

Since the 1970s, the United States has experienced the greatest increase in the number of new prisons. And it only seems to be accelerating every day. Currently the U.S. has a prison inmate rate of 724 for every 100,000 people of general population — up from 505 in 1992 (Walmsley 2005). This increase basically reflects the change of emphasis of penal policy from one of rehabilitation to one of containment and incapacitation. There are several other factors such as citizens’ greater fear of crime and an increase in media coverage and attention as crime has become a burning issue in our society, increased length and severity of new sentencing laws and guidelines, and war on drugs, which have aggravated the overcrowding situation inside the prisons.

Overcrowding is becoming a fundamental characteristic of our prisons, and is making rehabilitation and moral upliftment of prisoners increasingly difficult; and instead is leading to deterioration of norms and values of inmates as well as the general environment inside the prison. Efforts to carry out educative and therapeutic work with offenders are often severely hindered by a range of problems associated with overcrowding – excessive burdens made on prison staff, lack of oversight and lack of purposeful activity, in addition to the widespread availability and use of narcotic drugs. As it is, generally low levels of formal education, socially disadvantaged backgrounds, and a deficit in vocational skills in general characterize the prison population. Added to these, the overcrowding factor is making it difficult for prisoners to reform themselves to higher standards of culture and morality.

Unfortunately, lack of any provision for effective rehabilitation in the prisons of modern day is an important cause for creating the overcrowding conditions inside the prison, and this overcrowding is in turn making it very difficult to effect rehabilitation schemes. Thus the situation is developing into a vicious circle, which is only likely to worsen in the future. Far from being conducive to the moral reform of the prisoners, our prisons have in effect become “an expensive way of making bad people worse” (Wilson 2006). This is a statement not just on prison culture but the general culture, or still the lack of it, in our modern ‘civilized’ society.


  • Hensley, C. 2002. Prison Sex: Practice and Policy. Boulder, Colarado : Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc.
  • Hufft, A, & Kite, M. M. 2003. Vulnerable and Cultural Perspectives for Nursing Care in Correctional Systems. Journal of Multicultural Nursing & Health. Winter 2003. Retrieved 2 October 2006
  • Walmsley, R. 2005. World Prison Population List. Sixth edition. International Centre for Prison Studies. King’s College, London. Retrieved 2 October 2006 from
  • Wilson, D. 2006. Prisons and How to Get Rid of Them. Public Management and Policy Association. PMPA Review. May 2006. Vol 33. Retrieved 2 October 2006 from
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