Sei sulla pagina 1di 9


The Law of the Iron Jungle Understanding the Prison Code and Prison Subculture Quincy Morgan Criminal Justice Research Methods Rutgers University December 10, 2012


For the first 150 years of their existence, prisons and prison life could be described by the phrase out of sight, out of mind. Very few citizens cared about prison conditions, and those unfortunate to be locked away were regarded as those that simply dropped off the face of the earth. Around the mid-1900s, beginning with the treatment era, these attitudes started to alter. Concerned citizens began to offer services to prison administrators, neighborhoods began to accept work-release programs and halfway houses, and social scientists initiated a serious study on prison life. The purpose of this study is to delve into the subculture of prisons and to explore the unspoken norms and rules that govern the inmates that roam within the iron walls. This inherent prison code is a prime example of the process of prisonization and the purpose of the study is intended to explore the prison subculture, how it has changed over time, and the effect it has on the prison inmates.

THE LAW OF THE IRON JUNGLE Introduction & Background Two social realities coexist in the realm of prison life. One is the official structure of rules and procedures put in effect by the outside society and enforced by the prison administration. The other world is the more informal but decidedly more powerful inmate world

(Clear, Cole, & Reisig, 2011). This world, best derived from its pervasive immediacy to the lives of the inmates, is controlled by prison subculture, which is the values and behavioral patterns characteristic of prison inmates (Clear, Cole, & Reisig, 2011). The realities of prison life including a large and often densely packed inmate population which must look to the prison environment for all its needs mean that prison subculture isnt easily subject to the control of the prison administration. Prison subcultures develop independently of the plans of the administrators, and inmates entering prison discover a social world not mentioned in any training session ever devised by correctional staff. Inmate concerns, values, roles, and even language weave a web of social reality into which new inmates step into and are compelled to participate in. Those who try to remain detached soon find themselves ostracized and even suspected to be among those in league with prison administrators (Neubauer & Fradella, 2011). The socialization of new inmates into the prison subculture has been described as a process of prisonization, which is the learning of convict values, attitudes, and roles, and even language. When the process is complete, new inmates become what are known as cons (Schmalleger, 2009). The values of the inmate social system are embodied in a code whose violations can produce sanctions ranging from ostracism and avoidance to physical violence and even homicide. Criminologists who explored this have recognized five elements of the prison code:

THE LAW OF THE IRON JUNGLE 1. Dont interfere with the interests of other inmates. Never rat on a con. 2. Dont lose your head. Play it cool and do your own time. 3. Dont exploit inmates. Dont steal. Dont break your word. Be right. 4. Dont whine. Be a man. 5. Dont be a sucker. Dont trust the guards or staff (Schmalleger, 2009). Different prisons share aspects of a common inmate culture, so that prisonwise inmates who enter a new facility far from their home will already know the ropes. Some criminologists speculate that inmate codes are simply a reflection of general criminal values (Schmalleger, 2009). If so, they are brought to the institution rather than created there. Either way, the power and pervasiveness of the inmate code require convicts to conform to the world view held by the majority of prisoners.

Type and Purpose of Research This type of research is more of an explanatory study, geared for correctional staff to better understand the attitudes and behaviors of prison inmates, so that they can possibly create policies that can benefit the inmates and help lessen the tension created between prison guards and the inmates. The purpose of the research also seeks to discover whether or not the prison code has changed much over time, and the effect the prison subculture has on inmates both in and out of prison.

Methodology Data Collection

THE LAW OF THE IRON JUNGLE One way to approach the collection of data for the study is through the use of interviews and questionnaires for inmates, asking them about their experiences in prison, the ways theyve coped with prison life, and how they feel prison life has affected them as a person. These

questions can lead to empirical evidence that can lead to possible theories surrounding the inmate code, such as the us versus them attitude between inmates and the prison guards (Maxfield, 2009). The following depicts possible interview questions that can be possibly asked of inmates, regarding the inmate code.
1: Possible Interview Questions

How often have you witnessed a fight break out among inmates in a month? Week? Have you ever felt deprived of basic human necessities while you were incarcerated? If so, how? Do you trust the guards to handle situations that you felt were too much to handle yourself? Has prison life altered your perceptions of peoples behavior outside of prison? If you knew that a prisoner was plotting to commit a major incident (such as breaking out or starting a riot), how likely are you to say anything to other inmates? To guards or prison personnel? When you leave prison, would you feel more relief or regret upon release?

Data Analysis Upon the completion of the data collection, the data would be cross referenced with similar interview questions made for the prison guards to see if any prison code rules are in common in different prisons, as well as in urban, suburban, and rural correctional facilities. I

THE LAW OF THE IRON JUNGLE would also cross-reference questions of how the prison subculture affects prison inmates on a social-psychological level in an urban, suburban, and rural setting. I hypothesize that a prison subculture does indeed exist within the walls of prisons, and that the internal and external elements surrounding prison life shape the inmate social world. Prison subcultures are very influential and must be reckoned by both inmates and staff. Given the large and often densely packed inmate populations which characterize many of todays prisons, however, prison subcultures may not be easily subject to the control of prison authorities (Schmalleger, 2009). Complicating life behind bars are numerous conflicts of interest between inmates and staff. Lawsuits, riots, violence, and frequent formal grievances are symptoms of such differences (Clear, Cole, & Reisig, 2011).

Strengths This type of research study has some strengths to back up the possible findings. One of the strengths includes a bounty of empirical research, based on the firsthand accounts from the prison inmates themselves. Their experience behind bars and their observation of prison subculture is essential to provide valuable empirical information for the study (Maxfield, 2009). Also, there is the strength of the multiple tests, establishing the validity and reliability that is needed for the research study (Maxfield, 2009). There is a clear independent and dependent variable present in the study; the independent variable is the subculture, whereas the prison inmates are the dependent variable. When these two encounter each other, the subculture forces the prison inmates to undergo prisonization, turning them into members of an innate society within the prison walls (Schmalleger, 2009).

THE LAW OF THE IRON JUNGLE Weaknesses However, with all strengths, there are weaknesses that accompany a research study like this one. There are numerous threats to validity that can affect the findings of the study. One threat to validity is the testing validity threat, where the inmates preoccupation with the questionnaires themselves might influence their response (Maxfield, 2009). The inmates may be

secretive and not willing to divulge information about the prison code, fearing that they may give too much information and that it may come back to haunt them during their tenure in prison. Another validity threat is experimental mortality, where subject are withdrawn from the experiment before it has been completed (Maxfield, 2009). Some inmates may be transferred to another facility or become incapacitated, or even injured or killed before the experiment concludes, so that affects the data of the experiment. Another possible weakness in the study to consider is the external validity threats. Inconsistent results in experiments conducted in different facilities may alter the statistical conclusion, which is a threat to the research study (Maxfield, 2009). There is a possibility that there are inconsistent responses on the prison code, which provides an unclear picture of prison subculture in the broad sense. It can be likened to having a jigsaw puzzle with only half of the required pieces.

Findings & Areas of Future Research The intent of the research study is to determine that an unspoken social world exists within the walls of the prison, uniting inmates with a silent pact that relies solely on each other to provide for their own needs, becoming independent of the prison administration and the outer world. By understanding the prison code better, we can understand better of how prison life

THE LAW OF THE IRON JUNGLE affects convicted offenders as they serve their sentence behind bars and possibly come up with ways we can ease the tension between the inmates and the guards. One area that can be further researched is whether the prison code is limited by gender, and if female prisoners are bound by the same prison code as their male counterparts. The same question could also apply to juvenile offenders serving time in detention facilities or offenders living in alternative correctional facilities such as halfway houses. Studies of prison life have detailed the existence of prison subcultures, or innate worlds, replete with inmate values, social roles, and lifestyles. It is the hope that with this study, we can better understand how this subculture has affected the mind of these criminals and can better rehabilitate them for reentry into society.

THE LAW OF THE IRON JUNGLE References Clear, T. R., Cole, G. F., & Reisig, M. D. (2011). American Corrections (9th ed.). Belmont, California: Wadsworth.

Maxfield, M. G. (2009). Basics of Research Methods for Criminal Justice and Criminology (2nd ed.). Belmont: Wadsworth. Neubauer, D. W., & Fradella, H. F. (2011). America's Courts and the Criminal Justice System (10th ed.). Belmont: Wadsworth. Schmalleger, F. (2009). Criminal Justice Today: An Introductory Text for the 21st Century. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.