Sociological Theory: The Culture of Prisons    by    Ruth Utnage

Before I came to prison I had one view of prisons and it was something like this:

Person A commits crime and commits that crime understanding that prison is a really terrible place where violence is standard. Therefore, Person A, deserves whatever violence happens to them in prison, because Person A knew what they were getting into.

That was my view and if you were to ask me how to make prisons more effective I would have said:

Get tougher. Take away their toys like TVs and stop coddling them. When they riot, shoot them, if they hunger strike let them starve. Punish, punish, punish. Make the system savagely difficult to exist in. Make it so awful to live in that the word will spread not to commit crime because prison is truly awful. As for those in prison, they will comply with orders not to be violent or they will be shot, 100% of the time. It will only take a few to get the point across.

That was my view along with the view of everyone I ever spoke to about it. That was before I came to prison and got the little education I have.

I didn’t know back then that the “tougher” approach had already been exhausted. There was a time in our history where punishment was publicized and executions a “required attendance” event for families. Even more recently there has been brutal conditions inside incarceration that everyone knew was not humane, by design, yet crime persisted. It did nothing to deter crime. However it did produce even more damaged people.

Now that I’ve lived here, experienced most everything prison has to offer, the good and the bad, the humane and inhumane, I see that the most effective use of our prisons is to reeducate the prisoner.

There are 3 important sociological terms that need to be directly addressed by modern institutions: desocialization, resocialization, and anticipatory socialization.

In the military these things happen quite effectively. In prison, 2 of these things occur and the other is left unaddressed entirely. Can you guess what that might be? If you said resocialization, you’d be correct.

We anticipate what we should learn from stories and media, folklore even. This gets further enhanced in county jails where we learn our expected behavior from other inmates, we anticipate how we are to act once inside prison based on what we are hearing.

Then we get to prison and we must desocialize to survive. Societal norms, beliefs, and behaviors are unusually rejected inside prisons. Some remain, but new norms exist inside so that adaptation to its culture occurs. This is where resocialization occurs, and our prisons fatal flaw.

Prisoners are resocialized exclusively by other inmates. There are rules and regulations that are enforced by the system but those are unique adaptations to prison and do not mimic societal standards. Inmates do 90% of the policing in regards to attitudes, beliefs, behaviors and norms. What is resocialized in us is not healthy patterns but adaptation to this environment, which is not normal. We are abnormally resocialized.

This can be fixed and I will spend the rest of my life developing this theory and helping to correct our systems by using experience, not assumptions.

With Love
Ruth Utnage

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“A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engages him in their struggle, then by a thousand actions in their favor without that trust.” (“Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by Paulo Freire )