Defining Prison      by   Ruth Utnage

I want to work in the correctional system upon my release. Not to dismantle the “system” or to become part of the problem, but to make cultural adjustments that will result in more effective rehabilitation outcomes. Instead of pursuing the constant “tougher” stance on errants, pursue a more contemporary approach that takes into account recent behavioral science advances.

As the sciences begin to understand human development more accurately people, such as myself, are highly interested in the impacts of culture on inmates. Prison is a cultural identity unto itself. It differs from any other type of institution like hospitals, colleges and schools, and the military in that prison removes nearly all traces of normal societal culture and reintroduces virtually none. In the absence of a clearly defined cultural structure to assimilate into the inhabitants will invariably create one to follow. Hence our current prison system.

One of the problems inmates face is a lack of a class system that mimics societies. In free American society we have lower, middle and upper classes. Generally speaking, people will attempt to attain the status of upper class. Prison has no upper class. It has gang leaders and/or religious zealots (who are basically gang leaders sans the usual physical violence instead preferring a more psychological violence), those who have some type of infamy, and those who have an abundance of societal support (lots of mail, visitors, and contacts who are willing to provide frequent emotional and/or financial support). The most popular, by far, being societally supported. But therein is the problem. Educative, professional, and maturation status has little relevance in a class system that does not value such things.

Most criminology and sociology experts would agree that prison culture is largely defined by ones crime and ability to follow what’s known as “the convict code” ( a set of tacit rules followed by most inmates that are unusually specific to prison culture). But they are explicitly and unequivocally wrong. This assumption they make is based on a few voices who have a hard time defining their environment except for the definitions given to them but are willing to recite them to an outside source. However, do not forget the thing that inmates value most, contact with outsiders, and many will recite what they believe that particular outside individual wants to hear (or, more realistically, what the inmate thinks they want to hear) as to prolong contact, thus elevating social status among peers still inside prison. This makes confirmation bias or false results the likely outcome.

To get around this unforeseen and overlooked consequence of prison culture one must collect data from within the culture itself, as a part of. If we look at elements of light theory, particularly that of photons, certain photons have partners, marriages so to speak who under observation change normal behavior. Such is the case with inmates, under observation inmate behavior changes. Unlike photons, though, inmate behavior changes to meet the perceived expectations of the observer, even statistically.

This subject will be my course of study for the remainder of my life…

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 )