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Incarcerated Interactions

A Theory-Driven Analysis of Applied Prison Communication


Edited By Erik D. Fritsvold and Jonathan M. Bowman

Incarcerated Interactions: A Theory-Driven Analysis of Applied Prison Communication is an innovative, applied edited book that uses core interdisciplinary social science theories to analyze and describe the social psychology and sociology of communicative interactions amongst incarcerated individuals. Beginning with the fundamentals of human interactions, this edited volume allows scholars across a variety of disciplines (such as criminology, sociology, communication studies, social psychology, anthropology, and economics) to become familiar with and apply the core principles and the requisite terminology of human communication within a criminological context. Each of the four sections of the text not only build upon the knowledge structures of previous chapters, but also function as stand-alone analyses and/or applications of extant scholarship within essential contexts. From a general discussion of core social science theory to the specific application of that theory in a range of scholarly contexts, this book addresses relevant issues such as mental illness and wellness, the gendered experience of inmates, recidivism rates, violence, the criminogenic effect of incarceration and the large-scale implications of prison gangs and their associated cultural influence, to name a few.

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9. Us Versus Them: The Battle of Corrections : James Bennett

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9. Us Versus Them: The Battle of Corrections


I believe every man in this place hates and detests the system under which he lives. He hates it even when he gets along without friction. He hates it because he knows it is bad; for it tends to crush slowly but irresistibly the good in himself.


Almost a century later, Osborne’s commentary still proves a chillingly salient assessment of the United States’ corrections system. Since then, it has swelled to house over 2,300,000 incarcerated adult criminals, guarded by approximately 285,000 officers near its peak (US Department of Justice, 2000).1 Together, these two groups constitute the over 2.5 million Americans serving out portions, if not all, of their lives behind prison or jail walls; they represent the two sides—the in-group and the out-group—of corrections. Already, this twenty-two word, surface-level description of corrections offers poignant insight into the nature of industry. It does not correct, as the name implies, or even rehabilitate offenders; it manages them. The system takes charge of criminals, and the offenders must surrender authority over their own lives to it. This power dynamic lies at the heart of prison culture; it is the crux from which springs forth all other nuances of the institution. Prisons are nothing more than closed-off societies in which the guards, ultimately, possess complete control over the inmates. Through synthesis of the firsthand accounts of inmates, presented in Enforcing the Convict Code by Trammell (2012), and of officers, recounted by Conover in Newjack (2004), this paper seeks to explore the relationship between these two groups.

It must be noted that the research methods of these two primary sources may limit the boundaries of the conclusions posited in this paper. Trammell ← 89 | 90 → employed a snowball technique in order to access informants and she interviewed with open-ended questions, allowing her more in-depth information, but a non-generalizable sample. Her aim was to “update our understanding of prison violence and inmate culture by allowing those who lived in these facilities to explain the subtle nuances of prison norms and the social causes of violence” (Trammell, p. 6). Conover (2001), on the other hand, gained his material through participant observation, a method that provided him with a more complete experience but, again, it may not apply to all corrections officers. His “whole project … was to keep one foot in and the other out, to be self-consciously aware that what [he] was doing was an experience” to share with those who will never have (or desire) the opportunity (Conover, 2001, p. 243). The qualitative nature of these texts allows for a more thorough examination of the power struggle within American prisons.

Prison is about power, more than anything else. Conover explicitly states that “this job [i.e., serving as a correctional officer] was about maintaining power” (Conover, 2001, p. 295). Power is often described as one’s aptitude for impacting or influencing the accomplishment of goals, and, in a prison environment, it inherently lies in the hands of the correctional officers who, quite literally, possess the keys that control inmates’ lives. According to communications researchers Hollander and Offermann (1993), three forms of power exist, and this constitutes the first one: power over, or dominance. A clear-cut hierarchy exists between the officers and the inmates—the badges control the handcuffs—therefore characterizing the relationship as one of domination. However, studies illustrate that “the inequitable distribution of power leads to conflict, violence, and aggression.” In other words, the whole concept of modern prisons inherently fosters hostility between the convicts and those managing them. Those with less power (the inmates) basically have two choices: (a) defiance, all out rebellion, as would be the case in a riot, or (b) resistance, the more common method in which prisoners more subtly oppose the power of their overseers. This occurs, for example, when an inmate takes four waffles instead of three, or takes a shower out of turn, or smuggles drugs into the facility, or performs any of the myriad actions that go against the prison authorities (to cite a few from Newjack; Conover, 2001). Power is innate in all communication, but the prison environment heightens this aspect, as the one party constantly seeks to regain power by any means necessary. As Conover states, “In prison, unlike in the outside world, power and authority were at stake in nearly every transaction” (Conover, 2001, p. 98). In prison, inmates find themselves in a situation with no real control. In response to this affront, they seek to regain it through any behavior that allows them a sense of control. Thus, they seek power through the second ← 90 | 91 → form detailed by Hollander and Offermann (1993): “power from”, or resistance. In this sense, any power they gain arrives by subverting dominance. It is important to remember, however, that they pursue this restoration of power in an environment that predisposes them towards violence. Each attempt to regain authority is a resistance effort, and behind each attempt looms the threat of aggression and conflict. The prison atmosphere stems from this background, and an examination of individuals’ experiences will reveal the effects of this tension on both inmates and correctional officers.

In order to cope with the total loss of autonomy, inmates develop a complex subculture that grants them a semblance of power. Conover describes their situation as “a microcosm of a totalitarian society, a nearly pure example of the police state … We who were in uniform controlled nearly every aspect of their lives” (Conover, 2001, p. 96). In response, the inmates create their own society in which they do possess authority. The world beyond prison becomes a second reality to what happens on the inside, because the super ordinate goal of their time behind bars is no longer self-reform, but gaining power. Trammell reveals that: “These men described the conflict between inmate and correctional officer as a fight for control. The social setting of prison limited the available strategies of action. In reality, inmates could change very little about their environment. They could not leave, gain legitimate control of the prison, or change official rules. They were disenfranchised and weak. Therefore, if they gained any real power, they did so through informal social networks” (Trammell, 2012, p. 25). The most obvious manifestation of this is the formation of prison gangs. The inmates further divide themselves into sub-groups in an effort to demonstrate control over their surroundings. Oddly enough, these divisions generally occur along a factor that the inmates cannot influence—race. They often explain this as a matter of practicality: “If a fight breaks out, then you know who to hit [laughs]. You hit the guy that doesn’t look like you” (Trammell, 2012, p. 50). However, a more complex reasoning underlies this choice to form gangs based on skin color.

When these men enter prison, the system strips them of everything, including their identity. The only physical indicator left of the self that they maintained before incarceration is pigment. In an effort to cling to their individuality, to the strength that comes from a sense of self, these men flaunt their race. Yet, even ethnicity, the only vestige of life outside that these men can wear, remains secondary to maintaining the existence of their society. The inmates’ control lies within this system that they’ve created, and without it they are nothing. Therefore, they all work together, against the guards, to ensure the survival and flourishing of their culture. They dub their leaders “shot-callers,” a term that in itself expresses a desire for control, and they ← 91 | 92 → establish norms that govern behavior. One inmate reflects on his gang in this manner: “Look, we got numbers inside; we organize and think smart. We give people rules in writing; our boys learn from us and follow the rules. You won’t make it a day if you don’t follow our rules” (Trammell, 2012, p. 26). His concluding remark appears menacing, demonstrating the importance of the inmate subculture. Those who threaten it suffer violent punishment because in prison, “violence symbolized strength and power in an environment where they have no real, legitimate power” (Trammell, 2012, p. 11). If anyone steps outside the bounds of the inmate code, they experience the power of their peers in the only method possible: violence. One inmate sums up the culture rather succinctly when he states, “It’s complicated, it’s very political, and the system works” (Trammell, 2012, p. 50).

Violence, however, does not only occur as a method of solving disputes; it permeates prison. Like the inmate culture itself, violence is the by-product of an environment in which men have zero power. For instance, one inmate relates that “You just get frustrated … In prison you end up taking it out on someone. I remember having a bad attitude one time and the cop asks me what the problem is. I tell him that I’m in a pissy mood; I feel like beating down a baby killer or something, you know, just beat someone down. He just laughed. I ended up getting into it with my cellie. He just looked at me wrong, and I let him have it. We punched each other for a few minutes” (Trammell, 2012, p. 91).

His experience speaks for all men in prison. Another convict shares that, “It’s just stressful. This one day, I wasn’t feeling well; I think I got a cold. We get no medicine; if you ask for something for your cold, they’ll give you some Tylenol. So I’m sick and the food is really bad, so I don’t eat cuz the food is bad, and I go to my work detail and I’m worn out. The cops are standing around while we’re working, just talking smack to us. What the hell? It’s all I can do not to smack one in the mouth. They wonder why we fight and why we’re always so angry” (Trammell 2012, p. 95). The answer, especially as these men tell it, appears obvious: prison promotes violence. Another prisoner expressed this truth while discussing racism behind bars:

“People in there hate each other. I just don’t know if they really hate each other or they just hate that place. I don’t hate blacks now that I’m out, but I sure avoided them in prison. I think that the guys inside are just angry and need to push that hate onto someone.” (Trammell, p. 48)

The voices of these inmates all seem to say that corrections, specifically incarceration, does little to help them. Rather, it jades convicts, transforming them into a resentful, power-thirsting mass more familiar and more comfortable with violence and anger than lawful society. ← 92 | 93 →

The inmates, however, only present one side of the story. As Conover points out, “While everyone knows that prison can warp or distort the personalities of prisoners, few stop to consider how it can do the same to those who work inside” (Conover, 2001, p. 107). As much as the inmates attempt to regain power, the officers must fight to maintain it. Conover actually compares prison work to war, stating that “enlisted men and women were marshaled daily by their superior officers into a battle of wills with the mass of angry and resentful prisoners” (Conover, 2001, p. 96). This task proves especially difficult, considering that at any time guards may be outnumbered in a hall or rec room by some one hundred and fifty to four. Ultimately, the job of a correctional officer is to preserve his or her authority, yet the odds do not lie in their favor. At some facilities, such as most in California, prisons operate at about two hundred percent capacity. In such an overcrowded environment, officers can only do so much; “to do this job you had to be fearless, know how to talk to people, have thick skin and a high tolerance for stress” (Conover, 2001, p. 219). Just as the position of inmate forces one to resist the system, the nature of the guard requires one to fight back. They work in a situation in which “kindness … was taken for weakness and exploited. Goodwill didn’t enter the picture. This job was about maintaining power, and goodwill could erode that power” (Conover, 2001, p. 295). Thus, guards cannot express either fear or kindness, lest they lose their position of dominance over the prisoners. In other words, act anything but tough, and fall victim to the convicts. This reality, unfortunately, instigates harmful consequences, as Conover himself soon learned. After his year in Sing Sing, he began to suffer from minor post-traumatic stress disorder. He explains it by simply saying that, “if you repress something regularly (in my case, fear), it’s going to come back to haunt you” (Conover, 2001, p. 317). Yet, he had no choice. Other guards take different approaches, as one told Conover, “I just try to make myself go numb” (Conover, 2001, p. 79). The more common effect of prison work, however, proved to be a predisposition towards violence. Conover reveals that, “There were moments when, due to the constant tension of prison life and the general lack of catharsis, violence and the potential for violence became a thrill” (Conover, 2001, p. 275). For example, after an incident requiring the use of force by an officer, that man exclaimed that, “It was the first time in five years that I’ve been involved in a major incident. And I loved it! I wanted to hit somebody!” (Conover, 2001, p. 276). This attitude develops as a direct result of the working environment. The guards suffer just like the prisoners, as they ultimately serve “a life sentence in eight-hour shifts” (Conover, 2001, p. 21). They experience the same tensions, the same struggle for power, as the inmates and due to this want “no personal responsibility ← 93 | 94 → for the harmful effects of the system” (Conover, 2001, p. 161). Officers and inmates alike feel the effects of corrections, explaining why so many guards encounter alcoholism, divorce, wife and child abuse, ill health, etc. (Conover, 2001, p. 195). Obviously, many do feel a personal responsibility. A retired guard expressed this sense of guilt when he confessed to a priest, “I spent thirty-three years of my life depriving men of their freedom” (Conover, 2001, p. 195). For all of the negative repercussions that inmates endure, the guards fair no better. Prison necessarily dehumanizes them into mere uniforms that rob men of autonomy.

Prison, it seems, harms all those involved, regardless of which side of the cell they occupy. It has developed into a fight for power, and, like all battles, no side escapes unscathed. Inherently, the system pits inmates against guards, and, as a result, both parties languish within the walls. The experiences of each side converge to illustrate a situation in which both groups merely “do time” in an environment that isolates them from the real world. The tensions seep into the personalities of prisoners and officers, inclining each towards violence. Prisons do not reform; they deform. They remove humans (both guards and convicts) from regular society and place them in a high-stress standoff that disconnects them from the outside. Power and the need for control consumes them, so much so that neither side can afford to back down.

Although power creates the issue within corrections facilities, it may also offer the solution. Hollander and Offermann (1993) outlined one more, final form of power: power to, or empowerment. Through empowerment, one gains authority by helping others or by supplying them with power of their own. Of the three types, empowerment represents the only form in which all sides involved may simultaneously increase their power. In this method, one gains power only by giving some to others. This concept speaks to the origin of American prisons, which began as penitentiaries for convicts to reflect on their actions and improve themselves (Conover, 2001, p. 173). Yet somewhere along the way they (d)evolved into warehouses for human beings. Until prisons themselves are reformed into true reformatories, then their current detrimental effects will not dissipate. The entire notion of incarceration must be rethought; it must grow from an environment of dominance and resistance to a place of empowerment. Obviously, transforming the essence of an institution like corrections will take massive amounts of effort and funding, an endeavor that will not be completed over night. But the self-perpetuating cycle that exists now must end; a paradigm shift must occur. If the perception of the purpose of prison changes, then actually instituting changes will come more easily. Modern American minds must recognize and appreciate the implications of the famous words of Thomas Osborne: “We will turn this prison from a scrap heap into a repair shop.”

Note ← 94 | 95 →

1 The original number, however, reflects only the officers in adult facilities. To account for the juvenile population, the number of incarcerated juveniles in 2001 was drawn from the Statistical Briefing Book of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. The officer to inmate ratio in adult facilities was then extrapolated to apply to juveniles, in order to deduce the number officers in juvenile facilities. The number of officers in adult and juvenile facilities were added to produce the final estimate of 285,000.


Conover, T. (2001). Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing. New York: Random House.

Hollander, E. P., & Offermann, L. R. (1993). Power and leadership in organizations. In W. E. Rosenbach, R. L. Taylor, W. E. Rosenbach, R. L. Taylor (Eds.). Contemporary issues in leadership (3rd ed.) (pp. 62–86). Boulder, CO, US: Westview Press.

Osborn, T. M. (1913). Within Prison Walls. Discussed within Ted Conover’s (2001). Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing. New York: Random House.

Trammell, R. (2012). Enforcing the Convict Code: Violence and Prison Culture. Boulder: Lynne Rienner.

U.S. Department of Justice (2000). Census of State and Federal Correctional Facilities. Retrieved from: