The Captive Society

EVERY SOCIAL ORGANISATION OF ANY SIZE has a "formal" and an "informal" structure of social relationships. The more self-contained and authoritarian an institution, the more distinct are the two structures. In terms of Kurt Lewin's topological psychology a prison is defined as "a polar type of authoritarian system that is governed by a bureaucratic hierarchy and entrusted with power over the total life space of the individuals under its jurisdiction". Since it is an extreme type, we may expect to see in it the most extreme differentiation between the formal and informal structures.
The formal structure of prison is like that of a military organisation, with a remote headquarters in the form of the Prison Commissioners, a commanding officer – the Governor, non-commissioned officers – the Prison Officers, and men – the prisoners. Most prison governors have, in fact, been retired army officers, and most prison officers, ex-N.C.O.s, and the parallel with military life extends throughout the organisation of prisons: the use of numbers for identification, kit inspections, and an independent system of summary jurisdiction, while the officers themselves salute and parade for inspection. Major Grew, the former governor of Wormwood Scrubs, ran the place, as Mr. Peter Wildeblood observed. "as a kind of caricature of the military life." This, however, is the structure of the custodians. Among the inmates, who outnumber them, there are only two types who fit in the formal structure, firstly the "redband" or leader who is, so to speak an "acting unpaid lance-corporal" in the formal system, and secondly the fully institutionalised "model" prisoner who is completely adapted to the regime and withdrawn from social contact with his fellows.
The informal structure is an extreme form of the type of informal social organisation which you can find in schools or factories. "Whenever men are held captive" writes D. L. Howard, in The English Prisons, "a strong social network with distinct lines of dominance and subordination, its own code of behaviour and its own ties of loyalty, grows up among them, quite distinct and apart from any organisational structure which prison authorities may attempt to impose from above. The true life of a prison … exists almost independently of official rules and decisions; all but the vaguest indications of its character are hidden from the governor and his staff. Even the most skilful and sympathetic of prison officials is far out on the edge of this society and unable to make any permanent impact upon it." For this reason the most revealing accounts of the informal social structure of prisons are those by ex-prisoners, and until recently there have been few attempts by people independent of both captors and captives to describe it.
Gresham Sykes in The Society of Captives (1958) made a close study of the interactions of custodians and inmates at Trenton, a maximum security prison in New Jersey. In discussing the responses of the prisoners to the regime to which they are submitted he finds one which he categorises as "cohesive" and another which he calls "alienative". The first is action of a collectivist nature, in the interests of the whole inmate community, and the second is individualistic action in the interests of a single prisoner or a small group. John McLeish of Leeds University describes another American book, Theoretical Studies in Social Organisation of the Prison, edited by George H. Grosser (Social Science Research Council, New York 1960), in the Prison Service Journal for January, 1961. This study demonstrates, he says, "that the inmates and custodians, in practice, share a common interest in maintaining the prison as a unit which operates as a going concern." (This common interest is in the adaptation of both parties to the status quo of the informal system). Even in the most humane of prison institutions, he notes,

The inmate lives under conditions of deprivation. He loses the liberty of disposing of his own time, his living space is severely restricted, he is deprived of certain goods which are taken for granted in the society outside,
he is denied heterosexual relations. In addition, his social isolation is perceived by the prisoner as an attack on his self-image and his sense of personal worth, an attack which is more threatening to him than even physical brutality or maltreatment would be. He is denied the privilege of being trusted, there is an implicit attack on his masculinity, he is forced into association with unbalanced and potentially violent persons so that his safety is endangered, he has lost his power of self-determination.

In defence against these deprivations and the social rejection which gives rise to them, a code of conduct arises, binding on all inmates and determining their relations with each other and with their captors, which

restores the self respect and sense of independence of the society of captives at the same time providing them with a purposeful way of life which cushions them from the deprivations and frustrations of prison life. The code (Never rat on a con! Don't lose your head! Don't exploit inmates! Don't weaken! Don't be a sucker! and so on) gives a new frame of reference to the prisoner so that his condemnation by the free society becomes almost irrelevant. Loyalty to his fellows, generosity to those suffering more than he is, disparagement of official society, results in an uneasy compromise between the actual condition of the prisoner and his continuing attempts to maintain the favourable image he retains of himself.

Another article in the same journal, "It's the Prisoners who run this Prison", by Terence Morris, Pauline Morris and Barbara Biely of the London School of Economics, also discusses inmate leadership in the informal system. They make the same distinction as Sykes between the "cohesive" and "alienative" responses to imprisonment, and distinguish two ideal types of leader corresponding to them, the Robin Hood and the Robber Baron. Both are "troublemakers" to the prison authorities, but the "trouble" they make varies considerably. The Robin Hood

is considered by the mass of the prison population to be a major asset in the task of minimising the pains of imprisonment. This leader is a strong-willed man, wise in prison ways, committed to the inmate code of minimal co-operation with the staff but careful never to provoke or bring down trouble upon himself or his associates. He is benevolent, sympathetic, and has many of the marks of a genuine altruist …
Superiority of brain, and the ability to call upon brawn when necessary, gave Smith an unusual amount of power. It was based, however, upon loyalty rather than fear, his good and generous deeds making many men his permanent moral debtors.

The Robber Baron, on the other hand

is a very different sort of man, recognised by prisoners as an exploiter, a man whom they would rather do without. In many cases he is actually a tobacco baron or a bookmaker but no less frequently he is no more than an extortionate bully who demands protection payments or feudal services from those inmates unfortunate enough to come under his influence … The Robber Baron then is not a leader who can make moral claims upon his followers, but relies upon coercion and fear.

Social control in the captive society is usually maintained by external constraint rather than by internal consensus, but, the authors observe, "as in most human communities, the ultimate equilibrium of the system will depend upon a balance of the forces contending for power, and power in inmate society is based sometimes upon consensus, sometimes upon external constraint, and frequently upon a combination of the two. The physical, social, and psychological deprivations of imprisonment undoubtedly stimulate among most prisoners behaviour which is designed to minimise them; at the same time the prison contains men with strong drives towards controlling other men and in doing so satisfying many of their inner psychological needs."
The authors of this paper note that "It is a simple truth that in the face of complete and massive refusal to comply with his orders the prison official is powerless” and that the reason why this seldom happens even in the most repressive prisons is "partly that inmate society is too heterogeneous to be capable of such unified action, but most importantly because numerous inmates have a conscious investment in tranquility." Those who have not, the real contenders for power in the prison (whom the authors mistakenly call the truly anarchic elements) play a role which

is essentially alienative in that their behaviour is ego-centric and inconsistent. Sooner or later their demands are resisted by others of their own kind and conflict ensues. It is perhaps because they are so often seekers after power for its own sake that they constitute such a danger in the prison community.

Here the formal structure asserts itself in a tightening up of the prison's coercive power, but the effect of this is like unselective pest-killer, in that it eliminates not only the pest, but also those coercive forces which would themselves restrain it. The conclusion which they draw from this from the point of view of penal policy is that the administrator's first task is

to distinguish between different types of leader in the prison and to recognise that not a few of them are doing some of the work for him … The second task … is to buttress the cohesive elements of the inmate society and at the same time attempt a systematic erosion of the power of the alienative elements. The achievement of the latter objective tends to be made simpler by adequate classification and if necessary by segregation.

But they have already noted the equivocal nature of 'legitimated' inmate leadership at the point where the formal and informal social structures meet:

In most prisons throughout the world the authoritarian character of the prison regime is diluted by the delegation of some staff functions to inmates. It is not, strictly speaking, a delegation of formal authority, for whatever task such an inmate performs, and whatever privileges are attached to the job, his status remains that of a captive. For the prison official the 'leader', 'redband' or 'stroke' is a valued asset. He is assigned to a position of trust and responsibility in the task of running the prison. In the eyes of his fellow prisoners however, he is often a 'grass' or 'screw's man' and the subject of diffuse sanctions of disapproval.

For even though he may use his relative freedom to lessen the deprivations of others as well as his own, he is suspect "because he has violated one of the ideal premises of the Prisoners' Code, namely that no self-respecting 'con' should do the work of a screw … There is little doubt that he tends to identify with authority (and this alienates him from the bulk of inmate society). The redband's solution to this problem is frequently to act a double life, to leak information to the staff, but at the same time to leak information in the reverse direction." This key position in the communications network, is, as the authors of the Theoretical Studies also note, a major path to power in both the social systems, since information is one of the goods in short supply as far as both inmates and custodians are concerned.
Dr. and Mrs. Morris and Miss Biely in their paper conclude that with the ending of those 19th century rigours which have no place in the ethos of the treatment institution, the 'businessmen' of the inmate structure will no longer have a function to perform in the supply of illicit goods and services, but could play constructive roles on inmate councils, noting that

Unless there can be real sharing of power and authority, and the lowest ranks of the discipline staff can feel secure that such sharing neither diminishes their own authority nor renders them likely to be unsupported by their superiors at critical moments – unless these conditions are fulfilled, inmate councils and committees will be as meaningless as Parliamentary democracy under the Czars.

To the question of what useful purpose such a development would serve, they reply:

One answer would be that just as men cannot be trained for freedom in conditions of captivity, so men cannot be trained to accept social responsibility in conditions which, at their most extreme, reduce them to a state of near infantile dependency. The task here is to mobilise the social capacities of men who are seldom wholly anti-social in such a way that the words: 'It's the prisoners who run this prison' are an expression, not of resentment on the part of a prison official who feels that things have got out of hand, but of achievement, that men who have hitherto failed to adjust to life in a socially acceptable manner have moved significantly towards responsibility and maturity.

In their conclusion they are more optimistic than the authors of the Theoretical Studies, who, noting the remarkable similarity of the inmate systems found in one institution after another, conclude that the prison setting generates a typical pattern of reaction on the part of the inmates. Mr. McLeish notes that "The phenomena we have been dealing with arise in answer to needs which are common to all prisoners" and for this reason:

They conclude that the custodians in progressive types of prisons are confronted by an insoluble dilemma – that they are forced to set inmate goals which can rarely if ever be realised. This pessimistic conclusion, which is developed in detail, should make this study required reading for all prison officers who see their function primarily in terms of rehabilitation of the offender.

The present writer has tried in vain to get hold of a copy of the Theoretical Papers, but we can see why their authors have reached this conclusion. Most prisoners have to steer a course, as Terence Morris puts it, between the Prison Rules and the Prisoners' Rules. The prison code is the most binding, and from the point of view of both the individual and the group, the most necessary. The code, which is the same code that is operative among the children in a school or the workers in a factory is essentially the means of defence of those who have no power against those who have. Its violators – the sneak in school, the gaffer's man in the factory, the 'grass' in prison, are regarded as contemptible, and it is difficult to conceive in the abstract any moral code in which they would not be. When "self-government" is introduced, on paper, in a school, or "works councils" in a factory, they become, in the absence of any genuine devolution of power, simply a means of harmlessly airing grievances, complaints about the canteen cutlery or the shortage of toilet paper. As the Morris-Biely paper itself says:

The leaders' meeting, as observed in one training. prison, was essentially a 'grumbling session' and although this may have had some merit as a safety valve, there was little evidence to suggest that these were necessarily even the grumbles of the non-leaders. In fact there were unmistakable signs that the group constituted a socially isolated elite of the prison, remote from the real foci of power in the inmate social system.

The would-be penal reformer is in fact faced by a whole series of dilemmas. Firstly that prisons are schools of crime, an observation which has been made many times in the last two centuries and is as true today as it ever was. To quote the standard English criminological textbook:

A formidable criminal record is the passport to respect. Crime and its techniques are the main topics of conversation. Criminal contacts are made in the highly specialised group which the beginner in crime could never have found for himself. The young prisoner with no confirmed criminal tendencies will be isolated with these corrupting influences throughout his sentence, and will be fortunate to remain unscathed.

Secondly that efforts to avoid this kind of contamination by improved methods of classification and segregation, simply avoid the issue because as Hugh Klare remarks in his Anatomy of Prison, "by putting the best personalities amongst prisoners into special institutions, we may be winning victories which are too easy while leaving ourselves with an almost impossible task with all the rest".
Thirdly because the prison situation is "a conflict situation", and the inmate system in opposition to the custodians is a psychological necessity for the prisoner unless he is to become either a completely institutionalised vegetable or a lick-spittle of authority. The staff "reserve their favours for the prisoner who causes least trouble, even though he is apt usually to be either a confirmed old lag who knows the ropes or just a hypocrite" (Howard Jones: Crime and the Penal System). The members of inmate councils are likely to be atypical prisoners like middle-class financiers, murderers, motorists and homosexuals, far from the centre of the inmate system.
Finally because genuine self-government is inconceivable at the bottom of a formal structure like the prison system which is a rigid hierarchy of authority. For the governor and the 'superior staff' are imprisoned by the minutely-detailed Statutory Rules of the Prison Commissioners, while even to the 'subordinate grades' of their own staff they are "remote figures, to be saluted on sight, for whom frank, open discussion of prison problems is a rare occurrence", according to Mr. D. L. Howard, who notes in The English Prisons that "The recently introduced Staff Consultative Committee have by no means solved this problem. They are held but once a quarter, officers are merely represented on them, and so great a consciousness of rank is displayed that relaxed, open discussion of treatment problems is virtually impossible."
The most complete and lifelong prisoners of the formal structure of the prison are those members of the staff who are in closest contact with the prisoners themselves. Their own insecurity and resentment is voiced every year in the much-reported meetings of the Prison Officers' Association. Mr. Howard notes of their position:

It is almost as difficult for a junior prison officer to work against the climate of opinion on the staff he has joined, as it is for the inmate to stand out against the embraces of the subculture I have described earlier. Unlike the governor, he is not only the focus of resentment from below; he is also dependent upon approval from officers ranked above him in the same institution. Moreover, he usually lives in or near the prison, in official quarters, with other prison officers, their wives and their families as his most frequent social contacts when not on duty. If he appears to be less severe towards prisoners and to take a more sympathetic interest in them than the majority of his colleagues, social difficulties in private life may be added to the unpopularity he has experienced at work.

Those who conceive a transformation of the prison into a genuinely therapeutic or educational institution have thus the task of conceiving a quite different social structure – one which reconciles the conflicting formal and informal structures by liberating both from their authoritarian characteristics. But as Bernard Shaw said years ago:

The main difficulty in applying this concept of individual freedom to the criminal arises from the fact that the concept itself is as yet unformed. We do not apply it to children, at home or at school, nor to employees, nor to persons of any class or age who are in the power of other persons. Like Queen Victoria, we conceive Man as being either in authority or subject to authority, each person doing only what he is expressly permitted to do, or what the example of the rest of his class encourages him to consider as tacitly permitted.

For the social structure of the prison, whether we consider its formal or its informal system, is simply a reflection of the social structure of "normal" society.

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Jul 15 2016 23:25


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