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Under the Penal Gaze: An Empirical Examination of Penal Consciousness Among Prison Inmates

NCJ Number
Date Published
June 2012
217 pages
This dissertation develops a new theoretical framework for exploring the nature of punishment as experienced and perceived by inmates ("penal consciousness").

The punishments that prisoners experience are distinguished by the level of abstraction in two types: "concrete" punishment and "symbolic" punishment. "Concrete" punishment consists of the material deprivations of prison. These include medical neglect or mistreatment, inadequate or unhealthy food, and the inability to pay for necessities not provided by the prison. "Symbolic" punishment consists of the deprivations experienced by inmates, i.e., the loss of autonomy, self, and humanity associated with the loss of freedom, as well as the loss of family. Punishment experienced only as "concrete" is rated low in severity compared to punishment that is experienced as "symbolic." The severity of punishment pertains to its intensity, and the salience of punishment is a measure of the prominence of punishment in the minds and daily experiences of inmates. Penal consciousness emerges from the nature of external stimuli associated with the prison regimen and physical environment, as well as the subjective response to the stimuli by the individual inmate, which will be influenced by demographics, a lifetime of experiences and expectations, and personality characteristics. All respondents acknowledged that being locked up is unlike any other experience in their lives. Other than agreeing that prison is a punishment unlike any other experience of their lives, the respondents in the sample had few areas of complete agreement. The proposed theory of "penal consciousness" provides a bridge between the legal definitions of sanctions, and the various ways in which individual inmates experience and perceive punishment. For legislators, punishment is an abstract legal concept; for those forced to submit to the sanctions, it is a lived experience filled with emotional pain, frustration, despair, and shame that affects individuals in different ways. 6 figures, 3 tables, extensive references, and appended methodological details

Date Published: June 1, 2012