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Society of Captives: A Study of a Maximum Security Prison

NCJ Number
Gresham M. Sykes
Date Published
199 pages
This study examined the social system of the New Jersey State Maximum Security Prison in the 1950s, where approximately 300 custodial, clerical, and professional State employees composed an administrative staff charged with governing approximately 1,200 adult male criminals confined for periods ranging from 1 year to life.
Two features of prison society were identified. First, social order was tenuous in the captive society of the prison. Although inmates recognized the authority of the custodians, the inmates were not motivated by a sense of moral duty to obey their captors. Absent such an internal motivation, inmates were forced, bribed, or coerced into compliance with behavioral requirements. A second conclusion is that the repressive power of prison authorities is not efficient in maintaining order. In addition to complying with prison regulations, the daily tasks of maintaining the institution included cooking, cleaning, and rehabilitation. These tasks required some independence in thinking and behavior, which was not encouraged in prison society. Individuality, creative decisionmaking, and diversity were a threat to the total control of inmates sought by the prison administration. For those who seek reform of the society of the maximum-security prison, the author elaborates on four comments. First, criminals will continue to be confined in large groups under conditions of relative deprivation for some time to come, regardless of the consequences. Second, the prison is an authoritarian community, and it will remain so in the face of efforts to make confinement more humane for inmates. Third, given that the most hardened criminals are most likely to be imprisoned, in-prison rehabilitation for most inmates is unlikely. Fourth, it is unrealistic to expect that the norms, values, and control methods of the prison culture will prepare inmates for responsible, independent behavior after release. Appended study methodology and the schedule for an inmate's routine


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