Institutional Aggression in The Context of Prisons

When a person commits a crime and goes to prison, we ask where aggression stems from. Does aggression come from the person, and are they flourishing in the aggressive aspects of the prison system? Or does the prison instil a sense of aggression in a person, and is our system at fault here?

Institutional Aggression in The Context of Prisons Institutional Aggression in The Context of Prisons

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Table of contents
    • We are going to explore institutional aggression in the context of prisons. First, we will look at institutional aggression and define what we mean by this,
    • Then, we will discuss the importation model.
    • After, we will explore the importation model of prison culture with evaluations of research.
    • Then, we will examine the deprivation model and evaluate institutional aggression from the deprivation model's perspective.
    • Finally, we will mention situational aggression in the context of the interactionist model of institutional aggression.

    Institutional Aggression in The Context of Prisons

    Two major theoretical stances that try to explain institutional aggression are the dispositional and situational explanations. An example of a dispositional explanation is the importation model by Irwin and Cressey (1962). An example of a situational explanation of aggression in prisons is the deprivation model, argued by Sykes (1958).

    An institution is a place authority governs, having a set of strict guidelines to those who attend it must adhere to. For instance, your school is an institution. A prison is also an institution.

    Importation Model

    John Irwin and Donald Cressey developed the importation model in 1962, which was the most influential dispositional explanation. It is the idea that prisoners 'import' their behaviours and personality traits from outside into the prison and continue to perpetuate these behaviours once 'inside'. It attempts to explain aggressive behaviours in institutions.

    Prisons are not completely insulated from everyday life in the ‘real world’. After all, prisoners come from the real world, and they may bring a subculture of criminality that the inmates share.

    Inmates are people who may potentially deal with situations using violence (primarily those with a history of violence), so, typically, they may continue to do this in prison. This is due to risk factors before their entry into aggression:

    • Gang members tend to bring their behaviours into prison with them. They are typically exposed to aggression and have predetermined feuds with other gangs (resulting in instrumental violence, where violence is used as a premeditated tool).
    • Prisoners with issues with drug abuse and withdrawal symptoms may be more inclined to fall into aggressive behaviours.
    • Existing inmates use aggression to gain power, and new, intimidated inmates use aggression to deal with an unknown environment, ‘the convict subculture’.

    Simply put, inmates predisposed to using violence are more likely to do so in any setting. Therefore, aggression is the product of the inmates’ personalities, not the prison environment.

    It is an internal factor determined by individual internal characteristics.

     Institutional Aggression in The Context of Prisons, a silhouette of a man holding onto prison bars, StudySmarter.Fig. 1 - The Importation model suggests aggression is determined by the people in prison, not the environment.

    Institutional Aggression Evaluation: Importation Model of Prison Culture

    Consider the following study by DeLisi et al. (2004). This study investigated the importation model through gang members (those at risk for prison misconduct). Using negative binomial regression models, researchers analysed 831 males from the southwestern USA for their prison violence (using records of their involvement in street gangs, prison gangs, and both types of gangs).

    They found that gang associations were significantly predictive of prison violence only in the full model when considering various types of gang membership. However, the effects of membership were lower than other risk factors (such as chronic offending and a history of violence.

    Overall, the study suggested that the importation model was inconclusive and needed further investigation, with control for outside variables (such as a history of offences and race).

    In another study, Delisi (2011) analysed the data of 2,520 institutionalised male delinquents and found that family backgrounds (using negative binomial regression models) variables were predictive of delinquent careers.

    Those who had issues with living in care and a history of violence with family members then went on to be violent towards prison inmates and staff (if they were incarcerated). Institutional misconduct indicated that proximal delinquent career variables were more associated with misconduct than family background factors.

    Overall, these childhood and adolescent experiences result in dispositional factors (individual characteristics influencing behaviour), supporting the idea that prison itself is not the cause of aggression (life course importation model).

    The importation model comes with its own strengths and weaknesses.

    Strengths

    Camp and Gaes (2005) studied 561 inmates with similar criminal histories and predispositions to aggression. They placed half of them in low-security Californian prisons and half in high-security ones. They found that 33% of prisoners in the low-security prisons were involved in aggressive misconduct, as was 36% in the high-security ones. This result was not statistically significant.

    The researchers concluded that the environmental features of prisons were significantly less important predictions of aggressive behaviour than the characteristics of inmates. This lends some research support to the importation model.

    Is this good evidence? Yes, it is because it’s a field experiment with random allocations of inmates to different prisons. This allows more valid conclusions than correlational studies or natural experiments.

    Weaknesses

    As an alternative explanation, Diulio (1991) claimed that the importation model fails to consider the impact of prison wardens and the running of prisons. He suggested an alternative control model (ACM), which states that poorly managed prisons are likelier to experience the worst forms of inmate violence.

    Harer and Steffensmeier (1996) looked at the data from 58 male prisons in America. They found that violent behaviour tended to be higher in black inmates and drug offences higher in white inmates. They suggested that variables such as race and age were associated with or had influence over levels of aggression, and it supported the importation model. However, they only considered male inmates; therefore, the study has issues with being androcentric.

    Deprivation Model

    The deprivation model is an example of a situational explanation of aggression in prisons. Sykes (1958) argued that the causes of institutional aggression could be attributed to prison environments resulting from a deprivation of liberties, also known as the pains of imprisonment. Pains of imprisonment include being deprived of freedom, independence, goods, safety, and heterosexual intimacy.

    Sykes suggested prison conditions were stressful for inmates and hard to cope with.

    Deprivation of material goods increases competition between inmates to acquire them, leading to aggression. It is criminogenic.

    Clemmer (1958) suggested this is a principle of the inmate social code, which idealises an inmate’s ‘perfect behaviour’. The nature of prisons also leads to aggression. ‘Lock ups’ are often used to control behaviour, which creates frustration, reduces stimulation from other activities (i.e., distractions), and reduces even further access to material goods.

    This is a recipe for violence. Simply put, prisons’ stressful, competition-led nature leads inmates to react aggressively. It is an external factor.

     Institutional Aggression in The Context of Prisons, a barbed wire fence with a building with blacked out windows in the background, StudySmarter.Fig. 2 - The deprivation model suggests prisons increase aggression.

    Institutional Aggression Evaluation: The Deprivation Model

    Bloomberg and Lucken (2000) investigated the deprivation of prisoners' freedom, i.e., their liberty. They suggested this was one of the primary forms of punishment in the sense that, inherently, the prison has to deprive those of their complete set of liberties to an extent, which is a significant factor of the deprivation model.

    Strengths

    Steiner (2009) investigated the factors that predicted inmate aggression in 512 prisons in the USA. He found that environmental factors reliably predicted aggressive behaviour in line with the deprivation model. Violence increased in prisons with higher proportions of female staff, African-American inmates, Hispanic inmates, and inmates in protective custody for their own safety. This lends some research support to the deprivation model.

    Cunningham et al. (2010) analysed 35 inmate homicides in Texas prisons and found they were often motivated by deprivations. Arguments over drugs, homosexual relationships and personal possessions were significant. This evidence also supports the validity of the deprivation model.

    Weaknesses

    However, the results of a study by Hensley et al. (2002) contradict these results. They studied 256 male and female inmates in two prisons in Mississippi. These were prisons that allowed conjugal visits. They found no link between these visits being allowed and reduced aggressive behaviour. This finding suggests that situational factors do not affect prison violence.

    Situational Aggression

    Could we use both models together? This is known as the interactionist model of institutional aggression.

    Jiang and Fisher Giorlando (2002) suggest that the importation model better explains violence between inmates, and the deprivation model is more effective in understanding innate aggression against prison staff.

    Dobbs and Courtney Waid (2004) support an interactionist model. They argue that inmates will suffer deprivation when entering prison for the first time. Still, deprivation doesn’t necessarily lead to violence unless it combines specific individual characteristics imported into the prison. This means that the combination of situational and dispositional factors eventually results in violence.


    Institutional Aggression in The Context of Prisons - Key takeaways

    • Institutional aggression refers to aggressive or violent behaviour within the social context of a prison or other formal, organised institution settings. Two major theoretical stances that try to explain institutional aggression are the dispositional and situational explanations.

    • Dispositional explanations explain behaviour that highlights the importance of the individual’s personality. Situational explanations identify the causes of behaviour as existing within the environment, including other people.

    • The Importation Model, developed by Irwin and Cressey (1962), is a dispositional explanation. It is the idea that prisoners 'import' their behaviours and personality traits from outside into the prison and continue to perpetuate these behaviours once 'inside'. Prison is a microcosm of the outside world.

    • The Deprivation Model, argued by Sykes (1958), is a situational explanation and states that aggression in institutions results from the deprived nature of life in prison.

    • Sykes quoted the pains of imprisonment, suggesting a deprivation of liberties such as freedom, independence, goods, safety, and heterosexual intimacy leads to aggression in institutions such as prison.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Institutional Aggression in The Context of Prisons

    Why does deprivation lead to aggression in prisons?

    Sykes (1958) famously quoted the pains of imprisonment to explain how deprivation of liberties leads to aggression.  Deprivation leads to competition among inmates, particularly a lack of material goods. When resources are scarce, we often have to fight to get them. Inmates use aggression to take resources from other inmates or stop them from being stolen. 

    How does the importation model explain aggression in prisons?

    The importation model argues that prisoners are people who are used to solving problems with violence in the outside world. It is only logical that they continue to do this in the prison context. This is a dispositional factor (individual characteristics influence behaviour).

    What is the deprivation model of institutional aggression?

    The deprivation model argues that the prison environment is one in which inmates lack things they are used to having. Prison conditions include being deprived of freedom, independence, goods, safety, and heterosexual intimacy. Deprivation of material goods increases competition between inmates to acquire them, leading to aggression.

    What is institutional aggression?

    Aggressive or violent behaviour within the social context of formally organised settings.

    What causes aggression in prisons?

    The importation model states that isolation from the real world and normalisation of aggressive behaviour causes aggression in prisons. Alternatively, the deprivation model states that as prison is a stressful environment where inmates are deprived of freedom, food and other things, they must compete for these, leading to aggression.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    The importation model showed that…

    Steiner (2009) measured the effects of prisons on inmate behaviours in 512 prisons. He found increased violence in prisons with ____.

    Who developed the deprivation model?

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