Academic journal article Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology

Examining the Sources of Correctional Officer Legitimacy

Academic journal article Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology

Examining the Sources of Correctional Officer Legitimacy

Article excerpt

TABLE OF CONTENTS  INTRODUCTION                                    680 I. LEGITIMACY                                   682 II. POTENTIAL SOURCES OF CORRECTIONAL OFFICER     LEGITIMACY                                  684 III. METHODS                                    688     A. Data                                     689     B. Measures                                 691     C. Analytical Strategy                      694 IV. FINDINGS                                    695 V. DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSIONS                   698 APPENDIX                                        703 


The effective application of the law depends in part on how individuals view the officials with the legal authority to enforce it. (1) If legal officials are viewed as legitimate, then individuals are more likely to defer to those officials ahead of their self-interests. (2) In a prison setting, the formal rules of conduct govern and regulate behaviors, and correctional officers are the visible representation of those rules. (3) If inmates view correctional officers as "legitimate," then they may be more likely to comply with those officers and the rules they enforce. (4) Institutional safely and order are reflected in part by the degree of noncompliance (rule violations) within and across prisons, (5) and so correctional officer legitimacy could be relevant to promoting inmate well-being and the effectiveness of prisons as institutions of social control. (6) In a prison context, legitimacy is the belief that official rules, corrections officials, and the institution itself are proper and just. (7) Correctional officer legitimacy is the recognition by inmates that officers have the right to govern. (8) Correctional officer legitimacy is owed, in part, to the legal authority assigned to the position that officers hold in the prison bureaucracy, (9) but scholars have also hypothesized that officer legitimacy is conditional upon inmates' experiences and the treatment they receive from officers. (10) However, few studies have examined these and other inmate attributes that may influence their perceptions of correctional officer legitimacy.

Using survey data collected from over 5,500 inmates housed in forty-six prisons in Ohio and Kentucky, we examined individual level influences on correctional officer legitimacy. We focused on the potential relevance of inmates' background factors, routines in prison, and experiences during their encounters with correctional staff.


Legitimacy refers to "the belief that authorities, institutions, and social arrangements are appropriate, proper and just." (11) Authorities are viewed as legitimate when their actions are considered acceptable based on the socially constructed norms and values of a society. (12) Scholars have argued that in democratic societies, legitimate authorities are those that are in a valid position to influence others, generally act fairly, demonstrate a capacity to achieve effective results, and can justify their actions to those affected by their decisions. (13)

In studies of the legitimacy of legal authorities, researchers have often conceived of legitimacy as individuals' perceived obligation to obey the law or the directives of authorities, and/or individuals' affective orientation towards legal authorities such as their level of support for or confidence in those authorities. (14) Tankebe has convincingly argued, however, that individuals' expressions to obey the directives of legal authorities are distinct from individuals' perceptions of the legitimacy of authorities. (15) Tyler has also noted that legitimacy is "a quality possessed by an authority, a law, or an institution that leads others to feel obligated to obey its decisions and directives." (16) Tankebe and Tyler have both observed that individuals may feel a sense of obligation to obey authorities because they consider those authorities legitimate; however, individuals may also choose to obey those authorities for other reasons (e. …

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