Academic journal article Law & Society Review

Prisoners' Adjustment, Correctional Officers, and Context: The Foreground and Background of Punishment in Late Modernity

Academic journal article Law & Society Review

Prisoners' Adjustment, Correctional Officers, and Context: The Foreground and Background of Punishment in Late Modernity

Article excerpt

Past research indicates that front-line criminal justice workers are the critical players in determining whether innovations in penal policy are realized. Recent attempts to understand the diversity in the application of the penal harm movement have, however, sidestepped the primary audience of these policies, the population of convicted offenders. This article uses data from two prisons to examine the effects of correctional officers on women prisoners' adjustment to prison life. Using regression models and interview data, we find that correctional officer behavior has a profound impact on women's ability to adjust to prison, and this effect is largely independent of the prisoners' characteristics and the institutions in which they are housed. On a theoretical level, the findings speak to recent calls to examine the background and foreground of penal culture. On a practical level, they highlight the need to understand the environments from which women are emerging, not just the communities into which they are released.

The way that these people treat us, it's as though emotionally and physically they feel we will never get out of prison, so they can do whatever they want to us. They forget that ... the way they treat them will be reflected] back on them, because these people, some of them will get out . .. but they don't think about that. And it sounds like a threat, but it's not really a threat. That's just an old saying that goes around prison, because the way that some of these people treat the inmates, you would swear that they think we were rabid dogs or something like that.

(California inmate)

Prisons changed dramatically over the course of the twentieth century in this country. Inmate populations expanded; new prisons, including high-security, "super-max" facilities and private prisons were built at an alarming rate; and those who were charged with working in these institutions generally have inadequate training (Britton 2003; Irwin 2005). Public concern shifted to isolating and managing the "dangerous classes" rather than reforming or helping them to change their ways. While all of this has been well documented and heralded as hallmarks of the "penal harm movement" or the "new penology" (Feeley & Simon 1992), an equally compelling thesis points to an uneven and incomplete transformation in penal policy, one that varies across social contexts and one that reflects criminal justice actors' differential abilities to absorb new ideologies about punishment (Kruttschnitt & Gartner 2003:59; Lynch 1998; O'Malley 1992, 1996; Garland 1985, 1990, 1997, 1999). According to Garland, "[t]his ongoing attempt to reorient criminal control institutions and revise their relations to a changing social environment [is] very much a matter of patchwork repairs and interim solutions rather than well thought-out reconstruction" (2001:103).

Some scholars have tried to explain this "patchwork" effect, or the noted variation in the assimilation of the penal harm movement. Simon and Feeley (1995), acknowledging the limitations of their own conceptualization of the "new penology," argue that there is a disjuncture between populist views about crime and criminality and actual penal policies. More recently, Cheliotis (2006) suggests three rationales. First, at the point of implementation of criminal justice policy, the new penology downplays the role of human agency. second, the new penology ignores the positive potential of managerialism; and third, it misses the continuity between past and contemporary penal features. Notably, Lynch's (2001) research on parole officers in California provides empirical support for two of these hypotheses. Policy initiatives redefined some of the roles of parole officers, including characterizing their job as being more about instrumental needs of the system rather than providing help to their clients. Lynch (1998) demonstrates that while parole officers were aware of these initiatives, they were reluctant to put them into practice. …

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