The study of prison life stretches back to the early twentieth century. For example, in 1913, Thomas Osborne volunteered to spend a week in Auburn Prison as an inmate for academic study (Haynes, 1948). Clemmer (1940) also was a pioneer of this line of scholarship. He described prison as a community with a pecking order and value system that exists apart from and often contradicts that of the outside world. Sykes (1958) further described prison as a society of captives, formed as a consequence of the deprivations or lack of privileges that confinement imposes on inmates. Thus, some of the early investigations of life behind bars focused on the prison as a unique social system. Even today, those involved with corrections stress that any type of person and most things outside prison may be found on the inside as well.
A salient analogy for the context of imprisonment is a community or a society. A context is an environment that typically affects the individual who is subjected to it. For example, the classroom is a context for learning, and the sports field is a context for athleticism. However, the purpose of the correctional context is not so straightforward.
Goffman (1961) claimed that prisons are total institutions. A total institution has a character that is “symbolized by the barrier to social intercourse with the outside and to departure that is often built right into the physical plant, such as locked doors, high walls, barbed wire, cliffs, water, forests, or moors” (Goffman, p. 4). Goffman described the following four characteristics that are common to total institutions in general but may not be found in each and every institution: