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Through Their Eyes: How Prisoners Make Sense of Their Incarceration

NCJ Number
National Institute of Justice Journal Issue: 273 Dated: March 2014 Pages: 60-65
Date Published
March 2014
6 pages
Publication Series
This article reports on a research project partially funded by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), in which the researcher interviewed 80 male and female inmates about their subjective experience and interpretation of punishment in 3 Ohio State prisons.

Nearly all the prisoners agreed that being in prison is in itself a large part of their punishment. In addition, symbolic punishments were identified: the losses of autonomy and a sense of self as a person; as well as the loss of family; all of which are related to their loss of freedom. The study also examined how the experience of punishment varied, using two dimensions that arose from the data: severity (the punishment's intensity as experienced by prisoners) and salience (the importance of punishment in the minds and lives of prisoners). An analysis of the interaction of severity and salience revealed four narratives of penal consciousness. These four narratives are "punishment as part of life;" "punishment as a separate life;" "punishment as suspension of life;" and "punishment as death." Some prisoners may experience more than one narrative at the same time. The prison environment influenced penal consciousness in various ways. Direct supervision is designed to be a humane and humanizing form of incarceration that includes housing units with cells arranged around a common dayroom; commercial-grade fixtures inside cells and common areas; and amenities such as televisions, games, kitchen appliances, and do-it-yourself laundry. Prisoners under direct supervision tended to experience punishment as part of life and as a separate life. Both were associated with low-severity punishment. This contrasted with prisoners under indirect supervision, which involves traditional linear-style cellblocks. These inmates tended to experience punishment as suspension of life and punishment as death. Female inmates tended to lament the lack of consistency and routine in prison. 2 notes

Date Published: March 1, 2014