Psychological theories in prison psychology

Psychological theories in prison psychology

Critically evaluate how psychological theories, concepts and explanations have been applied by prison psychologists in prisons

Ever since the 1960s and 70s the role of prisons within the social fabric has been questioned and deconstructed. Studies such as Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (1991), G.M. Sykes’ Society of Captives: Study of a Maximum Security Prison (1992) and notions such as Irving Goffman’s ‘total institutions’ in his book Asylums (1971) have consistently asserted the importance of the prison in the psychosocial make-up of Western society. For these authors, the prison represents more than merely a place of incarceration or punishment, it goes to very heart of a society’s relationship to the people that both transgress and uphold the law; in Simulacra and Simulation (2004), for instance Jean Baudrillard makes the observation that prison serves the function of a mask to hide the real carceral nature of the socius (Baudrillard, 2004: 12) and, according to Foucault, prison is merely one of many ‘enunciative modalities’ (Foucault, 1989: 55) that shape the episteme and create social Others.

Of course, what links many of these views is the connection between the prison and the asylum, criminality and mental illness. Foucault’s work on prisons came after his doctoral thesis Madness and Civilization (2004) and Goffman’s study on institutions for the insane crosses over, at various points to discuss prisons and their uses; in fact Goffman is quite candid that, in his view at least, the prison and the insane asylum share not only intrinsic qualities but intrinsic social functions and his description of a total institution could easily be used to describe the both:

“A total institution may be defined as a place of residence and work where a large number of like-situated individuals, cut off from the wider society, for an appreciable period of time, together lead an enclosed, formally administered round of life.” (Goffman, 1971: 11)

It is little wonder, then, that more and more, as we shall see, the prison psychologist is seen as an important practical and theoretical quilting point between the two notions; criminality and the mind of the criminal. This essay attempts to look at this dialogical topic assessing the place of the prison psychologist today and what they can tell us about, not only the offender and the whole notion of offending but the prison and the practice of imprisonment itself.

In their 1963 work Pentonville: A Sociological Study of an English Prison (1963), Barer, Morris and Morris describe the distinct lack of any psychiatric or psychological professionals working within the English penal system:

“The most striking feature of the medical services at Pentonville is their concentration on physical illness and their almost total lack of provision for mental illness. The prison has no psychiatrist, no psychologist and makes no use of consultants in these disciplines.” (Barer, Morris and Morris, 1963: 39)

This situation has changed tremendously since 1963. Today there are twelve areas in England and Wales each with its own team of forensic psychologists and assistants who are expected to provide services for not only the prisoners in their area but for those on probation as well . As Graham Towl and David Crighton suggest in their essay “Applied Psychological Services in the National Probation Services for England and Wales” (2005:1) this situation is not only likely to continue but the amount of psychologists required will probably increase.

Due in part to the complex nature of the prison service, the role of the prison psychologist extends far beyond the bounds of the mentally ill. As we shall see, their role is as much concerned with the nature of imprisonment and with its effect on those within it as with the prisoners themselves.

One of the most famous examples of this, of course is the Stanford Prison experiment carried out in 1973 by Haney, Banks and Zimbardo. In this seminal piece of research a group of healthy, psychologically sound male college students were observed, throughout the course of six days, in a “prison-like environment” (Haney and Zimbardo, 1998). The outcomes of the experiment, according to the experimenters themselves were “shocking and unexpected” (Haney and Zimbardo, 1998: 1):

“Otherwise emotionally strong college students who were randomly assigned to be mock-prisoners suffered acute psychological trauma and breakdowns. Some of the students begged to be released from the intense pains of less than a week of merely simulated imprisonment, whereas others adapted by becoming blindly obedient to the unjust authority of the guards.” (Haney and Zimbardo, 1998: 1)

Interestingly, the experiment was repeated almost thirty years later by the BBC in a television program called The Experiment, that managed, unlike Zimbardo’s original research to complete the projected course of two weeks (BBC, 2002) .

The Stanford project was immediately seized on by the public, the media and the Government and became, as George Miller asserted “an exemplar of the way in which psychological research could and should be given away to the public” (Haney and Zimbardo, 1998: 1) chiefly due to the important lessons that it taught both society and the experimenters about the institutions that from so much a part of our public fabric.

At its heart, the Zimbardo experiment dealt with the dynamics of prison life, the ways in which prisoners act with each other and the guards. It is not difficult to see how such research can aid us in our knowledge of both the penal system and the wider society. A number of psychological concepts arose from studies such as the Stanford experiment that still shape the way prison psychologists view their work today. Polarisation, for instance, referring to the internal psychosocial dynamics of the prison has been used not only in the carceral situation vis-à-vis the ways in which guards treat inmates but also, as Claster (1992) points out in the wider society that polarizes crime and criminals themselves, adding to the sense of division that exists between the law and its transgressors .

Prisonisation, a term first used by Clemmer (1940) to describe the psychological enculturation of prisoners, had a marked effect in the Zimbardo project that noticed, among other things, the willingness of the inmates to except their submissive roles in the experiment. Prisonisation involves the induction of the individual into a world that is governed by strange and unintelligible rules and regulations and has been used ever since the 1950s as a method by which to understand the differing reactions of prisoners to their environment (Ohlin, 1956:38).

One of the most important concepts to arise out of the Stanford project was that of deindividuation. Deindividuation refers to the lack of self-awareness that arises out of being part of a group situation (Wortley, 2002: 26). In the prison environment, deindividuation manifests itself in the types of cruelty displayed by the guards in the experiment but could equally be applied to the ways in which prisoners form groups and gangs in order to obviate their individual responsibility that is masked by the crowd as Wortely (2002) suggests:

“As a member of a crowd, an individual is afforded a degree of anonymity and becomes less concerned with the opinions and possible censure of others. At this level of deindividuation, people may be aware of what they are doing but have a reduced expectation of suffering any negative consequences.” (Wortley, 2002: 26)

The role of the prison psychologist then extends far beyond the bounds of the mentally ill and can, in certain circumstances effect all manner of different aspects of the penal system, from the architecture to the everyday running. Concepts such as those that we have been looking constitute not only a body of theoretical knowledge but tools with which governments and other agencies can measure the efficacy of their penal programs .

However we must ask how successful are prison psychologists, such Zimbardo and Clemmer in applying psychological concepts and frameworks to actual penal environments? The answer to this, I think lies in the complexity of the prison experience. For example Lloyd E. Ohlin in his study Sociology and the Field of Corrections (1956) gives an enlightening critique of the early notions of prisonisation asserting that any conclusions concerning the nature and extent of psychological enculturation of a prisoner is, by its very nature open to all manner of differing influences:

“Prisonization (sic) was…found to be related in some degree to the length of the incarceration. The process proceeded very rapidly in some cases and slowly or not at all in others (and) was intimately related to the degree of participation in the informal social life of the prison community” (Ohlin, 1956: 38)

This process is likely to be affected by not only the length of stay of the prisoner but their background, the environment of the prison, their relationship to the guards and an almost inexhaustible series of variables that would render any empirical outcome difficult if not impossible to assess.

We see this also with a notion such as deindividuation, especially as it was observed by the psychologists in the Stanford project that sought, after all, to recreate an environment that resembled, rather than actually was, a prison. Sociological studies such as Sykes (1992) and Barer, Morris and Morris (1963) have highlighted the extent that a prison consists of a complex series of social and psychological layers, each with its own members, traits and sense of community. By simply recreating the simplistic binary of guard/prisoner could not prison psychologists such as Zimbardo be seen as disregarding some of the complex nature of prison society?

The notion that the power afforded prison guards engenders abuse was one of the major conclusions of the Stanford project, however, as Joycelyn Pollock suggests, again the reality seems to be much more complex. Kercher and Martin (cited Pollock 1986: 4), for instance, found that the attitudes prison guards had towards their prisoners varied enormously from prison to prison and from guard to guard, being more a reflection of where individual guards were in their career cycle than any deeper psychological tendencies. This suggests again that psychological research carried out on small subject groups do not translate particularly well to the larger real institution.

I said in my introduction that it has become de rigueur for penal theorists to view the prison as reflective of the wider society and, perhaps, prison psychology is no exception. Commensurate with notions of the postmodern dissolution of discipline boundaries, the contemporary prison psychologist must, I think, be acutely aware of the full influence of a huge range of factors on the lives of the people they see everyday; from the architecture, to the subtle changes in group dynamics, from alterations in theory to the changes in socio-political ethos of the governing bodies. This is, perhaps, a theoretical standpoint that is missing from canonical studies like Zimbardo or Clemmer and that we only begin to see as theorists like Foucault began to exert influence.


  • Barer, Barbara, Morris, Pauline and Morris, Terance (1963), Pentonville: A Sociological Study, (London: Routledge)
  • Baudrillard, Jean (2004), Simulacra and Simulation, (Ann Arbour: The University of Michigan)
  • BBC (2002), “Shocking Experiment Recreated for TV” published online at
  • Blass, Thomas (2000), Obedience to Authority: Current Perspectives on the Milgram Program, (London: Lawrence Erlbaum)
  • Clemmer, Donald (1940), The Prison Community, (Boston: The Christopher Publishing House)
  • Crace, John (2002), “The Prison of TV”, published in The Guardian, May 14th 2002
  • Foucault, Michel (1991), Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, (London: Penguin)
  • Foucault, Michel (2004), Madness and Civilization, (London: Routledge)
  • Foucault, Michel (1989), The Archaeology of Knowledge, (London: Routledge)
  • Goffman, Erving (1971), Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates, (London: Pelican)
  • Gross, Richard (2003), Themes, Issues and Debates in Psychology, (London: Hodder and Stoughton)
  • Haney, Craig and Zimbardo, Philip (1998), “The Past and Future of U.S. Prison Policy: Twenty Five Years After the Stanford Prison Experiment, published in American Psychologist, Vol. 53
  • Harre, R and Secord, P.F. (1976), The Explanation of Social Behaviour, (London: Blackwell)
  • Malim, Tony (1997), Social Psychology, (London: Macmillan)
  • Ohlin, Lloyd (1956), Sociology and the Field of Corrections, (London: Russell Sage Foundation)
  • Pollock, Joycelyn M. (1986), Sex and Supervision: Guarding Male and Female Inmates, (London: Greenwood Press)
  • Sykes, G. (1992), Society of Captives: Study of a Maximum Security Prison, (New Jersey: Princeton University)
  • Towl, Graham and Crighton, David (2005), “Applied Psychological Services in the National Probation Service for England and Wales”, published in Crighton, David and Towl, Graham (eds), Psychology in Probation Services, (London: Blackwell)
  • Wettstein, Robert (1998), Treatment of Offenders with Mental Disorders, (London: The Guildford Press)
  • Wortley, Richard (2002), Situational Prison Control: Crime Prevention in Correctional Institutions, (Cambridge: Cambridge University)

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