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Prison Group Dynamics and Organizational Behavior


An informal social group can be defined as a group of people (at minimum three) that have created a solidified pattern of social attitudes, values and interactions based on loyalty, similar interests or home backgrounds, crime associations and their ability to cooperate in the execution of a natural function (Caldwell, 1956). The cooperation in the execution of a natural function is what a social group centers around because it is the interest that connects the group. For example, in a prison community composed of adult males, the function could be gambling, the cooking of moonshine or participating in homosexual relations (Caldwell, 1956).

Since the prison population is divided into these social groups, the leadership among inmates is different than the leadership among average American citizen. This can also be attributed to the inmates’ individualism and the absence of opportunities (Caldwell, 1956). These situations provide an environment that promotes leadership roles among recidivist inmates who have been in prison for an extended period. Inmates also gain leadership positions by participating in or assigning acts of aggression/violence or by exhibiting psychopathic behavior (Caldwell, 1956). Since the recidivists tend to establish their role as leader through acts of physical violence, the inmate population socialization often also includes physically abusive conditioning, thereby promoting violent and aggressive behaviors within prisons.

Inmate leadership can be a difficult challenge for a chaplain to overcome in a prison, but it is important because this leadership can create a barrier against spiritual values. It has previously been established that since the leaders in a prison tend to be violent recidivists they can cause their fellow inmates to be conditioned into accepting aggressive habits. This directly contradicts the habits that the chaplain is working to instill. The chaplain could attempt to reach out to the leaders and mold their character so that it complies with spiritual values, but this is unlikely to work. However, the chaplain could work to form social groups around Bible studies or services that they are leading. This could allow new leaders to emerge that are presenting the spiritual values to the rest of the inmate population.

Just as leadership is arranged differently in prisons, so is their culture. Prison has a distinctive culture which is communicated to every new inmate (Caldwell, 1956). This culture is comprised of a set of habits, behaviors, customs, oral history, the prisoners’ code and opinions about the prison system, guards and the society outside of prison (Caldwell, 1956). The two most relevant aspects of prison culture to chaplains are oral history and the prisoners’ code. Prison oral history consists of historic events including bold prison escapes, exceptional riots, lengthy seated strikes, substantial achievements of persistence, courage in pain or adversity and preceding dangerous and criminal deeds of infamous felons (Caldwell, 1956). The prisoners’ code is the second important aspect of prison culture because it regulates how an inmate interacts with fellow inmates and prison personnel. The code forbids inmates to fraternize with guards or any prison personnel unless it is about business matters (Caldwell, 1956). This is especially true regarding the plans for riots, prison breaks or snitching on other inmates. Even if an inmate has already escaped, the code prohibits discussing it with the guards. Although, the code does treat rehabilitative personnel differently because they assist with parole (Caldwell, 1956). Lastly, the code specifies that if an inmate needs material items to escape, all other inmates must provide what they can. All of this fosters a spirit of loyalty and cooperation between the inmates.

The prisoners’ code is a barrier to spiritual values because it encourages inmates to bond together against the prison staff and institution. It also encourages inmates to assist people who yearn to break the law and to even break the law themselves. A chaplain has a unique opportunity to serve these inmates because they are members of the rehabilitation staff and can assist the inmates with receiving parole. This allows the chaplain to work with and directly influence the inmates since it is within the prisoners’ code to be associated with the chaplains. This is also where it becomes important for the chaplains to be knowledgeable about the prison’s oral history. In every culture, oral history is important because it provides an identity and sense of personal belonging. This is no different in prison. If a chaplain hopes to fully serve their inmates, they need to understand their cultural history and how it has shaped their current identity.

Prison acculturation is dependent upon many factors and understanding these factors can reveal innovative solutions on how to overcome the barriers preventing spiritual values. The most common term for prison acculturation, “Prisonization,” was coined by Donald Clemmer (Clemmer, 1940). This term encompasses the variety of ways that a singular inmate or group can incorporate new prison cultural characteristics into their personal lives. To achieve an advantageous status, an inmate must embrace the new culture that they have been exposed to (Clemmer, 1940). After the culture is accepted they become susceptible to the approval and condemnation that is offered by the inmate leadership. How quickly and at what level an inmate becomes prisonized is dependent upon the inmate’s personality, his relationships outside of prison that were formed before incarceration, if they were accepted into an informal group, the length of their sentence, their level of acceptance of the prisoners’ code without questioning it and their association with illegal activities like gambling, making moonshine or homosexual relations (Clemmer, 1940).

The factors that lead an inmate to becoming prisonized can be observed and prevented. Since a chaplain can hinder or help the process of parole, inmates are more willing to listen and reason with them as opposed to prison guards. Through religious services or studies chaplains can teach inmates about the benefits of spiritual values and avoiding prison culture. By showing the inmates that prisonization will only hold them back from being released from prison and beginning a new life a chaplain can prevent the participation in activities that do not align with spiritual values.


Caldwell, M. G. (1956). “Group dynamics in the prison community.” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 46 (5). Retrieved from https://scholarlycommons.law.northwestern.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=4422&context=jclc

Clemmer, D. (1940). “The prison community.Social Forces 19 (3): 442-443. Retrieved from http://rx9vh3hy4r.search.serialssolutions.com/?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2004&ctx_enc=info%3Aofi%2Fenc%3AUTF-8&rfr_id=info%3Asid%2Fsummon.serialssolutions.com&rft_val_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Ajournal&rft.genre=article&rft.atitle=The+Prison+Community.+By+Donald+Clemmer.+Boston%3A+Christopher+Publishing+House%2C+1940.+341+pp.+%244.00&rft.jtitle=Social+Forces&rft.au=Ackerson%2C+L&rft.date=1941-03-01&rft.issn=0037-7732&rft.eissn=1534-7605&rft.volume=19&rft.issue=3&rft.spage=442&rft.epage=443&rft_id=info:doi/10.2307%2F2570754&rft.externalDBID=n%2Fa&rft.externalDocID=10_2307_2570754&paramdict=en-US

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