The Anthropology of Prisons?

A fellow Texan* and journalist, Michael Berryhill, contacted me recently with a query about whether anthropologists had done much on prisons. He’s writing a book that sounds pretty fascinating:

I’m writing a book about Texas prisons during the 1970s and 1980s, when an upheaval occurred through prison civil rights litigation. I’m interested in what anthropologists have written about the culture of prisons, their slang, their social order and the sense in which they are all part of one culture. Most prison officers, I believe, tend to think there are two cultures: the officer culture (“the good guys”) and the prisoner culture (“the bad guys”). But in reality, inmates and officers are quite interdependent. They share the same language, hours, problems, and often the same attitudes about violence.

I would be particularly interested in any field work that has been done in Southern prisons, and Texas in particular. Texas prisons evolved from Southern slave plantation culture. For the social- psychological perspective, I am using Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment, which he recently wrote about in a book, “The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil”. I consider this an important book in understanding prisons from the point of a view of a social psychologist. I’m wondering which anthropologists have done the equivalent.

I’m sure there must be lots of good stuff out there… in anthro, or in sociology, comparative with other countries, and historical? Can people help Michael out with this?

  • I know, I’m not a Texan anymore… but even one as anti-nationalist as I feels the pang of belonging which it produces 🙂

Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

25 thoughts on “The Anthropology of Prisons?

  1. If you can find it. An excellent ethnography of a halfway house:

    Wieder, D. Lawrence (1974) Language and social reality: the case of telling the convict code. The Hague: Mouton [reprinted, 1988, by University Press of America]

  2. There is a literature in folklore studies under the banner of “prison folklore.” Richard A. Burns, now on the faculty at Arkansas State University did a dissertation at UT on “Texas Prison Folklore.” Others working in this area include Bruce Jackson and Melissa Schrift. Jackson’s JAF article “Prison Folklore” is often cited and can lead to more recent stuff (via searches in JSTOR, for instance). I think one starting point for this literature was the folk song collecting that people like Lomax did in Southern prisons. The thread that goes forward from this point (if not earlier… I am not a specialist) would (I take it) center on the creative and expressive lives of the incarcerated. In a related vein, more recent work has shifted to the hothouse quality of creativity in places like refugee camps where creative folks from multiple originating communities are brought together and forced into a state of boredom. (Chris, I think Dorry Noyes spoke of this theme in her Contexts of Innovation conference talk where you were also on the program.)

  3. Anthropologist Lorna Rhodes wrote a prison ethnography entitled “Total Confinement: Madness and Reason in the Maximum Security Prison.” If I remember correctly the particular prison where she did her research was located in Washington state. It was released in 2004.

  4. It is wonderful to read this conversation. I am completing my dissertation after a two year ethnography inside a youth prison. If anyone is interested in juvenile justice angles to prison ethnography, it would be great to recieve your emails ( I rely heavily on readings of adult prison ethnographies and studies, and I appreciate the cited items above.

  5. Joshua Page, who got his PhD at UC Berkeley working with the above-mentioned Loic Wacquant (I believe) and now teaches at U Minnesota, is also someone to look into. Especially his article “Manufacturing Affinity: The Fortification and Expression of Ties between Prison Officers and Crime Victims.” 2008. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 37(6): 745-777.

  6. At the risk of suggesting something somewhat archaic, I will note that a classic work is _Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison_ by Michel Foucault.

    Foucault is out of fashion these days (with good reason), but it’s still an interesting work.

  7. Foucault is out of fashion? Are you sure he just hasn’t become so influential he’s part of the background intellectual radiation by now? 🙂

  8. See also Sharon Shalev (2009) Supermax: Controlling risk through solitary confinement (Willan Publishing) Paperback ISBN: 978-1-84392-408-1.
    Shalev is a sociologist (PhD from the LSE which has an admirable critical criminology group); the book isn’t based on lengthy fieldwork but it does have a wealth of detail. I found it particularly interesting on the architecture of supermax security prisons.

  9. Foucault’s book should definitely be on the list–I agree with Chris about that and Andrew about how his ideas about power etc are now in the mainstream of much work in cultural anthropology

  10. Also useful perhaps would be Chad Trulson and James Marquart’s recent 2009 book First Available Cell, in which they discuss the desegregation of Texas prisons in the last quarter of the 20th century.

  11. Oleg Kharkhordin’s book, The Collective and the Individual in Russia has some fantastic stuff on Soviet prison culture that, from your short message, sounds like it might be very germane.

  12. I much liked James P. Spradley’s “You owe yourself a drunk” ( ) about urban nomads / homeless drinkers and their treatment by authorities and esp. in jail in Seattle in the late 1960’s. I percieved it as a great introduction to urban anthropology, marginalized groups and drug culture in western societies, maybe viewable as a kind of forerunner to Philippe Bourgois’ work on crack/heroin culture.

  13. I also really like Spradley’s “You Owe Yourself a Drunk.” Separate from its early treatment of jail ethnography, it is also a great text for showing what an ethnoscience ethnography looks like. As an ethnography of homeless nomads pursued by police, etc. I like to read it paired with Nels Anderson’s “The Hobo” (1923), which is classic example of ethnography in Chicago School Sociology.

  14. As an ethnographic contribution, there are chapters in Alen Feldman’s “Formations of Violence” from Northern Ireland, and more specifically Maze Prison.
    IIRC, prison jargon, the roles of inmates/guards, spatial-power relations are just a few of the issues touched upon.

  15. While not technically anthropological, Ted Conover’s immersion journalism account Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing has a lot of interesting stuff to say about CO-prisoner relations. Having read it a while ago, my memory of it is a little foggy–I’d be curious to hear what folks who do anthropology of prisons think about it.

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