New research of inmate society essential for prison reform

While U.S. incarcerations rates continue to climb, research into prison society has declined over the last several decades.

Derek Kreager, professor of sociology and criminology and co-funded faculty member of the Social Science Research Institute at Penn State, and Candace Kruttschnitt, professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, review research of contemporary inmate social organization in a new paper published in the Annual Review of Criminology. “Inmate socialization was once a central research area, so it’s ironic that just as incarceration rates have dramatically climbed, research into this area has stalled,” Kreager said.

In the mid-20th century ethnographers conducted sociological studies in prisons, but this type of research declined as the number of incarcerated persons in the U.S. soared to 2.3 million in 2008. “With this influx, it’s harder for prison sociologist to gain access, as prison administrators have other issues to deal with such as over-crowding and inmate violence,” Kreager explained. “There is also the belief that treatment programs stemming from previous research weren’t working.”

However, Kreager and Kruttschnitt argue the time is ripe for renewed interest in inmate society and its connections to prison stability, rehabilitation, and community reintegration. “Changes in prison race, age, crowding, gender, managerial characteristics, and the influx of drug offenders may have altered inmate social organization and have yet to receive adequate attention from prison sociologists,” Kreager said.

Kreager notes that research in the early 21st century has largely focused on the collateral consequences of incarceration on families and communities. “There has been a lot of research on inmates as they leave the prison system and reenter society, but we need to also look at what is happening in the prisons. There are theoretical reasons to conduct the research as well, as the prison system has its own unique culture.”

However, there are large obstacles to prevent research in prisons from happening, as the prisons themselves present a challenging environment to conduct research. Additionally, institutional review board approval remains a hurdle, as well as lack of institutional relationships between academics and correctional practitioners.

Kreager ascertains further study could induce prison reform, as there is a currently strong interest from both sides of the political aisle to reduce costs and number of inmates. “This is an opening for prison sociologists, as more states adopt evidence-based policies that allow for rehabilitation for nonviolent offenders as an alternative to prison. But since there has been so little recent research, we don’t know what is going on the prisons. This paper is a call to action.”

Support for this review was provided by the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and the National Institute of Justice.