11 June 2010

Prison life brutalises inmates


"Shut up and mind your own business". This code permeates the Danish prisons, where telling tales is the worst thing you can do. Even if you see a friend get blackmailed, a black eye or a broken nose.

New research shows that inmates' perception of unjust treatment of fellow inmates changes after time spent in prison. Norms change and the limit for what is acceptable move. In other words - the prison culture brutalises the inmates.

In her PhD dissertation, Linda Kjær Minke from the Faculty of Law, University of Copenhagen, researched the culture among inmates in a closed prison. Through participant observation and interviews over 13 months in the State Prison in Vridsløselille and a questionnaire for inmates in 12 institutions under the Department of Prisons and Probation, she has studied the socialisation process that takes place when inmates adopt the norms and rules that apply within the prison walls.

'Prisoner land' and 'officer land'

According to Linda Kjær Minke, one negative consequence of the socialisation process in particular is that those serving their sentences end up more in opposition to society and the system. The prison culture is characterised by a sharp differentiation between ‘us' and 'them', with officers representing society and being seen as embodying conventional norms.

" It's as if invisible limits are drawn up in the prison wards - and if an inmate oversteps the line by staying in the officers' lounge for too long, for example, trouble ensues."

PhD Linda Kjær Minke

- "In a mini-society with many restrictions where inmates exercise social control, the worst thing you can do is inform on other people. This includes violence and telling tales to prison officers about where a fellow inmate is hiding a prohibited object, for example," explains Linda Kjær Minke.

The consequences of imprisonment

People are deprived of their freedom and a wide range of benefits. The inmates already have many problems, the cells are crowded and frustration thresholds can be low. That is the main reason why forced imprisonment with others in the same situation creates this negative socialisation process. Linda Kjær Minke is clear on this point.

For this reason alone, she believes that great care should be taken when imposing a custodial sentence. She recommends the use of alternatives to forced imprisonment - such as community service, conflict counselling, suspended sentences or placing the convicted individual with other people who have no convictions.


PhD Linda Kjær Minke
Mobile +45 40 75 19 24
Email: linda.kjaer.minke@jur.ku.dk 

PhD defence

Linda Kjær Minke defended her PhD dissertation on 11 June 2010. The dissertation is entitled: "The prison's inner life - with a special focus on prison culture and prisonisation among inmates."