Application of Differential Social Support and Coercion Theory to an Understanding of Prison Organizational Change: The Case of the New Mexico Penitentiary

Mark Colvin, Kent State University

Colvin, Cullen and Vander Ven's (2002) differential social support and coercion theory, published in the February 2002 issue of Criminology, offers a comprehensive explanation of criminal behavior. I argue that this theory also has important implications for understanding organizational change and deviance within prisons. Using the case study of the Penitentiary of New Mexico (Colvin 1992), I argue that organizational change and differences over time in forms of deviance within the prison are shaped by changes in both the levels and types of social support for prisoners and the levels of coercion experienced by prisoners. Specifically, the years 1968 to 1972 witnessed an array of legitimate social support actiities related to educational and other rehabilitation programs. By 1973, asd these programs ceased to grow, illegitimate forms of social support emerged as an important feature of the prison, including organized drug trafficking rings. During this period (1968 to 1975), violence and escapes were at very low levels. Partly as a response to the alarming level of drug trafficking, which helped to fuel a political scandal, a concerted effort was undertaken in late 1975 and early 1976 to eliminate not only the drugs but also most of the inmate programs. The resulting drop in social support activities (both legitimate and illegitimate) led to a peaceful organized strike by inmates in June 1976, in protest of the loss of legitimate social supports. This inmate action was responded to with measures designed to coerce inmates into compliance. As this drop in social supports and rise of coercion occurred, violence, escapes, and other forms of disorder increased in the prison, leading ultimately to the 1980 riot in which 34 inmates were killed. Differential social support and coercion theory can thus be useful for understanding compliance and deviance within organizations like the prison. Policy implications for prison management are discussed in light of this theory and its application to the New Mexico prison experience.

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Updated 05/20/2006