Prisonization Reconceptualized: Toward a Theoretical Foundation Supportive of Sound Empirical Research

J. Stephen Parson, Eastern Kentucky University
Kevin I. Minor, Eastern Kentucky University

Dramatically rising imprisonment rates, higher than desired recidivism levels, and a host of other concerns in corrections highlight the need to better understand prisonization and its implications for management, treatment, and reentry. This paper argues that reconceptualization of prisonization is a prerequisite to improved empirical examination of its causes, processes and consequences. Its seminal status in the sociology of prison literature notwithstanding, prisonization has suffered from a lack of attention in recent years, and following earlier critiques and qualifications, is withering as a concept. Current conceptualizations are imprecise, suffer from internal inconsistencies, and are too narrowly construed; these flaws undermine theoretical and empirical efforts employing the concept of prisonization. Yet the concept remains central to undetstanding both the effects that imprisonment has on people as well as implications for addressing those effects. This paper outlines an alternate conceptual framework for prisonization. The ambiguous distinction between the convict code(s) and prison subculture(s) is addressed. The definition of prisonization is expanded to include all changes the prisoner undergoes in prison, whether due to adoption of subcultural components (values, norms, and the like), opposition to the subculture, or changes unrelated to the subculture. Potential benefits of reducing deprivation and importation from competing, central (explanatory) roles in prisonization to a single, integrated background (contextualizing) role are discussed. We offer recommendations for more appropriate selection and study of deprivation and importation variables, whether using qualitative or quantitative methods. We differentiate three mechanisms driving the prisonization process, and discuss the distinct implications of each for the prevention, interdiction and treatment of prisonization. Finally, we offer recommendations for further theoretical development.

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Updated 05/20/2006