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Statistics Do Not Show True Picture of Prison Life

A new study based on interviews with prisoners, provides insight into what occurs beneath the surface of penal institutions, demonstrating that statistical data does not provide the full picture.

This research, based on interviews with male prisoners and published in the latest issue of The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, provides analysis of prison drug dealing as a meaningful act that takes place within a broader context of cultural codes and social relations and reveals how drug dealing practices are shaped in unexpected ways by institutional policies.

The research illustrates the complex social world of the prison that is not represented in official prison data. It shows how, rather than openly exhibiting their power, influential prisoners used the power afforded to them by drugs to exploit the inmate hierarchy using weaker and poorer prisoners for their ends.

It also suggests some discrepancies between the prison’s official aims and the motivations and actions of prisoners. For example, one prisoner reports having pretended to be a drug addict outside prison, rather than revealing that he had been a drug dealer, because of his belief that there was more to gain from buying into the prison’s rehabilitative ambitions than from being honest about his lifestyle. In statistical data he would therefore have been misrepresented as a crack addict participating on relevant drug courses, rather than as someone manipulating the system for his own ends.

The study also demonstrates that prison drug dealing seems to be driven by many of the same motivations that are regarded as legitimate and laudable in the outside community: the desire to provide for others, to be self-sufficient in the future, and to acquire status through wealth and power.

The study therefore demonstrates that to gain a true picture of prison life, we cannot rely on statistics alone, there are many more complex sociological issues to consider.

Rebecca Wray | alfa
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