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The Dynamic of Carceral Socialization Processes

Manuel Cabelguen
Traduction de Uri Ben-Gal
Cet article est une traduction de :
Dynamique des processus de socialisation carcérale [fr]


This study examines the adaptive processes of prisoners in various correctional centres. It is based on qualitative data collected through semi-directed interviews. The analysis has allowed us to create a typology that reveals the attitudes, opinions or values that prisoners adopted in relation to other inmates, prison staff or to the prison in general. We have also discerned four ideal types that clarify prisoners' trajectories. From these results, we have identified determining factors that relate to the process of integration. The type of detention, age, length of incarceration, number of incarcerations, type of offence, and meaningful prisoner relationships with the outside world are all significant variables.

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1Two conditions are necessary to understand how an individual adapts socially to his environment. Firstly, it is important that the opinions and attitudes of the individual do not contradict those which confirm that he belongs to a given social milieu. Secondly, the opinions and attitudes of the milieu must not contradict the deeply held attitudes of the individual, thus questioning a value system that is part of his personality (Boudon, 2002). Thus, social adaptation results from a reflexive dynamic of « trans-construction » in which the values of the individual and the milieu adjust themselves (Taché, 2003).

2In the carceral context, there is, nevertheless, a problem in the application of this definition. Indeed, the context of isolation and confinement, the uprooting from an original socio-cultural milieu and confrontation with one sometimes very different from his own, are changes that can cause a rupture from the daily habits developed on the outside. Every detainee can be  forced to live in close proximity to social groups that are antagonistic in terms of values, opinions or attitudes. In the particular life context, we want to understand how the detainees socially integrate within the milieu, but we also want to isolate the different factors that can determine their trajectories.

Theoretical Framework

3The rules of the carceral milieu define this type of organization as being a « total » institution (Sykes, 1958). The detainee lives within a space of constraint that is strictly defined, where his movements, what he eats, what he wears, what he buys, are completely controlled. He lives within a cell that most often will not have chosen by him, subject to a precise administrative or legal regulation that will dictate his actions, forcing him to adopt a specific code of behaviour. In the same way, he is forced to pursue only those work or leisure activities that are acceptable to or proposed by the institution. Also, in the carceral universe, the variegated aspects of normal living are compressed within a single setting. That means that the places of residence, work and leisure are all found in the same space-thus, the description of the institution as total. However, prison should not be understood only through the lens of political rectitude, but should be seen more in terms of networks of norms which are negotiated through a constant exchange among prisoners, prison personnel, as well as agencies on the outside. Thus, the prisoner must simultaneously negotiate a series of formal as well as informal rules, within the constant exchanges that are part of normalized, personalized, negotiated or conflictual interpersonal relationships (Chantraine, 2004b; Chauvenet, 1998; Cooley, 1992; Goffman, 1961; Rostaing, 1997; Sykes and Messinger, 1960; Vavikhine, 2004).

4From these relational modes, several axes of research are used to describe the particular forms of carceral adaptation.

5Indeed, this polarity of adaptive modes (cooperation vs. non-acceptance) with regard to carceral rules (formal vs. informal) allows us to perceive different modes in the process of integration.

  • 1  This term was used for the first time by Clemmer (1940), in English, as "prisonization" and transl (...)

6In recent decades, the process of prisonization1 has probably been one of the most studied phenomena in the carceral milieu. This term, developed by Clemmer (1940), describes the change in prisoners' values or attitudes, which, depending on the length of incarceration, orients towards an opposition to institutional rules, a distancing from prison's personal values, and a re-inforcement of solidarity among prisoners (Lemire, 1990; Wheeler, 1961). Another process, defined as atomization, has also been observed, and it describes an opposite type of change, reinforced by an interindividual isolation, which therefore questions the concept of carceral culture and relativizes the Clemmerian universalism, a phenomenon of prisonization (Cunha, 1995; Vacheret, 2002). However, according to the work of Cooley (2002), these two processes would be part of the same dynamic. Thus, he qualifies prison as a milieu that is partially unstable, where neither discord nor harmony predominate, thus supporting the notion of a cultural relativism.

7Several carceral typologies support this point of view (Bottoms, 1999; Chantraine, 2004b; MacKenzie et al., 1987; Maitland and Sluder, 1996; Schrag, 1954; Sinclair and Chapman, 1973; Zamble and Porporino, 1988). Indeed, in analyzing more precisely the various carceral roles, different typologies demonstrate that the analysis of this environment cannot be based on a system of homogeneous values, instead favoring the idiosyncratic relationship each prisoner develops with his milieu. Thus these classifications offer a better description of the roles that prisoners endorse as well as a better comprehension of the dynamics of adaptation that operate in this milieu. As already pointed out by Irwin (1970), carceral roles can be related to an array of values associated with different groups of prisoners. The culture of the prisoner should therefore be thought of as having a multiple character, being defined on the basis of the degree of adhesion or opposition by the prisoner to the different values existing in the milieu.

8Based on these classifications, it seems possible to identify various factors that explain the modes of integration. Another stream of research has specified these different causes. One after another, these studies have shown that the type of institution(Gendreau et al., 1997; Wright, K.N., 1991; Wright, K. N., 1993; Zamble and Porporino, 1988), the type of offense (Gendreau et al., 1997; Schwaebe, 2005), the age of the prisoner (Gallagher, 2001; Garofalo and Clark, 1985; Gendreau et al., 1997; Hanson et al., 1983) or the prisoner's knowledge of the prison (Goodstein et al., 1984; MacKenzie and Goodstein, 1985; Zamble, 1992; Zamble and Porporino, 1988), had a strong effect on the nature of the carceral adjustment.

9This study will aim to increase our understanding of the socialization process. Hence, the construction of a typology will be an indispensible precondition for the identification of the factors (environmental vs. individual) that influence the place, carceral role and identity of the prisoner.


The Characteristics of Observed Settings

  • 2  The detention centres house the condemned who face sentences of one year or more, and who offer th (...)

10This study is based on the observation of a population of 30 prisoners encountered in three French correctional centres2. The decision to study these three centres was made in order to ensure a better generalization of results. Hence, the evaluation of this particular type of detention suggests an interest in integrating within our analysis the totality of the carceral trajectory. This data has provided supplementary indications related to the modes of adaptation observable in « maisons d'arrets » (remand prisons that also house those sentenced to less than one year of detention) as well as « maisons centrales » (high-security prisons for dangerous offenders)

Description of the Sample

11The composition of the sample was initially based on a selection of prisoners chosen according to the type of offense, the age of the prisoner and the length of incarceration. We wanted an equilibrium among these different variables in order to obtain a strong heterogeneity. In reality, it was difficult to impose this methodological rigor since it has been so difficult to meet with certain types of prisoners. It was especially difficult to meet prisoners who were strongly prisonized or atomized. We must also emphasize the involvement of prison personnel in the selection: they sometimes proposed lists of those prisoners they deemed appropriate, according to their own subjectivities. Hence, in order to avoid this bias, some interviews were conducted more or less fortuitously, in the living units, in corridors, etc.

12We have kept 30 interviews, forming a population with an average age of 40 years, 2/3 of the participants were doing their first prison term, and 1/3 were incarcerated for « délits » (less serious offenses) or sexual crimes.

Variables Studied

13This qualitative research is mainly based on data collected from semi-directed interviews and a socio-demographic questionnaire The interviews were first and foremost oriented around questions designed to explore the subculture of the prisoner, his carceral trajectory, his perceptions with regard to the other prisoners as well as the prison personnel. We wanted to understand the salient stages of his incarceration, such as the different types of violence (verbal and physical) exercised, suffered, or witnessed. Also, we asked everyone to recount his carceral trajectory, from the first to the last incarceration. This interview protocol allowed us to simultaneously establish a typical profile of positions adopted within a « centre dedétention » (medium security prison) or during eventual incarcerations in a maison d’arrêt (remand prison) or in a maison centrale (high security prison).

14We also wanted to evaluate the different dimensions of certain sociodemographic characteristics (lengths of incarceration, type of offense, number of incarcerations, age, civil status, level of education, profession or trade before incarceration).


15From these interviews, we have produced three types of analysis, based firstly upon the principle of an emergent categorization that consisted of a thematic classification of verbatim accounts. This classification allowed us to then proceed to the typological analysis, consisting of a grouping of prisoners that indicates certain similarities in the discourses. Finally, we have produced a third analysis by crossing socio-demographic variables with the typology produced.


16One part of the results will present a typology based on a description of different carceral roles. A second part will present certain explanatory factors relating to these social positionnings.


17The analysis of interviews was firstly based on the principle of an emergent categorization, revealing the particularities of the prisoners according to: the degree of alienation from the institution (cooperation/non-acceptance); the type of behaviors adopted with regard to others, whether they are passive (isolated in the cell, avoiding certain areas) or active (contraband, rackets, intense phyical training); or the type of carceral experience in other institutions (maison d’arrêt/maison centrale/centre de détention). From this data, we have noticed a certain number of common values or traits, signifying a delimitation among certain types of prisoners. We have noted different modes in the process of integration, characterized by the intensity or the forms of communication towards other prisoners or prison personnel. This qualitative appreciation has thus allowed us to reveal four ideal types which confer different and specific identity roles upon prisoners.

18T1. From our interviews, we have identified a first type of prisoner, characterized notably by a strong will to integrate into groups of peers with similar values. Those values were based, on the one hand, on the rejection of prison authority and its principal representatives and, on the other, the strong stigmatization of prisoners condemned for sexual assaults, more precisely, vulnerable inmates. Hence, this double component would appear in the discourse through a rationalization of the rapport to prison marked by a predatory perspective.

19« Some people are wolves, some people are sheep. In life, it's better to be a wolf than a sheep because in the end, the sheep is always eaten ». (03, multirecidivist prisoner, 28 years old, in prison for drug trafficking, sentenced to 59 months in prison).

20This type of discourse, that represents the prison milieu as being made, on the one hand, of prey, and on the other, of predators, is also marked by an attempt to legitimize one's dominant position in prison. Hence, they declare the importance of being part of the strongest where the law of the jungle prevails. This form of natural legitimization is also revealed in a discourse where the violence that they report is banalized, where it is normal to carry out justice yourself.

  • 3  A term that refers to prisoners incarcerated for crimes or offenses of a sexual nature.

21« In a vice case following a crime and all that, pedophiles, those people, we don't like them. And each time they are beaten, it goes without saying. We, the hounds3, we don't accept that. In my case, we think about our children, our godchildren (...) there is a guy, who recidivated and got a certain sentence, he got as much as a car thief. The car thief, he can't take it. After that, it is justice among us, you know ». (01, recidivist prisoner, 41 years old, in prison for drug trafficking, sentenced to 4 years in prison).

22These prisoners reject their peers incarcerated for sexual assaults and refuse any degree of affiliation with them It flows from the reinforcement of a sub-cultural consensus that is based on the rejection of pedophiles or of any prisoner that had committed violent or abusive acts against a weak or physically vulnerable person. Thus, it is apparent in the discourse and the action that this other process for the legitimization of violence is part of a specific category for prisoners, revealing a strong protectionism, based upon a certain moral integrity while minimizing the prisoners' own offenses.

23The relationship that this category of prisoner maintains with carceral authority also reveals a particular trait that distinguishes him from other prisoners. He thus describes having difficulty in adapting to the rules of carceral authority. The discourse was, as a matter of fact, marked by insults, provocations, claims or impediments to the rules of organization, reflecting a strong antagonism towards the guards. Nevertheless, behind this refusal to submit to authority, we have observed shared or protected spaces that were negotiated most often in a spirit of suspicion.

24« Well, there are guards who will be nice, well, who will be on your side, and others who will be against you, you know. And, there are guards who are neutral, you know. In the end, it all depends on the guard, whether or not you pissed him off. It's always the same, there's always a reaction. Well, the guard, you can piss him off, he will fuck you...if some day he has something against you,  and then you have some problems with some guys, he won't be there to protect you. He won't cover you, you know. They will say, well, go for it. This guy pissed me off, so the guard won't intervene. It's enough just to bump into some bad ones, well, you fucked me over, and there's nothing you can do about it, you know. (...) Well, it happens sometimes. Then, you have to keep your mouth shut, you can't go complain to the office, because...It's not where you want to complain, the office, you complain and all, it can still get worse, you know ». (01, 41 year old recidivist prisoner, imprisoned for drug trafficking, doing a four year sentence).

25This type of prisoner thus adopts diverse strategies and codes of behavior that express a sharing of common values where violence in relation to guards is banalized. For these prisoners, the symbol of authority is therefore almost always represented as a repressive tool and rarely as a tool of protection.

26T2 Another type of prisoner has emerged from our interviews. Like the first, these prisoners appear to belong to groups adhering to common values, where they reject authority in general, and stigmatize prisoners in particular. However, this group offered an interpretation of the milieu in a mode that is generally more elaborated and apparently more tolerant of other systems of values. Thus they seem to better respect the different forms of authority, whether on the side of the prisoners or on the side of the guards. They were able to find in them both a source of protection and a means of answering certain needs.

27« Adapting to a milieu, above all, to a prison milieu, is to suffer as little as possible. Suffering as little as possible, that means getting as little psychological and physical punishment as possible, as little aggression as possible from other prisoners and the administration, and very quickly you submit to a code of behaviour (...) that means that you are a robber, you must behave as a robber ». (04, a 37 year old recidivist prisoner, imprisoned for drug trafficking, doing a 6 year sentence).

28Also, these most calculating of prisoners evaluate the risks and benefits where they can remove the connections that they maintain either with the prison staff or with the prisoners and thus become affiliated with groups more to guaranty their security and avoid existing violence.

29In relation to carceral authority, they show fewer altercations or disciplinary reports, but nevertheless mention having in the past been able to participate in riots or experience conflicts but in the context where the use of force could be justified as a function of age, location, and circumstances. But in general, these prisoners accept the rules and submit to them quite easily.

30« Because we are prisoners, we are always wrong (...) it's not because of having adapted to this, it is superficially accepted because in our hearts we don't accept it. Ultimately, I prefer to walk away and not have trouble ». (36, a 53 year old recidivist, imprisoned for drug trafficking, sentenced to a term of 8.5 years).

31But this type of prisoner often experiences delicate situations where he must look good as much with the prisoners as with the prison staff, something which can come into conflict with one of the informal rules conveyed by the milieu which is not discussed with the guards. This group thus encourages a stronger partnership with the prisoners and a rejection of authority that is more from strategic choice than from conviction.

32T3. A third type of prisoner emerged from our interviews, based on the distinction related to a stigmatized group that is generally incarcerated for sexual offences. These prisoners are also set apart from the two preceding groups, their discourse showing values that are less « macho ». But, although stigmatized by different groups of prisoners, they nevertheless succeed in acquiring a certain respect that shelters them from physical violence as well as racket-related harassment. Probably because they render certain services, such as writing letters or sometimes offering legal advice and might also occupy positions of responsibility, it seems that they succeed in influencing the carceral population enough to provide themselves with a relative security.

33« I've met colleagues who were victims of the aggression of others, of mass condemnation. Yes, yes, I've met them. I can't say why, but I've not had that problem. But, it is a way of being (...) Well, sometimes, there were some arguments, but after, it's best not to pursue things. But I never had problems » (24, a 49 year old first-time prisoner, sentenced to a 15 year term for a vice offence).

34But above all, this way of being is linked to social skills that especially allow them to deter or better anticipate an imminent danger or to suppress the possible escalation of violence.

35« What's disarming is the fact of being calm. Because in general, what they're after is just to brawl, so that people will be afraid. Well, not being afraid, saying to them « you want to fight? Okay ». But, to be smiling, to disarm the other guy (...)to stand tall, both physically and figuratively-that's what's important. That means to not back down ». (14, a 54 year-old first time offender, imprisoned for a vice offense, sentenced to 8 years).

36Thus, behaviors and attitudes might explain the reasons that help prisoners avoid a certain number of acts of violence.

37The social skills that allow for the improvement of their relationships with other prisoners seem to also encourage good relationships with staff. These  prisoners generally rationalize the relationship to guards in foreseeing difficulties encountered by staff and this, according to organizational constraints. Their behaviors in relation to the guards are marked by an attitude of tolerance and cooperation These prisoners make a clear distinction between the individual and professional responsibilities of the staff.

38« It's true, I guess, that being a guard is not that simple because you have colleagues, because you have the pressure of the union, I know it has an important role and we also know that there are sometimes routines in the institution and it's not always easy to change, it's more the culture of the place » (24 a 49 year old first time offender, incarcerated for a vice offence, sentenced to 15 years).

39This relationship with the guards is therefore marked by a willingness to improve the conditions of life through a positive collaboration with the formal rules of the administration.

40T4. Finally, we have produced a last category, consisting of those who experience serious difficulties in adapting to other prisoners. The members of this group are the most vulnerable prisoners. Hence, their position in the milieu is characterized by a strong acceptance of carceral norms that are related to the production of formal rules. 

41In terms of their relationships with prisoners, they consider themselves most often to be victims, describing themselves as weak or fragile, submitting with resignation to various daily verbal assaults, and sometimes physical ones.

42« I have been accosted by… and… « fat man » tells me « we know why you’re here, you better go go to your cell »… then they put me, like that… « that can be a problem for you ». I had arrived on the morning at 9h00, 9h15, I was gone. Then I understood that prison was not what I had imagined, itwas not very friendly » (06, first time offender, 55 years old, incarcerated for a vice crime, sentenced to a 15 years prison term).

43These prisoners, distinguished by both their physical vulnerability and psychological fragility, are also the targets of other prisoners, based on the types of offenses for which they have been incarcerated. Thus, these prisoners who have committed sexual assaults experience strong stigmatization by the other prisoners and in order to survive, they choose to withdraw to their cells. The behavior of these prisoners signals above all their passivity and is expressed by a greater degree of social withdrawal.

44In relation to carceral authority, they displayed, in their discourse, a greater wish to have contact with the guards, especially to secure better protection for themselves. Yet, in spite of the apparent confidence they seemed to express about the guards, they expressed a mistrust of the various pressures exercised by this same authority.

45« A guard, to be considered as tough, he'll say : « here, this one is inside for that ». This way, he'll look good, he doesn’t have any problems (…) When I arrived in my cell : « Ah ! Here is the hound, says the guard. The guard was pleased to say loudly : ah! Here is the hound » (06, first time offender, 55 years old, incarcerated for a vice crime, sentenced to a 15 years prison term).

46This violence thus leads these prisoners to isolate themselves, finding themselves caught between a stigmatization created as much by the prisoners as by the penitentiary staff.

Modes of Carceral Socialization-Explanatory Factors

47From this typology, which allows us to synthesize the large quantity of information gained in our interviews, we can now advance a certain number of hypotheses concerning the sociological determinants that might explain the processes of integration relative to the different carceral sub-cultures. Our analysis has effectively allowed us to reveal three main explanatory variables. Thus, it seems that the type of detention, the category of offence,, and the carceral experience are the most imporatant factors to consider.

Type of Detention

48The different carceral environments, such as the maison d'arret (MA), the centre de détention (CD) or the maison centrale (MC), are very distinct milieus from the point of view of the population received, the security level or the proposed activities. These strong disparities, which do not necessarily structurally modify the configurations of the group inside the milieus, nevertheless seem to affect certain tendencies which seem to reinforce values and opinions, thus adding to the degree of coercion. Indeed, our results show, that, for each of the milieus, there seems to be an important difference in the life story told. The prisoners have claimed that they have suffered or have made others suffer more physical violence, insults or suicide attempts in the MA and also report having experienced more riots or serious violence in the MC. As well, we have found that the type 1 and 2 prisoners have demonstrated a greater resistance to the values of the staff, a greater reinforcement of their anticarceral values, with an increased participation in trafficking, consumption of psychocative substances or in violence.

49« One also has to go to the high security prisons, like Moulins, like St-Maur, like Clairvaux. There, you have stuff to get busy with. There, it is not the same thing. Just a prisoner who talks to a guard is seen as bad. One doesn’t talk … everybody puts up a fence. There is a guard and there is a prisoner. There is practically no dialog. I am talking about maison centrale. Because here, there are dialogs» (07, recidivist, 48 years old, incarcerated for manslaughter, sentenced to a 20 year prison term).

50However, the type 3 and 4 prisoners, for their part, indicated a greater victimization, claimed more insults or physical violence, like this prisoner who spoke to us of the actual conditions of his detention in relation to those he experienced at a maison centrale.

51« It's true that it brings a certain peace, a peace of mind and of living, you know (...) The situation is really different at the centrale. I'm not out looking for people I will pass by. We're more laid back than that, you know » (20, a 56 year old first offender, imprisoned for a vice offence, sentenced to 18 years).

52In the CDs, it seems that the polarization among sub-groups, expressed particularly through violence, is less present. Our interviews seem to show that the less strict rules in the CD, the respect for numerus clausus (capped number), or the fact that the institution houses prisoners showing better chances for reintegration, might improve the quality of interpersonal relationships both among the prisoners and between the prisoners and the prison staff. It therefore seems that the modes of management in different carceral contexts or the selection of intake populations have direct implications for the quality of the mode of carceral integration.

Type of Délit

53We have noticed that the adaptation of prisoners also depends on the causes of incarceration.   Thus, the prisoners who committed sexual offences showed greater difficulties in adapting, experiencing a strong stigmatization and suffering more insults or physical violence. We have seen that these prisoners experienced a strong rejection by the rest of the population. Inversely, the other prisoners were paradoxically able to see themselves valued for their crimes.

54« Well, when someone would ask me why I was there… I was very naive at the beginning, the first months, I said : « Ya ! I’m here for car theft and hash ». And after 6 months normally I should have been out. And the guy who I said that to, 8-9 months afterwards, he told me : But you’re still not out ? You, you are a hound. ». And then I isolated in… I would have been better of saying that I killed somebody, at least, I would have been left alone, you know. It's more valued for them to be there for having killed somebody then not to have killed and have committed rape. » (15, first time offender, 28 years old, incarcerated for vice crime, sentenced to an 18 year prison term).

55A form of hierarchy is established based on the offense, which determined the role and place of the prisoner in the milieu. Consequently, for the prisoners, this reinforces social distortions in a system where the objective is on the contrary, to modify them.

Carceral Experience

56We have also noticed that the number of incarcerations, the period of incarceration or more importantly, the familiarity with the milieu, might explain the process of adaptation. We have noticed the disparities among the reactions, when the prisoner was incarcerated for the first time or when he was re-experiencing this situation. Thus, the prisoners were able to perceive this event as routine, even going as far as to describe the milieu as a form of social valorization. However the prisoners who were discovering the milieu for the first time, recounted having experienced strong difficulties at the beginning of their incarcerations. But in time these same prisoners accomodated themselves  to the situation by learning the new rules of living and above all, by the acceptance of this new social condition.

57« Yeah ! we see those who come for the first time and the experienced ones, it is not the same at all (…) Well, the guy that comes for the first time doesn’t know anything… he tries to blend into the walls. Whereas the experienced ones knows all the plugs, the ropes, he knows everything. He is on his turf. He is at home. He knows how to manage. » (06, first time offender, 55 years old, incarcerated for a vice offence, imprisoned for a 15 years term).

58We note also, that the more culturally close the prisoner is to this milieu (through family knowledge), experience of multiple incarcerations, an experience of juvenile incarceration), the more his integration is facilitated. A contrario, the more that prison represents a sociocultural milieu distanced from the milieu of origin, the more difficult will be the carceral adaptation. The lifestyle outside of prison, such as belonging to (or having belonged to) groups of youths that have been criminalized, can promote this carceral integration.

59The carceral experience is also closely related to the age of the prisoners. Indeed, most of the prisoners in our sample indicated to us that the most violent ones or those most actively involved in trafficking were the youngest prisoners. They suggest that they had often tried to join peer groups of the same age, admitting their participation in abuses related to a collection of behaviors associated with the values of criminal carceral sub-cultures.

60From another point of view, we have noted that the prisoners, in getting older, displayed greatly reduced deviant responses.

61« In my case, it happened to me very young. Therefore, you adapt quickly (…) Young, we were in a group, there was no social class, no origins. We were much more in solidarity than now. » (22. recidivist, 40 years old, incarcerated for hold-up and murder, incarcerated for life).

62These older prisoners thus expressed less of a desire to belong to a group, preferring to stay detached and evoke the past or feel nostalgia for their own cultural origins. However, this reality is reactualized continuously with the new generations of prisoners who, in their own way, participate in keeping alive this orally-transmitted culture.


  • 4  Merton (1997), created a typology made up of five modes of adaptation resulting from a profound co (...)

63These results show that the prisoners are split between different types of rules, oscillating between formal official rules and informal unofficial ones, that lead the prisoner in the game of negotiation split among suspicion, defiance or confidence and which characterizes institutional modes of adaptation already observed in the work of Goffman (1961). In this context, in order for them to be integrated, they must establish complex strategies, notably in the choice of values, opinions or attitudes to be adopted. Thus, the manner in which it is faced, resisted, or submitted to, allowed us to understand a dynamic that is contained between two fundamental axiological elements-cooperation and non-acceptance. The crossing of these two axes thus allowed us to describe the adaptation of the prisoner on the basis of standards of reference from which we have been able to design our four ideal types (Merton, 1997)4. These results are similar to some descriptions already derived from several carceral typologies (Bottoms, 1999; Chantraine, 2004b; MacKenzie et al., 1987; Maitland and Sluder, 1996; Schrag, 1954; Sinclair and Chapman, 1973; Zamble and Porporino, 1988). We find the same components for a certain number of identity or sub-cultural position. Within these positions we have found different types of prisoners that showed their acceptance of certain values or opinions. We have thus found that the prisoners are distinguishable in terms of the values conveyed to prisoners or members of staff, noticing a particular attachment or rejection in relation to different groups of prisoners. We have isolated three groups of prisoners that are similar to the description already made in the works Irwin and Cressey (1962). 

64Some referred to this sub-culture that supported the values or the criminal attitudes. This group expressed the most anticonformist discourse where anything that symbolized authority was almost categorically rejected. They thus claimed to belong to a group that coalesced around a code of specific behavior, based on the reinforcement of informal rules. Among these prisoners, we were able to observe a category of prisoners that were differentiated by the degree of anti-social attitude and violence expressed in relation to other prisoners or members of the penitentiary staff (T1).

65On the other hand, from our interviews there emerged prisoners who, although having sometimes spent time in this population with criminal values, nevertheless indicated in their discourse an absence of the use, for themselves, of this type of value or behavior that could have been linked to. Nevertheless, they claimed to have spent more time in the criminal than non-criminal subcultures. Thus , they made up a separate sub-culture, referring to prisoners that were developing in this milieu of utilitarian values (T2).

66Lastly, another group appeared within our sample, being marked by a strong rejection and stigmatization by prisoners and certain members of penitentiary staff. These prisoners are characterized by a conformist discourse in sync with the expectations of the authorities.

67This group could be sub-divided into two types of prisoners: a first group that might have enough social skills to guarantee an acceptable social adaptation (T3); and a second group is defined by its apparent deficiencies in skills related to interpersonal relations and social integration (T4).

68These results have thus allowed us to isolate common traits observable in a certain number of prisoners, which exist in spite of their incarceration in different detention centres. This research method thus offers a better method for generalizing results. We have been able to demonstrate that prisoners' experiences of incarceration are very relative, and that therefore, the concepts that are generally used, such as the process of prisonization, do not really allow a clarification of why and how prisoners integrate into the milieu. Indeed, in limiting the analyses to one type of milieu, the same type of prisoner, or even by choosing to include only young prisoners, as was the case in Wheeler (1961), it might have resulted in a theoretical reductionism in the comprehension of the modes of carceral integration, leading to faulty interpretations.

69By enlarging the source of data to a heterogeneous population, and that, from different milieus, we aim to obtain results that offer a better explanatory model. Our results thus allow us to relativize this idea of a clemmerian universalism defended in many studies. Indeed, with this typology, we note that not all prisoners submit to this same process of prisonization, but that they submit at another level to a phenomenon that we also labelled as the process of atomization, which describes a social dynamic of isolation (Chantraine, 2004b; Cunha, 1995; Vacheret, 2002). Ultimately, we can identify different places or roles according to a gradual positionning of prisoners, going from a strong solidarity to a certain isolation among prisoners, as has already been demonstrated by Cooley (Cooley, 1992).

70By including in our method variables that are relative to both the prisoners and the environment, we have also been able to observe a certain number of factors that explain these modes of social adjustment.

71Indeed, the type of detention can encourage certain tendencies in the personal relations among prisoners. Administrative control and the modes of management that differ from one milieu to another according to the managerial techniques, the programs of treatment or the specifics of personnel training, lead to modifications in the conditions of detention. Some research has already shown that the insufficiency of the means put in place in certain milieus encourages certain adaptive processes (Gendreau et al., 1997; Wright, K.N., 1991; Wright, K. N., 1993; Zamble and Porporino, 1988). Thus, it seems that one disorganized and/or coercive mode of management orients the mode of prisoners' adaptation more towards prisonization. While the more the milieu becomes organized and/or non-coercive, the more the prisoners will display forms of adaptation that are individualistic or atomized.

72However, this mode of socialization is not determined only by the context of administrative control. It seems that this type of offense, or more precisely the composition of the carceral population, is also a fact to consider (Gendreau et al., 1997; Schwaebe, 2005). Some prisoners seem to have more difficulty than others living in a carceral milieu. Indeed, a hierarchy develops based on the degree of positive or negative discrimination in relation to offenses which encourages a process of assimilation to a complete lexical and behavioral register. From this fact we notice, not so much a mode of adaptation relative to a type of organization, but rather a mode that differs according to certain socio-legal specificities of the prisoners. Thus, the adaptation will be made in a more prisonized mode in the case of prisoners incarcerated for a offense or crime that is respected, while the prisoner incarcerated for something that is not respected will rather have to integrate into the milieu in an atomization mode. The age of the prisoner was also defined as an important variable in explaining the process of integration (Gallagher, 2001; Garofalo and Clark, 1985; Gendreau et al., 1997; Hanson et al., 1983). Thus, the younger the prisoner, the more he will integrate in a prisonization mode while the older prisoner will tend to integrate in an atomization mode. These facts are also supported by different studies on the importance of the prisoner's knowledge in the explanation of the process of socialization (Goodstein et al., 1984; MacKenzie and Goodstein, 1985; Zamble, 1992; Zamble and Porporino, 1988). The better the prisoner's understanding of the milieu, the more he will integrate in a prisonization mode. The prisoner who has a poor understanding of his milieu will tend to develop an atomization mode of integration.

73This research nevertheless remains limited to defining the determinants that truly assign the place and role of the prisoner in the milieu. Indeed, the analysis of causal factors related to socio-demographic factors and certain social dynamics are limited by the absence of a deeper study of the dynamic of psychological processes at play in the attribution of these carceral roles. Indeed, we can question the place of individual responsibility as it relates to these configurations of positionning. That is, whether the place of the prisoner in the milieu comes from either a stable mode of personality traits or from the actual influence of the milieu. In other words, it would be necessary to determine whether the phenomena of prisonization or atomization result from configurations of groups constructed in a given carceral time and space that act as catalysers which fix the roles relating to entry into the carceral milieu or whether it consists of factors that precipitate each individuality in a position that is adapted and coherent with the history of the subject. Thus, the analysis of the personality seems to be an important fact to measure, in order to understand the true reasons which determine the modes of adaptation to the milieu. It therefore seems necessary to investigate the adaptive patterns observable in other spheres of the prisoner's life and to thus approach more precisely the life of the individual before his incarceration.

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1  This term was used for the first time by Clemmer (1940), in English, as "prisonization" and translated by Lemire (1990) as « prisonniérisation ».

2  The detention centres house the condemned who face sentences of one year or more, and who offer the best chances of being re-integrated. This type of detention applies to a bit more than one quarter of the prisoners incarcerated in France.

3  A term that refers to prisoners incarcerated for crimes or offenses of a sexual nature.

4  Merton (1997), created a typology made up of five modes of adaptation resulting from a profound conformism to the values and way of life recognized by American society, and in relation to certain difficulties in acceding to prescribed means and to the attainment of institutionalized goals.

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Manuel Cabelguen, « The Dynamic of Carceral Socialization Processes »Champ pénal/Penal field [En ligne], Vol. III | 2006, mis en ligne le 21 octobre 2009, consulté le 22 mars 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Manuel Cabelguen

Chercheur en psycho-criminologie, Laboratoire de recherche Cliniques Criminologiques (EA Psychopathologies et champs cliniques 2242) Université Renne 2.

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