Convict Stratification: The Social Construction of Prison Society

By Christopher Zoukis /

In the world outside of prison, everyone wants to know what others do, where they work, how much they make, where and in what type of house they live, what they drive, and the answers to many other personal identity questions which help us to quantify and categorize others.  These are social signals to those around all of us.  They help us to understand how to treat others, how they compare to us, and a plethora of other interpersonal protocols.  Not very surprisingly, prison is no different.

The Prison Pecking Order

In prison, unlike life “on the street,” social status is not based upon what a fellow prisoner makes or what they do for a living, but what their crime of conviction is, if the fellow prisoner is an informant or not, the group (or “car”) they associate with, and how they carry themselves.  Also unlike the world outside of prison walls, this social status can mean the difference between a life of torment and assault, and a relatively peaceful life, where due respect is proffered by perceived social equals and lesser-thans.  As such, it is vital for new arrivals — and others who want to understand the prison experience — to understand how stratification works in a correctional context.  Doing so will ensure that they maximize their chances of surviving relatively unscathed.

Crime of Conviction: Social Stigmatization at its Best

The convict stratification equation starts, much like many other components of prison life, in a seemingly backward fashion.  When judging a fellow prisoner’s social status, one doesn’t start by thinking of who they are today, but what they did to be locked up in the first place.  This is a common starting point for any evaluation because it helps to quickly — and relatively accurately — quantify complete strangers.  After all, if a fellow prisoner is, for example, doing time for bank robbery, then it can be assumed that he is a traditional convict, schooled in the criminal lifestyle.  On the other hand, if someone is in for wire fraud or embezzlement, then they are probably not considered “good people” — according to the social construction of prison society — and will be categorized as a “citizen,” not a true convict.

The same form of judging occurs with other, less savory crimes, too.  Having an unpopular crime of conviction is a quick path to the lower realms of the prison stratification system.  Those with a criminal history of sexual assault, possession, distribution, or production of child pornography, rape, molestation, and such are deemed in prison to be the lowest of the low.  Those with these types of crimes are almost automatically shunned from Day One, though they can often find a place amongst fellow unsavory types (those many regular prisoners disparagingly call “weirdos”).

The Rat Factor

After this initial evaluation has been figured, the next question — regardless of crime of conviction — concerns if the prisoner in question has testified against anyone else.  This could be in terms of testifying in court (they would be deemed an “informant” in this case) or snitching on their fellow prisoners (they would be deemed a “rat” in this context).  Regardless of crime of conviction, if a prisoner is known to assist law enforcement or the prison authorities, they are deemed to be the lowest of the low.  Add a conviction for an unsavory crime, and any “good con” wouldn’t be seen dead speaking with them, or worse, many might make a point to openly assault such individuals based upon principle.  Whereas in regular American society, those who are a bit odd or disagreeable are avoided, those in prison face a much harder fate: ostracism, shunning, and possible assault (depending on the prison security level in question).

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