The Inmate Code

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Deviant Behavior

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Values, Rules, and Keeping the Peace: How Men Describe Order and the Inmate Code in California Prisons

Rebecca Trammell a a University of Nebraska, Omaha School of Criminology & Criminal Justice, Omaha, Nebraska, USA

To cite this Article Trammell, Rebecca(2009) 'Values, Rules, and Keeping the Peace: How Men Describe Order and the

Inmate Code in California Prisons', Deviant Behavior, 30: 8, 746 — 771 To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/01639620902854662 URL:

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Deviant Behavior, 30: 746–771, 2009 Copyright # Taylor & Francis Group, LLC ISSN: 0163-9625 print=1521-0456 online DOI: 10.1080/01639620902854662

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values, rules, and keeping the peace: how men describe order and the inmate code in California prisons Rebecca Trammell University of Nebraska, Omaha School of Criminology & Criminal Justice, Omaha, Nebraska, USA For this article, I use interview data to examine how former male inmates describe how and why they follow the inmate code. Previous work shows that convicts use the code to structure and define informal rules (Bronson 2006). I attempt to explore this issue from the other direction. I focus on how inmates describe informal rules and how the code may or may not fit into these rules. As Howard Becker (1963) points out, people in any society form groups and subcultures who create their own set of rules and norms. The men in my study describe leaders, called shot-callers, who focus on illegal businesses such as the drug trade. They use violence to control their own gangs in order to reduce the chance of riots. In short, they value peace and profit. This differs from previous work that focuses on the inmate identity and how convicts value the code. The men in my study value safety and the underground economy as well as maintaining a solid convict identity.

Received 30 June 2008; accepted 14 November 2008. Address correspondence to Rebecca Trammell, University of Nebraska, Omaha School of Criminology & Criminal Justice, 6001 Dodge St., CPACS Building 218T, Omaha, NE 68182-0149, USA. E-mail: [email protected]


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INTRODUCTION Scholars describe prison culture and how prisoners create an ‘‘inmate code’’ (Cloward 1960; Irwin and Cressey 1962; Jacobs 1977; Ohlin 1956; Sykes and Messinger 1960; Terry 1997). As defined by Bronson (2006), ‘‘The code represents an organization of criminal values in clearcut opposition to the values of conventional society, and to prison officials as representatives of that society’’ (62). Prisoners create and reinforce these norms as a way to defy the goals of the institution and categorize other inmates. Those who use the code identify as ‘‘convicts’’ while those who do not are called ‘‘inmates.’’ Furthermore, the convict identity is preferred over the inmate identity as solid convicts reign at the top of the prison hierarchy (Terry 1997). At the same time, there is no official written code and norms differ depending on the institution (Pollock 1997; Sykes and Messinger 1960). Hassine (2007) goes so far as to argue that there is no inmate code. Prisoners simply import their own norms and values into prison: Convicts coming to prison bring with them a moral and ethical code of conduct that they learned and developed from their individual street experiences. For example, members of the Mafia bring with them a Mafioso’s code, street-gang members bring their own gang code, and drug addicts bring a junkie’s code of conduct. (175)

Hassine, an inmate who recently died in prison (Finley 2008), describes his own experience and states that the ‘‘code’’ is simply a term used by inmates to describe prison norms. It seems clear that there is no codified standard of conduct that dictates the behavior of all American prisoners. At the same time, there are norms and rules that organize prison life and some inmates value these rules more so than others. Furthermore, some inmates use this code to defy prison rules by forbidding inmates to collaborate with prison staff (Bronson 2006). For this article, I use interview data to examine how former male inmates describe how and why they follow the inmate code. As Howard Becker (1963) points out, people in any


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society form groups and subcultures who create their own set of rules and norms. He outlines how personal values guide behavior:

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Since values can furnish only a general guide to action and are not useful in deciding on courses of action in concrete situations, people develop specific rules more closely tied to the realities of everyday life. (131)

Convicts use the code to structure and define informal rules (Bronson 2006). I attempt to explore this issue from the other direction. I focus on how inmates describe informal rules and how the code may or may not fit into these rules. Previous research focuses on the inmate code as a set of values that help control inmate behavior. However, as Becker points out, this is problematic because the reality of daily life may influence behavior in a way that does not coincide with personal values (Becker 1963). There may very well be an inmate code; however, there may simply be norms that coincide with the code whereas others do not. It seems problematic to label prisoners as inmates or convicts without exploring exactly what the prisoner values. Moreover, previous scholars focus how convicts identify with the ideology of the code (Terry 1997). However, prisoners may pick and choose their actions based on factors such as gang affiliation, the underground economy and loyalty to friends and gang leaders. To be sure, prison changed drastically since Sykes and Messinger (1960; Sykes 1958) first discussed the inmate code. American prisons now hold ten times more inmates than they did in 1974 and this incarceration trend is unprecedented in the history of the United States (Parenti 1999; Pollock 2004; Wacquant 2001). This being said, I seek to examine how current inmates describe the inmate code. For this article, I interviewed former male inmates (n ¼ 40) and six correctional officers living in California and allowed them to describe current prison norms and how inmates reinforce these norms. I specifically examined how rules are tied to the underground economy and the inmate code. Interviewees described leaders, called shot-callers, who control illegal businesses such as the drug trade. They use violence to control their own gangs in order to reduce the chance of

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Values, Rules, and Keeping the Peace


riots. They want to keep peace as a way to maintain these businesses. Therefore, they value peace and profit. At the same time, interviewees explained how these rules may or may not connect with the inmate code. This differs from previous work that focuses on the inmate identity and how convicts value the code. The men in my study value safety and the underground economy as well as maintaining a solid convict identity. They described a flexible, fluid set of norms that serve to keep the peace so that the prison staff stays out of their business. However, the goal of ‘‘keeping the peace’’ coincides nicely with the official goal of the prison administration. Although inmates and prison staff maintain order for different reasons, no one wants chaos. Therefore, the old ‘‘inmate code’’ as discussed by Sykes and Messenger (1960) has evolved. At one time, inmates used the code to defy the goals of the prison staff. Now, mostly due to underground economies, they want to keep peace in order to sell their contraband. While not generalizable to all prison inmates, my study offers a new understanding into how inmates understand informal prison norms, which updates our current knowledge on the inmate code as well as inmate culture. THE INMATE CODE, RULES AND VALUES Some of the earliest scholarly work found that prisons are isolated institutions with their own norms and rules (Clemmer 1940; Hayner and Ash 1940). Inmates are socialized to follow a standard inmate code in which they must act tough, not interfere with other inmates, and not socialize with the guards. Sykes (1958) argues that inmate culture results from the deprivations of the prison world. Underground markets (narcotics, etc.) emerge due to a lack of social freedom and sex (consensual or not) between inmates stems from the lack of available women, rather than homosexual urges (Cloward 1960; Tittle and Tittle 1964). Furthermore, prison staff control the inmates by making compromises about privileges or living conditions (Cloward 1960; Irwin and Cressey 1962; Jacobs 1977; Sykes and Messinger 1960).

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Other studies found that prison culture is sometimes imported from the outside world (Irwin 1970; Schrag 1954). Irwin and Cressey (1962) found that inmates bring their own norms into prison. Research finds a direct link between the street culture and prison culture, particularly with regard to drug use and distribution (Irwin 1970). Scholars now agree that prison culture is a combination of street culture and social deprivation; these hypotheses are not mutually exclusive (Akers et al. 1977; Pollock 1997; Winfree et al. 2002). A good deal of research focuses on the ‘‘inmate code’’ that influences prison norms. Those who follow the inmate code act tough and are not allowed to collaborate with correctional officers (Cloward 1960; Irwin and Cressey 1962; Jacobs 1977; Sykes and Messinger 1960; Terry 1997). Terry (1997) discusses how the public identity of the prisoner is shaped by the code. The ‘‘convict’’ identity is preferred and these men generally live their lives in accordance with the rules of the code (Terry 1997); however, the code differs from prison to prison (Pollock 1997; Sykes and Messinger 1960). Victor Hassine (2007) discussed the rules in his Pennsylvania prison and argued that there is no inmate code. Instead, inmates import their own norms into prison and just call these rules ‘‘the code.’’ For this article, I examine how inmates describe informal rules as connected to the code. To do this, I use the model set up by Howard Becker (1963) and Edwin Lemert (1951) on rules and rule making. In doing so, I expand on our current knowledge of the inmate code by examining the rules of the code. Becker (1963) argues that there are general norms and rules followed by many members of society. However, people form groups based on religious, economic, or racial identity and they create their own set of rules. As Lemert (1951) points out, rules are enforced by the reaction of peers. When the deviant is caught and labeled, this could push him or her into secondary deviance where he or she accepts the deviant identity (Lemert 1951). However, I focus on the relationship between values and rules. Lemert argues that it is difficult to define values as clearly connected to, or different from, the rules. The term value is ‘‘spurious or tautological and adds nothing to the explanation of behavior’’ (Lemert 2000:64). He reconciles this issue by stating that, ‘‘Value is defined

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in terms of opportunity costs: that is, we know the value of a thing when we know what we will sacrifice to achieve it’’ (64). Becker (1963) explains that:

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It is possible for us to hold conflicting values without being aware of the conflict. We become aware of their inadequacy as a basis for action when, in a moment of crisis, we realize that we cannot decide which of the conflicting courses of actions recommended to us we should take. (130)

For example, we create sexual harassment laws because we value equality. Some corporations may not allow employees to date one another in order to comply with sexual harassment laws. Corporate leaders may not value the rules about fraternization. In fact, they may not place value on sexual harassment laws either. In this sense, value is placed on reducing liability and workplace conflict. Personal values may serve as a guide to action; however, new rules emerge that serve to help maintain other rules (Becker 1963). Previous work on the inmate code defines the code as a personal value (Bronson 2006) held by solid convicts. The convict must act tough and stay out of business of other inmates. He must not work with prison staff (snitching) and he should not interfere with other inmates (Sykes and Messinger 1960). Inmates create rules in order to maintain this code of conduct. At the same time, there are no universal rules that dictate the behavior of all American inmates and these ‘‘rules’’ may be few (Pollock 2004). Using this as a starting point, I aim to focus on the connection between rule making and values. If, as Lemert suggests, values are defined by what we are willing to sacrifice, then rules directly linked to personal values will be strictly enforced. New rules are likely to emerge that, according to Becker, could ‘‘make peace’’ between rules already in place. The prison is a total institution (Goffman 1961) in which official rules are created and enforced from the top down. Prison administrations create rules and correctional officers enforce rules. If Becker and Lemert are correct, inmates will create their own set of rules or norms that are regulated by the inmates themselves. However, there are no guarantees that rules only function to maintain the code.


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DATA AND METHODS As part of a larger research project, I interviewed seventythree men and women previously incarcerated in California prisons. In addition, I interviewed six correctional officers who worked in California prisons. Interviews took place in 2005–06. Originally, parolees were recruited from reentry programs and parolee meetings in San Diego, Riverside, and Orange counties. They were released from prison within two months prior to the interview. They were asked to participate in a project that focuses on prison and prison violence. Thirty-one people agreed to be included in this study. I informed them that participation was voluntary and they could refuse to answer any question that makes them uncomfortable. Using a snowball sampling technique, original participants referred another fifty-eight parolees. Out of this pool, forty-two agreed to be interviewed. In total, forty men and thirty-three women agreed to take part in the study. The mean age was 34 years old and their prison sentences ranged from 18 months to 15 years in medium to maximum security prisons in California. As per IRB protocol, verbal consent was obtained and pseudonyms were used in all papers and reports. Parolees and former inmates are protected populations and those of us working with them take special precautions to assure confidentiality. This means working with them in public places and private homes and insisting that they not use any names during the interview process. I assured them that their responses had nothing to do with their current or former parole status. I also interviewed six male correctional officers who described the organization of prison gangs and inmate norms. These men agreed to be interviewed as long as I never disclose their specific prison. For the larger project, I interviewed both men and women. However, the women in my study explained that, in prison, they do not join gangs and physical violence is rare. The men in my study described the inmate code and how they used violence to regulate inmate behavior. Women can, and do, assault each other but the men in my study described how they work to organize prison gangs and create rules to maintain order. Also, the correctional officers in this study work in prisons housing men. Therefore, I use data

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TABLE 1 Male Interviewees Pseudonym




Time served




3 Years

Jose Anthony Carlos John Oscar James Robert

32 39 36 32 22 34 35

Hispanic Hispanic Hispanic Hispanic Hispanic Black Hispanic










Justin Carl

40 38

White White




Jake Vincent Antonio

45 32 24

Black White Hispanic

Jack Myles Richard Pat Tim

28 46 29 33 37

Hispanic Hispanic White White White

Bruce Josh Ben Chris

29 30 40 35

White White Hispanic Hispanic

Kelly Kirk Mac

35 29 42

Hispanic White Black

Aggravated Assault, Parole Violation Robbery and Assault Robbery Attempted Murder Domestic Violence=Battery Drug Possession Manslaughter Grand Theft Auto, Assault, Robbery Grand Theft Auto, Drug Possession Drug Possession, Parole Violation Drug Possession and burglary Parole Violation Drug Possession, Assault, Robbery Assault With A Deadly Weapon, Sexual Battery And Robbery Robbery, Drugs Drunk Driving, Absconding Robbery and Grand Theft Auto Robbery and Assault Robbery and Assault Robbery, Rape One—Adult Assault, Attempted Murder GTA, Sexual Assault, Car Jacking Assault, Sexual Assault Robbery Robbery Drug Trafficking and Attempted Murder Manslaughter Parole Violation, Assault Drugs, Assault, Attempted Murder

7 5 5 3 18 8 8

Years Years Years Years Mts Years Years

2 Years 3 Years 16 Mts 9 Mts 4 Years 5 Years

13 Years 1 Year 8 Years 6 5 10 10 15

Years Years Years Years Years

11 8 5 9

Years Years Years Years

15 Years 2 Years 6 Years (Continued )


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TABLE 1 Continued Pseudonym



Logan Donald Howard Doug Joseph Harold Fred

30 36 30 26 36 35 29

Black Black White White Black White White

Roger Sam

40 39

Black Black

Scott Ramon Bobby Leo Wesley Tom Ronald Parker

41 32

Hispanic Hispanic Black White White White Black Black

Offenses Robbery Robbery Robbery, Sexual Assault Robbery Drug Trafficking, Robbery Robbery and Assault Aggravated Assault, Attempted Murder Drug Trafficking, Assault Aggravated Assault, Kidnapping Drugs, Burglary Robbery and Assault Correctional Officer Correctional Officer Correctional Officer Correctional Officer Correctional Officer Correctional Officer

Time served 5 4 7 4 7 8 5

Years Years Years Years Years Years Years

6 Years 12 Years 2 Years 6 Years

from my male interviewees for this article. Demographics for interviewees are listed in Table 1. The data presented in this article are part of a larger project that focuses on: informal social control, prison rape, underground economies, gang violence, retaliation, and racialized violence. My interviews lasted one to two hours using openended=semi-structured interview questions (Denzin and Lincoln 1998) that allowed my interviewees to deconstruct the social setting of prison and thoroughly explain inmate behavior. Specifically, I asked them to describe informal rules, the inmate code, and how they control each other in prison. I coded responses into two categories: the inmate code, rules=gang leaders and underground economies and violence. Currently, there are approximately 160,000 inmates living in California prisons (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation 2008) and I do not use a randomized sample. Instead, I created a case study developed through snowball sampling. This being said, it is not possible to generalize

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these data to the entire California prison population. Moreover, quantitative research is best for examining trends in prison violence such as riots (Useem and Piehl 2006). However, I focus on how interviewees describe rules and rule enforcement. Qualitative research is more fluid and highlights the subjective reality of the research subject. This method allows an interviewee to deconstruct the social setting to shed light on how he interprets his social world. Specifically, this allows him to describe the importance of informal rules in prison. THE INMATE CODE, RULES AND GANG LEADERS Out of the forty men I interviewed, forty-eight percent (n ¼ 19) told me they belonged to a prison gang. In California, inmates racially segregate and form gangs by race (Goodman 2006; Hunt et al. 1993; Irwin 1980). Gang affiliation is a punishable offense in California prisons; therefore, men are careful about discussing this issue. Some talk about their ‘‘homeboys’’ or their ‘‘cars,’’ which are terms describing friends or fellow gang members in prison. My interviewees (gang and non-gang members) described rules and the inmate code. Those who admitted to being in a gang told me about the rules: You go to prison and you toughen up. You get with the code and you do good time. There are ways to do hard time and if you don’t follow the rules, you are not considered solid. You don’t snitch, you don’t owe anyone money and you act like a man. If you don’t, then you do hard time. (Joseph) The boys inside, they follow the rules and that means you work with your own boys and do what they say. Look, there is a lot of problems caused by the gangs, no doubt. The thing is, they solve problems too. You want a structure and you want someone to organize the businesses so the gangs have their rules. You don’t run up a drug debt, you don’t start a fight in the yard and stuff. Gangs are a problem but we took care of business. There is a code of silence, you don’t talk about all the stuff with others, the cops split up gangs if there’s a big problem so we keep to ourselves and mind our own business. (Jack)


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Both men describe the code as a set of rules that help regulate inmate behavior. In accordance with the code, men toughen up, refuse to snitch, and follow the rules set up by gang leaders. Hard time means having a difficult time in prison and those doing ‘‘solid time’’ are following the rules and avoiding problems. Jack explained that gangs ‘‘organize business’’ by making rules. Interviewees who were not in a gang told me that they also follow the code: You learn the code and you stick by the code. I thought that most of the stuff, especially about race and stuff, it’s stupid. I just want to do my time and get out. That’s easier said than done, you have to follow the code even if you know it’s stupid. (Donald) There are so many rules about who goes first in line for meals and who gets the TV first. If you follow all these rules, you end up doing easy time. I was a con which means I follow the code so you have to know the rules and you have to teach the new guys how to be a con and follow the rules. (Carl) I didn’t know shit going into prison. I was totally clueless. I was strung out on drugs, sick and dumb and the brothers tell me right off the bat where to go, what to do. I thought they were joking at first. I knew prison was hard but I never thought I’d have to know rules about who uses the shower first and who sits with who and who the leaders are. I think that’s why there are fights, the dumb guys don’t know the code going in and they screw up. (Mac) The races don’t officially mix. That’s true but you can buy drugs from whoever and the leaders control that stuff. I’ve had a cigarette with some white guys and the Mexicans, the Southerners are mostly good guys, their leaders are, well some of them are flexible with their boys. It’s not as cut and dry as you think. (James)

Donald explained that the rules are sometimes arbitrary and pointless but you still follow them. Mac told me that men fight because they do not know the rules of the inmate code. He stated that the ‘‘brothers’’ or other African-American men told him how to act and what to do in prison. He thought this

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Values, Rules, and Keeping the Peace


was strange but he followed the code. These men described prison life as organized and they place the leaders at the center of this organization. This is especially interesting because some of these men (Carl, Mac, and James) told me they were not gang members. They may have lied about their gang affiliation; however, they argued that everyone follows the rules set up by gang leaders. They depend on these leaders to make decisions and enforce rules. Furthermore, they described the ‘‘rules’’ as connected to both the code and to businesses. They need to control each other in order to sell their drugs. In order to do this, they must keep prison officials at bay. Thus, the code is described as a way to keep peace. Terry (1997) discussed this code as ‘‘the social system of male prisons revolves around the inmate code and the need to project invulnerability’’ (38). He stated that prisoners identify as ‘‘inmates’’ or ‘‘convicts’’ and the convict identity is preferred. He built on previous work that describes convicts, not inmates, who live by the inmate code and take care of conflict without getting help from correctional officers or other staff (Irwin 1970; Schmid and Jones 1991; Sykes and Messinger 1960). Terry argued that, ‘‘Convicts see their world from the perspective of the code. Consequently, the rules they follow, the actions they take and the humor they use are all reflections of that outlook’’ (Terry 1997:25). It is a set of norms that are directly tied to maintaining the convict identity, which means doing solid time and acting tough. If you follow the ‘‘code’’ you embrace the solid convict identity (Terry 1997). However, the rules discussed by my interviewees involved routine, daily activities that are typically followed by everyone. James described them as flexible and set by the leaders. Jack told me that they follow rules to organize illegal businesses. As outlined in Figure 1, convicts who adapt the code identify as a solid convict. The code guides the inmate and helps identify those who do good or solid time in prison. Throughout this process, impression management is necessary to maintain the public perception of a convict who acts tough and follows the code. Previous researchers outlined this process and detailed how inmates classify one another (Irwin 1970; Schmid and Jones 1991; Sykes and Messinger 1960; Terry 1997). However, some interviewees described this as ‘‘stupid’’ but necessary. They told me that they do


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FIGURE 1 The inmate code and the convict identity.

not necessarily believe in the code but follow the rules. In other words, they do not value the code or the convict identity but they conform. Previous research shows that inmates generally accept or reject the code (Terry 1997). Interviewees explained that they sometimes place value on something else that forces them to align their actions with the inmate code. Organization is the key to this process. Correctional officers discuss how prisoners organize and follow leaders: Now I worked up north for a while and I know that the Mexican gangs are more inclined to be picky about who they let in. They check references on the outside and make sure you’re not lying about where you come from or who you roll with. They used to make up these booklets that had rules in them. They’d pass them around and we’d confiscate them and they’d make more. They were very dedicated to making sure that everyone in the gang knows their own rules. It’s like the military with their lieutenants and stuff. (Correctional Officer Leo) In the 1980s it all changed, suddenly every prison was overcrowded and the Latinos became the top dogs in the prisons in California. That’s mostly because they outnumbered everyone else. That’s when they started forming the gangs and it was totally organized and stuff. You see the Mexicans organize and strategize. They work smart, they form these gangs and are totally organized. The black guys just worked, they were always volunteering for some kind of job in the kitchen or the laundry and stuff. They just wanted to stay out of mix.

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The white guys just started the skin-head shit. You know, the white power stuff. It’s all about power now, who’s got it and who doesn’t. (Correctional Officer Wesley) We try to break them up, we’ll move the shot-callers to Pelican Bay, we split up the gangs and they just continue what they’re doing in their new prison. The gang problem is big. These guys know where blind spots are, they work closely together and they are tight. They will go to the hole before they snitch. They know that I’ll send them to the hole but their brothers, they will do worse. These guys mean business and I really see no way to eliminate the gangs altogether. (Correctional Officer Ronald)

The term shot-caller was originally used by members of the Mexican Mafia prison gang, founded in juvenile detention facilities in California in the 1950s. Currently, the term shot-caller (sometimes called key-holder) is common to most prison gangs and some street gangs. The second-incommand is called a lieutenant. He works with soldiers who smuggle drugs or work for the gang. There are associates who are not members but show support by fighting in a race-riot. A prospect is someone who carries out low-level grunt work to become a member of the gang. Interviewees told me that gangs control drug, prostitution, pornography, and, most recently, the cigarette trade in prison. The shot-caller is someone who rises through the ranks and proves his loyalty to the gang; men call this ‘‘putting in your time.’’ Antonio described his shot-caller: A shot-caller is someone that runs the whole tank or module. Pretty much, people that know a lot about incarceration cuz they’ve been in prison for a while. They run it and they run the section, they talk about what’s going on. That environment, it’s negative, it’s politics. If an argument breaks out, the shot-caller will go over there and say ‘‘What’s the situation that happened with the race and stuff?’’ They then talk and see if they can solve it. If they can’t solve it then they say ‘‘You know what man? You better, do something. That guy that started something he better get out of the module’’ or they fight. (Antonio)


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I asked the men to explain how the shot-caller controls the inmates and Mike outlined how minor disagreements are settled: Mike: Well, people fight over stupid shit. Sometimes you fight just because someone pissed you off. If someone pisses me off, you know starts trouble with me, he has to answer to his own people. They decide if it’s worth fighting over you know? If they decide that he’s just a big dick and he needs to apologize to me for being a dick then he will tell me he’s sorry. That’s how it usually ends. Nothing too dramatic. Question: Is it a real consensus or does one guy, the shotcaller, decide? Mike: Um, it’s a consensus but the shot-caller is the main decision maker. You know, he’ll talk to everyone but he’s really getting them to see things his way and he gets final say and shit. Question: What if the shot-caller decides they fight? Mike: Then they fight. You can tell that something is going to happen, people start getting into position and getting ready for the fight and so it’s all about timing. And the fights and stuff, it didn’t happen like I thought. I thought we’d be fighting all the time and stuff. That’s not true. We fought but it was not all the time. I think I had maybe three or four real fights. The leaders, they control most of the problems and keep the peace. It’s not like they show on TV, we don’t fight hardly ever. We control the yard and keep the boys in check. (Carlos)

The men explained how prisoners frequently check in with shot-callers. If two men argue or if an inmate disses (disrespects) another inmate, they check with their leader. If the shot-caller approves, the men told me they ‘‘take it to the cell,’’ which means they have a cell-fight. Eight-three percent (n ¼ 33) of the men in this study admitted to having at least one cell-fight. This is done to avoid a fight in the yard: Usually, you settle the dumb stuff there. If someone disses me or someone takes my stuff then the leaders tell us to take it to

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the cell. We slug it out and get things taken care of. I probably had seven or eight fights in prison. (Marty)

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Well we do a lot of cell-fights. I may have words with someone, someone may piss me off so we take it to the cell and have a cell fight. No one sees us and we don’t get written up. (Jose)

Two or three men fighting in the yard or other common area causes a riot or gang fight. They have some privacy in their cells and violence is controlled. What is particularly interesting is how men describe the organization of minor fights. They state that men fight over drugs, disrespect, or theft. Many times, one man insults another and this increases tension and the probability of a fight. Gangs and friends provide protection and human contact. At the same time, this arrangement breeds loyalty to the gang and the shot-caller. In fact, men described how informal rules conflict with official prison rules. In these cases, men follow the rules outlined by the gang leaders: I was brought in and they try to put me in a cell with a black guy. I said no way, they say it’s this or they have a cell with a Mexican guy. I know they try to make us mix but I can’t do that. I tell the guard that this won’t happen and he shoves me in. I know at that point that I’m going to the hole so I shove the cop back and then they threw me down and took me to the hole. That’s the part that sucks, they know we can’t do that and they force us and then we end up in ad seg. It’s a pain in the ass. (Bruce) I’m not listening to the cops. Screw those guys. One guy tells me to clean up the TV room after some NLR pricks are in there. I tell him that’s not my job and I’m PENI so no way I’m cleaning up after them. He threatens me with a 115 or worse and I just laugh, what the hell is he going to do to me? (Josh)

Bruce argues that the rules of segregation means he cannot cell up with someone of another race. He was sent to administrative segregation for not complying with the correctional officer. Typically, this means they receive a written violation

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(CDCR 115 Violation) and a loss of good time credit. Josh argues that, as a member of the Public Enemy Number One skinhead gang, he does not socialize or clean up after a rival skinhead gang. In both cases, these men risk formal reprimands by breaking the formal rules. The rules about segregation force men to break official department of corrections standards about racial integration. They may or may not want segregation. However, to keep peace between inmates, they face official reprimands and defy official rules. These men place value on these friendships and gang leaders and the informal rules set up by these men. They risk their good time credit and what little social freedom they have to remain loyal to the rules. UNDERGROUND ECONOMIES AND VIOLENCE When I asked them why they avoid riots, they offered two reasons. First, riots are dangerous and secondly, they result in a prison lockdown. The prison administration uses this method to stop violence and prevent escape. Wardens and other administrators decide whether or not to lock down a prison and when to lift the lockdown (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation 2003). If this happens, inmates are confined to their cells and separated from other inmates. They lose their yard time and, according to interviewees, underground economies are curbed. Men cannot sell drugs or other contraband if they are locked in their cells. Therefore, they avoid a riot because it is dangerous and bad for business. Marty explains: Well, we don’t fight in a riot and stuff unless we have to, it’s too dangerous. We’ll go into lockdown which sucks and people get killed and stuff. If I’m locked down, then I’m not working. You can make some serious bank in prison and shot-callers hate it when you’re in lockdown. And I’ve seen lockdown happen for eight, nine months. We all go crazy after a while, no one wants that. (Marty)

Others described underground businesses: So here’s the deal, you got old guys like me who have been in prison forever and have shot-callers do their job, keep peace

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and run the action. That’s why we have shot-callers so when a couple of idiots get into it in the yard, instead of letting them kill themselves, the shot-caller goes out and works it out. He talks to these guys and finds out what happened, who did what to who it’s very simple. If we didn’t have these guys, the businesses would stop. (Myles) The gangs can’t sell their stuff, drugs and stuff. They don’t want a lockdown, that’s true. I was in a lockdown for two months once. Leaders get pissed if there’s a lockdown and we don’t get yard time, I hated it. I was in a serious riot once and it went on for twenty minutes or so. As soon as we stopped, it started in the dorm, it’s like a virus, it spreads and people are killed or hurt bad. It’s best to handle things low-key. No one needs a riot. (Donald)

These men explained that people get hurt in riots. Also, a riot is hard to stop, even by the inmates. Therefore, it is easier to work with leaders to control the violence. This means using cell-fights to prevent riots or apologizing for disrespecting other inmates. This is interesting for several reasons. First, men describe an informal way to avoid serious violence. To be sure, two men fighting in cell is dangerous. However, this is a way for men to take care of the daily problems. All too often, men in prison fight over minor disagreements. Someone disrespects someone else or someone steals property and if they rioted over all of these issues, there would be chaos. These men want structure and control over their lives. However, they do not discuss the formal rules and regulations. Nor do they discuss reporting problems to the prison staff. The inmate code forces them to work outside the formal system to take care of these problems. The shot-caller is especially important as a leader and decision maker. They posit the shot-caller as a negotiator. They often force men to apologize or make them take it to the cell. This also means using violence to control others. Anthony tells me how he had to ‘‘turn over’’ one of his own men to a rival gang in order to avoid a riot: We need to keep the boys in line. If one of our guys is a hothead or something and is always shooting off his mouth it can get everyone into trouble. We don’t want a lockdown, we don’t want a riot so I’ve had to beat down my own guys to


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control the bigger picture. If one of my guys is messing up then we either offer him up to the other guys or we take him down ourselves. Like I had a guy that ran up a big drug debt, he owed money to the woods [peckerwood skin-head gang] and I had to turn him over to them. They took him to a cell and really beat the shit out of him. We had to do it. If not, then everyone fights which is bad for business and bad for us. (Anthony)

In this instance, Anthony’s friend was causing trouble by running up a drug debt. Gangs will fight over money and drugs so he, as the shot-caller, had to make a hard decision. He sacrificed one of his own men to avoid problems between the gangs. Harold explained the importance of keeping the men in line: The shot-caller is important here, he tells his lieutenants what’s what and then they work with their soldiers to take care of business. I knew this guy that ran his mouth a lot, made lots of problems, called people names and stuff. He called these Mexican guys a bunch of greasy wetbacks. He’s a loose cannon, he’s going to cause trouble you know what I mean, we work hard to keep that race shit calm and here is this prick causing trouble, no one wants that so we had to check him. We took him down a peg or two, it came right from the top, the asshole needs a lesson. (Harold)

In this story, Harold, a member of the PENI skin-head gang, had to beat up a fellow gang member as a good-faith gesture to the Mexican gangs. Again, they value racial segregation and informal rules so they physically punished a troublemaker. This is especially interesting because Harold is a skin-head and American skin-heads are typically xenophobic and racist. John Irwin (1980) detailed how the most racist white men in California prisons formed skin-head gangs in the 1970s. However, Harold argued that they now negotiate to keep the peace. He and his fellow gang members beat up one of their own to maintain order. Others told me that correctional officers work with the shot-caller: The C.O.s, they know when something’s happening, we all do. They will ask us to calm down or ask us to wait on a fight.

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I knew of a cop that asked us to wait until he was off duty to fight, he didn’t want to fill out the paperwork and break up a riot. My leader told us to wait until after the shift changed so the next guys would take care of it. Really, no one is surprised when shit goes down. (Kirk)

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Pretty much the cops know who to talk to. Are your people calmed down now? Are they going to be good? You know, and then they’ll be like okay, yeah, we will and a lot of times they’ll just say yeah, and then they’ll go at it again. Just so that cops can let them out. (Pedro)

These men describe an ongoing process of negotiation between inmates and the correctional officers. Obviously, there is not way of knowing exactly how much time officers work with the inmates. However, from the perspective of the men in my study, they all work outside the formal system to maintain peace in prison. They remain loyal to these rules and depend on leaders to control the violence. Several interviewees described what happened to them when they broke rules: Mac: The problem is that the incident, it’s not even a real fight is now going to turn the blacks against the Mexicans. There’s going to be big trouble, a riot or something so they can’t have that. So two days later, the blacks come after me. Three guys sucker punched me and knocked me down and beat me down. Question: Were you hurt? Mac: Broke three fingers and my nose, I thought I might lose an eye cuz I couldn’t see anything when it started but it was just blood and stuff in my eyes. They had to do it, it was for the greater good, so to speak. Question: Why? Mac: If they didn’t do it then there’s trouble between the blacks and the Mexicans. I can’t have that over my head. I mean [laughs] am I glad I got my ass beat? No. But it probably saved lives or at the very least, stopped a lockdown. They had to show the Mexicans that the problem is solved and that I learned a lesson.


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Mac explained that he was beaten ‘‘for the greater good.’’ He took responsibility for his actions (disrespecting the Mexicans) and accepted his punishment. Mac did not trivialize his beating but instead, accepted punishment from his own gang. When I first got to prison, I said some shit to this white guy and the next thing I know, I’m told to make it right with him. I have to man up and take care of my shit. At first I thought, you gotta be kidding me. No way am I going to tell this guy that I’m sorry. Then they told me that I have no choice. That’s the rule, you do what you’re told. They made a very good argument about how I need to fall in line. Okay, so I made things right. (Logan)

Logan did not want to apologize to a white man; however, he eventually complied with the rules. The gang leaders make the rules and the Lieutenants and Soldiers enforce these rules and sometimes use violence to do so. The normative order described by these men is grounded in a mutually accepted idea about keeping the peace. They value safety and underground economies, which means following the rules. In this sense, they depend on leaders to negotiate conflict, which is common in the daily lives in inmates. Clearly, they described the inmate code in these narratives. The men in this study described how they act tough and maintain a hyper-masculine identity. They want to do ‘‘good time’’ and are loyal to fellow gang members and leaders. In Figure 2, I outline their motivations for avoiding a riot. Overall, they want to structure their lives in order to run their businesses. Therefore, leaders must negotiate between

FIGURE 2 Motivations for keeping the peace.

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inmates and enforce the rules. The inmate code is important to maintain a convict identity (Irwin 1970; Schmid and Jones 1991; Sykes and Messinger 1960; Terry 1997). However, they create rules to maintain order, which, to a some degree, coincides with the goals of the institution. The rules are put in place to appease prison staff and avoid formal interference in their businesses. They do not value the formal prison rules yet must do what they can to avoid formal reprimands. DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSION Although not generalizable to the entire prison system, my case study offers a qualitative approach to examine informal prison norms and the inmate code. Those who study the code describe how prisoners use this code to maintain a convict identity (Irwin 1970; Schmid and Jones 1991; Sykes and Messinger 1960; Terry 1997). They act tough, refuse to snitch, and maintain a social distance from the prison staff. Sykes and Messinger (1960) were the first to describe how prisoners remain independent and tough in prison. They do not interfere with the work of the guards or other inmates. Furthermore, they do not take advantage of weaker inmates (Sykes and Messinger 1960). Almost forty years later, Terry (1997) argues that prisoners maintain their identity as separate from their non-prison identity. They use humor as a method of expressing feelings and remain connected to their ‘‘normal’’ non-prison identity (Terry 1997). Moreover, those who promote and enforce the code identify as ‘‘convicts’’ and these men are at the top of the prison pecking order. I used the model proposed by Lemert (2000) and Becker (1963) to reexamine and update this model. The men in my study described the inmate code and what it means to do ‘‘solid time’’ as a convict. This is nothing new. However, my findings also show that the influx of gangs and the underground economies now influence the code in an interesting way. It appears that the recent mass incarceration phase of American criminal justice changed the inmate code. The men in this study explained how, to some degree, they identify as convicts. However, they defer to gang leaders as a way to maintain order and sell drugs. As Edwin Lemert points out, ‘‘Value is defined in terms of opportunity costs: that is, we know the value of a thing when

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we know what we will sacrifice to achieve it’’ (64). My interviewees explained that they value gangs and prison friends but they will not sacrifice illegal businesses by allowing men to do what they please. They may value racial segregation and fight with correctional officers attempting to integrate the cells but they will sell their drugs to anyone of any race. More interestingly, they will sacrifice one of their own men if he runs up a drug debt or refuses to follow the rules about maintaining order. This is especially interesting because the men in this study described their efforts to keep the peace. At the same time, the prison staff also wants to avoid riots. The tactics described by my interviewees actually help maintain order in prison. Clearly, this is a latent effect of their informal rules. However, the men in my study do not want chaos and disorder. They simply want to be left alone. So where does the code fit into their narratives? They describe a ‘‘code,’’ which means doing ‘‘good time’’ and following the rules. Living by the code means you act tough, keep to yourself, and defy the institution. Interviewees clearly described this code and how they seek to do ‘‘solid’’ time. This is, as others point out, tied to their identity as a convict (Terry 1997). However, the rules serve many purposes and may or may not coincide with the code. For example, interviewees explain that correctional officers know the shot-callers and ask for their help after a riot. Furthermore, they describe informal punishment used against those who intentionally cause trouble. Becker (1963) described rules as ‘‘Quite technical and may really be said to have their base, not in some general value, but rather in an effort to make peace between other and earlier rules’’ (133). The men in this study do not value the goals of this institution. However, they value their businesses and they value safety. Therefore, they keep the peace. This ties the code to their rules in an interesting way. As others point out, the inmate code dictates that convicts never work with correctional officers or other prison staff (Bronson 2006; Irwin 1970; Schmid and Jones 1991; Sykes and Messinger 1960; Terry 1997). In the recent mass incarceration era, gangs and underground businesses became a serious problem in California prisons (Hunt et al. 1993; Irwin 1980). Therefore, the formal response is to increase the

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number of correctional officers and gang units to formally control gang activity. However, interviewees explained that they organize and strategize to reduce formal reprimands and lockdowns. With the rise of illegal businesses, men must create even more rules. They may or may not place value on the code or informal rules but they do place value on selling their product. So much so that non-gang members described how they fell into line and followed the informal rules. According to the men in this study, doing good time means following the code and the rules set up by leaders. They ‘‘offer up’’ fellow gang members for beatings to avoid a gang fight. They attempt to control racism among the inmates. They beat up their own gang members to make a good faith gesture to rival gangs. Throughout this process, they check with gang leaders to determine the best course of action. In short, the inmate code is now a general part of the inmate experience but gangs and the illegal businesses redirect the personal values of the inmates because they are not willing to give up these businesses. They will sell their drugs to anyone and avoid a lockdown by working together. The convict identity is important to a large degree; however, organizing social life is more important. Theoretically, this offers a new and deeper understanding of the meaning behind the inmate code. The forces of capitalism make them negotiate and coordinate action in a way that coincides with the goals of the institution. Keeping the peace and reducing formal reprimands force men to regulate each other and sometimes use violence to do so. REFERENCES Akers, Ronald L., Norman S. Hayner, and Werner Gruninger. 1977. ‘‘Prisonization in Five Countries: Type of Prison and Inmate Characteristics.’’ Criminology 14(4):527–554. Becker, Howard S. 1963. Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. New York: The Free Press. Bronson, Eric. 2006. ‘‘Medium Security Prisons and Inmate Subcultures: The ‘Normal Prison’.’’ The Southwest Journal of Criminal Justice 3(2):61–86. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. 2003. California Code of Regulations: Title 15, Crime Prevention and Corrections. Sacramento.

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———. 2008. ‘‘Inmate Demographics.’’ California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Clemmer, Donald. 1940. The Prison Community. Boston: Christopher Publishing. Cloward, Richard A. 1960. ‘‘Social Control in Prison.’’ Pp. 20–48. In Theoretical Studies in Social Organization of the Prison, edited by R. A. Cloward, D. R. Cressey, G. H. Glosser, R. McCleery, L. E. Ohlin, G. M. Sykes, and S. Messinger. New York: Social Science Research Council. Denzin, Norman and Yvonna Lincoln. 1998. ‘‘Entering the Field of Qualitative Research.’’ Pp. 1–34. In Strategies of Qualitative Inquiry, edited by N. Denzin and Y. Lincoln, S. Beverly Hills: Sage Publishing. Finley, Ben. 2008. ‘‘Inmate and Author Hangs Himself.’’ P. B1.In Bucks County Courier Times. Levittown. Goffman, Erving. 1961. Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. New York: Doubleday. Goodman, Philip. 2006. ‘‘It’s Just Black, White or Hispanic: An Ethnographic Examination of Racializing Moves in California’s Segregated Reception Centers.’’ Pp. 1–50. In Presented at the Pacific Sociological Association Conference: March 2006: Pacific Sociological Association. Hassine, Victor. 2007. Life Without Parole: Living in Prison Today, edited by R. Johnson and A. Dobrzanska. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Hayner, Norman S. and Ellis Ash. 1940. ‘‘The Prison as a Community.’’ American Sociological Review 5(4):577–583. Hunt, Geoffrey, Stephanie Reigel, Thomas Morales, and Dan Waldorf. 1993. ‘‘Changes in Prison Culture: Prison Gangs and the Case of the ‘Pepsi Generation’.’’ Social Problems 40(3):398–409. Irwin, John. 1970. The Felon. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. ———. 1980. Prisons in Turmoil. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. Irwin, John and Donald R. Cressey. 1962. ‘‘Thieves, Convicts and the Inmate Culture.’’ Social Problems 10(2):142–155. Jacobs, James B. 1977. Stateville: The Penitentiary in Mass Society. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. Lemert, Edwin M. 1951. Social Pathology: A Systematic Approach to the Theory of Sociopathic Behavior. New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing. Lemert, Edwin and Michael Winter. 2000. Crime and Deviance: Essays and Innovations of Edwin M. Lemert. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. Ohlin, Lloyd E. 1956. Sociology and the Field of Corrections. New York: Social Science Research Council. Parenti, Christian. 1999. Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis. London: Verso.

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Pollock, Joycelyn M. 1997. Prison: Today and Tomorrow. Gaithersburg: Aspen Press. ———. 2004. Prisons and Prison Life: Costs and Consequences. Los Angeles: Roxbury Publishing Company. Schmid, Thomas and Richard Jones. 1991. ‘‘Suspended Identity: Identity Transformation in a Maximum Security Prison.’’ Symbolic Interaction 14(4):415–432. Schrag, Clarence. 1954. ‘‘Leadership Among Prison Inmates.’’ American Sociological Review 19(1):37–42. Sykes, Gresham M. 1958. The Society of Captives: A Study of a Maximum Security Prison. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Sykes, Gresham M. and Sheldon L. Messinger. 1960. ‘‘The Inmate Social System.’’ Pp. 5–19. In Theoretical Studies in Social Organization of the Prison, edited by R. A. Cloward, D. R. Cressey, G. H. Glosser, R. McCleery, L. E. Ohlin, G. M. Sykes and S. Messinger. New York: Social Science Research Council. Terry, Charles. 1997. ‘‘The Function of Humor for Prison Inmates.’’ Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 13(1):23–40. Tittle, Charles R. and Drollene P. Tittle. 1964. ‘‘Social Organization of Prisoners: An Empirical Test.’’ Social Forces 43(2):216–221. Useem, Bert and Anne M. Piehl. 2006. ‘‘Prison Buildup and Disorder.’’ Punishment and Society 8(1):87–115. Wacquant, Lo─▒¨c. 2001. ‘‘Deadly Symbiosis: When Ghetto and Prison Meet and Mesh.’’ Pp. 82–120. In Mass Imprisonment: Social Causes and Consequences, edited by D. Garland. London: Sage Publishers. Winfree, Tom, Greg Newbold, and Huston Tubb. 2002. ‘‘Prisoner Perspectives on Inmate Culture in New Mexico and New Zealand.’’ The Prison Journal 82(2):213–233. REBECCA TRAMMELL, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the School of Criminology & Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. Her research interests include violence, incarceration, genocide, and law and society.

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