The Corrections Myth

Liam Martin

How prisons operate as total institutions, and how they produce and reproduce — rather than correct — a ‘criminal class.’

"Prison Bound." Thomas Hawk. CC BY-NC 2.0

James Cole jumps from the car in a hurry. He hardly looks up on the way past, heading straight for a straggly patch of grass at the end of the halfway house driveway. He stands between the rusted blue dumpster and old gray picnic table, reaching for cigarettes in the pocket of worn jeans. Cigarette lit, he takes a long drag and stands there staring out. Then he turns and starts to walk. Feet hardly leave the ground. James ambles in a circle, a slow walk to nowhere in particular.

Bill looks over from a chair on the porch: “he just got home?”

A nod confirms. Bill laughs loudly: “Oh, he’s still walkin’ the yard. I remember that: you’re free but still walkin’ the yard. Don’t wana be around nobody.

You needa reevaluate the whooole situation when you get outta that muthafucka.”

I get in the car to leave, watching James’ slow walk through the windshield. I put the keys in the ignition and fumble with the radio, trying not to stare. Having already lived in the house as a researcher for nine months, interviewing dozens of former prisoners about getting out, I’ve come to expect this kind of prison hangover. But there’s something eerie in seeing it so starkly: a robotic repeat of prison habit, walking the yard transported to a world where walking the yard is totally out of place.

America’s prisons carry the name “corrections.” Stories like James’ reveal the word as an illusion, giving tone and texture to the numbers: two-thirds of those released from state prison are back behind bars within three years. Prisons don’t work because the experience of imprisonment never really ends. People are prisonized, they smuggle out the institution in simple habits and everyday rituals – like slow walks for exercise that now look strange. Prisons don’t work, too, because they teem with jailhouse lessons of street crime and the underground economy.

These basic ideas are common enough: institutionalization, prisons are schools for crime. But few understand their human meaning, the sad and intimate ways they unfold in lived experience. Corrections is a myth. And it all looks even more self-defeating up-close, watching people churn through the system of mass incarceration.

Crossing Over

Prisons are total institutions. They break down the usual separation between work, sleep, and play – in prison, these all take place at a single site with the same people. The daily rounds are tightly scheduled. One activity leads at a prearranged time to the next, done among others treated alike and made to do the same thing together. The ‘total’ or all-encompassing character of these institutions is both enforced and symbolized by their physical barriers: concrete walls, iron bars, razor wire.

To survive, the prisoner learns to sense potential violence in subtle movements and sideways stares, to see what others fail to notice and fear what others take for granted. He gets used to being contained, not just by bars and walls, but by the convict rules that regulate his movement – making sure he does not send the wrong signal to the wrong guy. He grows attuned to the tight scripting of biological rhythms: rising at the same time, showering at the same time, eating at the same time. The closed world of the prison becomes home.

Walking out the gate he enters a different world. The familiar rules are scrapped. People crowd and jostle and move their bodies recklessly, bumping into each other on the sidewalk and reaching over plates at the dinner table. They speak loosely and disrespect each other without consequence. Fast-moving cars make a simple walk to the shops disconcerting. In an instant, grinding monotony and rules are replaced with all kinds of choices and responsibilities: paying bills, doing laundry, making dinner. Days are not scripted but radically open.

But prison is not really in the past. It lingers as muscle memory and habit and body language, a way of being imbibed spending day-after-day in a total institution.

The prisoner is now a former prisoner, an ex-convict living in free society. But prison is not really in the past. It lingers as muscle memory and habit and body language, a way of being imbibed spending day-after-day in a total institution.

Maybe the former prisoner finds herself standing in front of doors, waiting for them to open. Or washing socks and underwear in the shower. Or seeking out Ramen noodle soups at the Supermarket – the same kind she had in jail. Or isolating and spending long periods in a single room, a room she sometimes unthinkingly calls a ‘cell’ in casual conversation. Or eating dinner standing up, one foot on a chair, ready for any threat. These habits encapsulate a whole way of relating to the world that works in prison.

The freshly released prisoner is attuned to a world she no longer inhabits.

Jailhouse Lessons

Roy Jones was first locked-up as a teenager. He tells me in there it was one big learning experience. Now he’s 42 and carries those jailhouse lessons around like a street encyclopedia. He talks about robbing jewelers and picking pockets and breaking and entering. About setting up dealers and tricking office workers and travelling to New York to get the best price. And he goes from one technique to the next without pause, the words rushing out in a deep, husky voice.

Over the years, Roy got used to staying safe in prison. Now we’re in a public park and it all comes naturally. He uses the word “awareness” to talk about the skills needed to be a good hustler. I interject to ask what he means by the term.

“Have you noticed what I’ve been doing while we talk?” he asks.

As he says he’s been “constantly watching” and recounts the details of people coming and going in the area around, it dawns on me that Roy has been in motion the whole time: standing to talk, moving from the front to behind the bench, sometimes with a foot-up, at others resting folded arms on the back.

All this movement hadn’t struck me as odd or unusual. These were not the jumpy actions of a person anxious about their surroundings. There was an ease, a naturalness to the way Roy set up lines of vision covering the whole park. It could have been the prison yard.

Roy was not the only one who told me prison was like a school. The former prisoners I got to know said they were always talking about what went wrong and how to do it better next time. People who did armed robberies learned smash and grabs were easier. Dealers learned about breaking and entering. Prisoners met prisoners with connections to heroin and cocaine on the outside. Friends were made and phone numbers passed along.

Just about everyone had a hustle. Some made tattoo guns from ballpoint pens and stolen VCR motors, ink from the soot of burned black plastic mixed with water. Others brought drugs in with kisses in the visiting room. In small yellow balloons in packets of M&M’s or tennis balls thrown over concrete walls. People stole from the kitchen and sold medication and made homebrew liquor from rotten fruit.

When they talked about prison life, the descriptions were often scattered with animal imagery. It was like animals in a cage, they said, animals in a cage with an overseer. Prisoners were watched like lab rats and shuttled around like cattle. People reduced to animals became animals: not cats or birds, but sharks and bears and wolves. Predatory animals living by the law of the jungle.

Roy Jones has been there enough times to know what this means coming out the other side:

“It’s like when you have a dog locked up or chained up all day long. Once you let him off that leash – what’s he do? He runs wild.”

Listening Across the Divide

In colonial America, burglars were punished with branding: the letter ‘B’ burned into the hand, or if the offence took place on Sunday, into the forehead. With a hot iron, criminality was marked in the flesh of the condemned, punishment combining pain and lasting stigma.

Today prisons brand the convict: incarceration inscribed in the body as lasting dispositions, motor schemes, and bodily automatisms.

Today prisons brand the convict: incarceration inscribed in the body as lasting dispositions, motor schemes, and bodily automatisms. They create a criminal class, a sharp division between the criminal and the law-abiding, the normal and the abnormal – us and them. When the marked lash out in frustration, they only confirm what we already knew.

My father-in-law looks up from the newspaper and declares the guy should be locked away for good. I say that things are more complicated, that locking everyone up means there’s no money left for preventing these things. He gets angry and says I’m changing the subject. It seems like I’m defending a multiple offence drunk driver who just killed three people. We finish our eggs in silence.

Our breakfast conversation is a world away from the overwhelming reality of three dead people and that man staring blankly at the ceiling of a prison cell. The corrections myth thrives on the distance. For many Americans still don’t know anyone who has been to prison. In middle- and upper-income, predominantly-white neighborhoods, incarceration remains a rare and shocking experience. Through the screen of CSI and Law and Order Special Victims Unit, the prison appears as a readymade solution to complex problems.

Seek out and listen to the voices of those we mark criminal. They show the dysfunction of prisons more clearly than rates of recidivism ever could. Dwell on their words. Dissolve the corrections myth.


Liam Martin is a Ph.D. candidate in the Sociology Department at Boston College. His research examines how the prison experience follows people after they leave, the forces and processes that push people back toward prison, and the strategies of former prisoners rebuilding their lives. Liam also teaches college courses inside Framingham and Norfolk state prisons.