I first attended college in 1996, aboard the U.S.S .Enterprise. I was in the U.S. Marine Corps and part of one of the biggest NATO mission at the time, Operation Decisive Endeavor. I had no major, the classes were free for military personnel and since they counted toward college credit I felt it was a great idea. The only drawback was that due to operational commitments, I had very little study time and was unable to attend the class sessions.

The professors, from Central Texas College, understood the predicament that most of their students were in. For this the requirements were that we completed our term paper and the three required exams before the end of the six weeks regardless if we made the classes or not.
From there on I started to take college courses wherever I was stationed and wherever I went, if possible. Needless to say I acquired transcripts from a couple of different colleges. It was not until I left the Marine Corps that I started going to college fulltime majoring in Criminal Justice.

As interesting as Criminal Justice could be, I found it dull and boring. I felt there was not much room for critical thought and independent thinking. Now it could be that perhaps I was also employed as a corrections officer and found that for the most part, many of the criminal justice professionals that I worked with were not into new ideas. Frustrated, I stopped going to school and began looking at where I was.

What was I doing? Where am I headed? What do I want to do? How will I get there? I began to ask these questions and more. After a year of reflecting on my experiences and interest I stumbled onto Anthropology. I always knew it had to do with the study of human cultures and origins, things that I have always had some interest in. So I went back to school and took two classes; Cultural Anthropology and Introduction to Archaeology. My eyes were now open. This was something I understood. It is now my goal to one day contribute to the field of Anthropology. Here is where I could use some direction and guidance.

Because of my current profession as a corrections officer, I am limited to what I can do. My anthropological training is not complete. I see it as a lifelong commitment. So here is where I would like to draw some attention and hopefully receive guidance.

How can I apply the study of Anthropology to a corrections environment or jail setting? What should I focus on? What is the direction or approach I should take? What guidance if any, can anyone contribute, based on their own knowledge and or experiences?

I have posted this on the Forum because I believe there has to be other members that could use the same type of advice on an area or subject matter they are interested in. Should this posting receive sufficient amounts of quality information, then I believe it could be a useful forum for others needing focus in their own studies as well.

I come to the Open Anthropology Cooperative because as the name implies to me, I am able to seek the guidance of those in the field and those of equal experience and knowledge all of which I refer to as professionals.

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You might want to get in touch with Adam Reed who wrote a book about prison life in Papua New Guinea (reviewed here).

But I think that anthropologists should also take what they can from literature and film. I am sure that you know more of this stuff than I do, but Malcolm X made a lot of his stay in prison and Shawshank Redemption is one of the most popular movies of all time. It would be interesting to know what you make of these from the perspective of your work experience.

There is a tendency in our education system to deny the value of personal experience in favour of learning a discipline. But anthropology would be impossible unless we were each a human being to start with, able to extend our experience to wider knowledge of the world.
Welcome, Steven. In my totally biased view, you have an extraordinary opportunity to contribute to anthropology. Like many of the field's founders, you come to anthropology with a wealth of personal experience outside of the academy. You are also, because of your military experience and current career in corrections, in a position to contribute genuinely new perspectives. Here are a few thoughts about how you might proceed.

Read widely and do not focus too quickly on studies of prisons. Your contribution will come from the new insights you generate by bringing ideas from other contexts to bear on what you see and hear in the prison context.

You might, for example, start with Erving Goffman's Asylums, the classic study of asylums for the insane in which Goffman develops the idea of the "total institution." (And do watch the classic film One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.) You might also want to read Victor Turner's The Ritual Process and ask yourself how much prison life does or doesn't resemble the liminal period in rites of passage. If you are interested in history, you might want to have a look at military sociology: especially at the difference between peacetime and wartime armies. Do similar processes affect prisons and/or the corrections community, depending on whether criminal justice is a top-of-the-mind political issue? There are endless directions you might pursue.

2. Start now to take field notes. Even a half hour a day will, over the space of a year or two, provide a wealth of information. And if you take your notes as an on-going exercise in trying out the anthropological or other ideas you read about with what you yourself sea and hear, you will, very likely, stumble on fresh insights.

3. Feel free to post your observations and ideas here on OAC. Feedback is always useful.

Hope this is helpful.
First and foremost, thank you for the reply.

I will definitely consider contacting Adam Reed. I believe it would be best to read his book on prison life first, so that I can see his view. It would also be interesting to learn of some of the inmate management styles utilize in Papua, New Guinea and how they compare to those we use here in the United States. That is of course if Reed provides that information.

I must admit that I don’t read many books dealing with prison or inmate life. (I have plenty enough to read with my course work) I find that many authors tend to stress more their own views than what is actually truth. Not to say that their work is flawed, because I do get a lot of useful information from them. Take for example if it is an autobiography from an inmate. It would be limited by that person’s one view and there is a chance of exaggeration and/or glorifying of his/her exploits. As far as movies, yes the Shawshank Redemption is a very good one. It does have that Hollywood magic. The Green Mile on the other hand, despite is supernatural plot, I believe reflects jailers and corrections officers in a truer fashion. For the most part, the officers are cool, calm and collective. Those that I have labeled “Boss Hogs,” will eventually get weeded out. The job is dangerous enough that you don’t need anyone stirring up the hornet’s nest just to prove their bravado courage.

I guess the question I should ask is “What about inmates would the anthropological community want to know?” And from there considering my limited resources, I would figure how much of that can I answer.

I want to make sure that I am actually conducting an anthropological observation and not a social experiment. I want to formulate my own hypothesis and then have them tested. It is those scientific principles that I want to adhere to and not philosophical figuration. I understand it is no easy task, but at 33 years of age, I don’t feel I can afford to wait another four to six years for academic credentials before weeding out my errors so that I could publish and/or contribute my work to the anthropological community.

Keith Hart said:
There is a tendency in our education system to deny the value of personal experience in favour of learning a discipline. But anthropology would be impossible unless we were each a human being to start with, able to extend our experience to wider knowledge of the world.

I could not agree with you more. Thank you again.
John McCreery said:
Start now to take field notes. Even a half hour a day will, over the space of a year or two, provide a wealth of information. And if you take your notes as an on-going exercise in trying out the anthropological or other ideas you read about with what you yourself sea and hear, you will, very likely, stumble on fresh insights.

3. Feel free to post your observations and ideas here on OAC. Feedback is always useful.

Hope this is helpful.

Yes John, this is very helpful to me, thank you.

About a year ago I was asked to take the lead on a restorative justice program at work. To begin with restorative justice is frowned upon here in Texas. To get to the point, I was placed in the middle of a controversial battle. On one side I had many of my colleagues that were against it. On the other the counselors that were wanting to apply philosophical views to reality. In the middle was me, no one knew what I had to deal with.

The program dealt with violent offenders who should have been placed in higher security but weren’t for the purpose of this program. Nobody wants to get involved in controversial issues especially dealing with inmates and restorative justice. Because of a lack of leadership the program failed. I had very little support. When the counselors left I was on my own. I kept notes and from them I formulated and submitted my hypothesis on how the program could be more effective. Yes it would be a social experiment but based on what I had observed from viewing the situation anthropologically. That is I suspended judgments and myths that are usually present in jail settings. I observed and took notes on all rule violations I encountered or became aware of. I observed and took notes on how they were handled and the outcomes. When I put it all together I presented my findings and suggested a plan of action. It was all rejected. The problem I found was not my abilities, but the institution itself.

You see, sociological and anthropological work is mental work. And in the words of my Sociology professor, mental work is hard work. Nobody wants to do hard work. While some of those in my upper chain of command could not comprehend the work I was doing (a few didn’t understand the term hypothesis much less what qualitative and quantitative testing were) others just didn’t care. I was pulled to the side by one of my superiors who I have always regarded as a sensible and intelligent person, his words “These people are not ready for this.” And from there I realized that mental work and critical reasoning is beyond many people.

John I will capitalize on your advice. And I will post my obsevations; perhaps make a group because yes feedback is always helpful.
Steven,

I do hope that you've made notes on the institutional response to your report. You've already pointed to a fascinating problem: "These people are not ready for this." Why was that? Is there something about the institution or the way it recruits, trains and manages people that keeps them "not ready for this." Is it, for example, recruiting skewed to people with rigid views of a certain kind? Or is there a socialization process that turns people who might start out more open-minded into the people "not ready for this" you were mentioning? Are the people in question the guards who regularly interact with inmates? Or administrators with agendas and/or assumptions that rule out taking seriously what you were trying to do?

Another book recommendation: Howard Becker's The Tricks of the Trade: How to Think About Your Research While You..., This book is a great source of ideas. The one I had in mind as I wrote the previous paragraph was to think of an institution as a machine designed to produce precisely the output you observe. Thus, in his example, instead of assuming that a school is designed for education and that drop-outs are deviants, assume instead that the school is a machine designed to process raw material, i.e., new students, and produce precisely the proportions of graduates and drop-outs that it does. See if you can understand the exact mechanisms by which that result is achieved.

I imagine you doing something similar with the prison. You probably know or could easily find out how many prisoners will serve full terms, how many will be paroled, and how many will be recidivists. How would you design a prison to produce exactly those results? Is recruiting and training staff whose training in criminal justice teaches only certain fixed ideas one of the mechanisms?

Looking forward to reading what you come up with.
John McCreery said:
Steven,

I do hope that you've made notes on the institutional response to your report. You've already pointed to a fascinating problem: "These people are not ready for this." Why was that? Is there something about the institution or the way it recruits, trains and manages people that keeps them "not ready for this." Is it, for example, recruiting skewed to people with rigid views of a certain kind? Or is there a socialization process that turns people who might start out more open-minded into the people "not ready for this" you were mentioning? Are the people in question the guards who regularly interact with inmates? Or administrators with agendas and/or assumptions that rule out taking seriously what you were trying to do?


To sum it up, I find that most people employed in the criminal justice system have an ethnocentric view towards inmates and offenders. That is they feel as if the incarcerated are unworthy to be part of society. And given the 200 plus year old trend of our retributive justice practices within the United States, it is easy to adopt the attitude of “lock them up and throw away the key”.

I know this sounds ethnocentric on my part and perhaps even negative. I do however base my response on my experiences while employed in this profession.

Perhaps this is an area that should be focused on? We have plenty of literature dealing with the inmate population. I have not run across anything that analyzes the culture of corrections officers.

Unfortunately the notes I have taken do not include officer responses or that of other staff workers. I will be sure to include now.

Reading over the previous guidance you provided:

"Read widely and do not focus too quickly on studies of prisons. Your contribution will come from the new insights you generate by bringing ideas from other contexts to bear on what you see and hear in the prison context".

I will follow this.

Just from comprehending what you have said so far has implanted an outline in my brain housing group on where to start. Thank you. I will be sure to follow up.

So that no one gets the wrong impression, I have the outmost respect for those individuals who work within the criminal justice system should they work the streets or in our nation’s correctional institutions.
Steven and John, I have learned a tremendous amount from this exchange between the two of you. Thanks to you both.

This last suggestion to study the rulers rather than the ruled goes to the heart of a perennial problem for ethnographic method. Anthropologists tend to study down rather than up. Without wishing to oversimplify, this has traditionally made it politically easier for them to study their informants and write about them (since they often could not read and had no way of representing themselves if they did). It springs I think from the nationalist roots of the method when central European urban intellectuals used peasant studies to create myths of an independent nation. I don't knock this impulse: it underlies the truly democratic revolution in method that sustained our discipline in the 20th century. But studying elites is another kettle of fish, since they often have more power, individually and collectively, than the ethnographer. It helps to be a member yourself, but that is not the end of it.

For my own doctoral research I spent two years going native in a West African slum. I imagined that I had to get as close to the urban poor as I could, given my origins. After writing my thesis, I realized that I knew the street economy as well as them, perhaps better in some ways, but like them I didn't have a clue about the big events that shook Ghana while I was there, the collapse of the world cocoa price, a military coup, the descent of a thriving economy into chaos. (Ghana had an economy larger than Indonesia's in 1960 and per capita income equal to S Korea's). So I decided to investigate world society at the level of states and international agencies through working as a development consultant for institutions like the World Bank. At this time I invented the concept of an 'informal economy' which helps the bureaucracy to come to grips with the teeming streets of non-western cities, a classic top-down move from ethnography to intellectual and political manipulation.

I learned a lot from this exercise, some of which I consigned to print much later (see the first half of 'World society as an old regime'). But the contrast with my first fieldwork is what stays with me. Then I was anxious to avoid any sort of identification with an often oppressive ruling class, but I spent a lot of time as a result having to explain who and what I was, often not very satisfactorily. The consultancy visits identified me unequivocally as a member of the ruling establishment, but it gave people a handle on me that they could relate to in their own way. I came to prefer doing fieldwork as part of a job that allowed me to work for local society(most often as a teacher or consultant) rather than just study it as a freelance researcher operating from a grant. This did not prevent me form pursuing inquiries that I did not fully share with my informants (who included the future Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea and directors of the three largest corporations in Hong Kong), but I didn't have to waste time pretending to be someone I was not.



Steven R. Vasquez said:
John McCreery said:
Steven,

I do hope that you've made notes on the institutional response to your report. You've already pointed to a fascinating problem: "These people are not ready for this." Why was that? Is there something about the institution or the way it recruits, trains and manages people that keeps them "not ready for this." Is it, for example, recruiting skewed to people with rigid views of a certain kind? Or is there a socialization process that turns people who might start out more open-minded into the people "not ready for this" you were mentioning? Are the people in question the guards who regularly interact with inmates? Or administrators with agendas and/or assumptions that rule out taking seriously what you were trying to do?


To sum it up, I find that most people employed in the criminal justice system have an ethnocentric view towards inmates and offenders. That is they feel as if the incarcerated are unworthy to be part of society. And given the 200 plus year old trend of our retributive justice practices within the United States, it is easy to adopt the attitude of “lock them up and throw away the key”.

I know this sounds ethnocentric on my part and perhaps even negative. I do however base my response on my experiences while employed in this profession.

Perhaps this is an area that should be focused on? We have plenty of literature dealing with the inmate population. I have not run across anything that analyzes the culture of corrections officers.

Unfortunately the notes I have taken do not include officer responses or that of other staff workers. I will be sure to include now.

Reading over the previous guidance you provided:

"Read widely and do not focus too quickly on studies of prisons. Your contribution will come from the new insights you generate by bringing ideas from other contexts to bear on what you see and hear in the prison context".

I will follow this.

Just from comprehending what you have said so far has implanted an outline in my brain housing group on where to start. Thank you. I will be sure to follow up.

So that no one gets the wrong impression, I have the outmost respect for those individuals who work within the criminal justice system should they work the streets or in our nation’s correctional institutions.
Perhaps this is an area that should be focused on? We have plenty of literature dealing with the inmate population. I have not run across anything that analyzes the culture of corrections officers.

Steven,

Yes, yes, a thousand times, yes.

Keith,

I can see where you are coming from. But seriously, corrections officers as an elite? It would certainly be hard to ground that in media portrayals. Working class would, I suspect, be more like it. Relatively stable jobs doing hard, often boring, sometimes dangerous work that better off people don't want to do. Definitely feeling under-appreciated, since —again from media representations— they are somewhere near the bottom of a law-enforcement/military continuum with special ops, CSI, detectives (the "hero" classes) at the top and them at the bottom, relegated to the background in prison-visit scenes, when, that is, they aren't being portrayed as sadistic brutes.

Steven, am I talking through my hat?
I meant that an ethnographic study of correction officers (or the police) would encounter problems of power and representation that are less likely when studying and writing about prisoners. Studying up not down is socially relative. I was not characterizing them as upper class, but in prisons they are the rulers and getting on the wrong side of them caries much more serious social consequences. For a correction officer to study his own colleagues would require a political process of permissions, consultation and accountability quite different from any needed to make notes on prisoner behaviour. And this may be one reason why they are less often studied.

John McCreery said:
I can see where you are coming from. But seriously, corrections officers as an elite?
Points to consider, to be sure. But I note, first, that what Steven is proposing to do is neither to study up nor to study down, but rather to study peers, people like himself. Second, so long as his research remains informal, taking notes and considering their relationship to anthropological ideas, he has no access problem. He is already a member of the community he wishes to study; being on-site is his job. When and if he wishes to do a more formal study or publish his results, he will, of course, have to consider the consequences.

Steven has, however, already demonstrated considerable resourcefulness and also told us that he has already conducted one systematic study. The response was not what he hoped it would be; but that has only stimulated his interest to learn more. I note, too, that he has been a member of the U.S. Marine Corps. If he is anything like my Marine son-in-law or ex-Navy daughter, he already has a lot more "situational awareness" when it comes to dealing with bureaucratic hierarchies and the exercise of power in vertical and relatively raw forms than I, for one, did, setting out to do my first fieldwork, schooled but utterly naive. That is one reason why I find his proposed course of study and the research that may evolve from it so fascinating.





Keith Hart said:
I meant that an ethnographic study of correction officers (or the police) would encounter problems of power and representation that are less likely when studying and writing about prisoners. Studying up not down is socially relative. I was not characterizing them as upper class, but in prisons they are the rulers and getting on the wrong side of them caries much more serious social consequences. For a correction officer to study his own colleagues would require a political process of permissions, consultation and accountability quite different from any needed to make notes on prisoner behaviour. And this may be one reason why they are less often studied.

John McCreery said:
I can see where you are coming from. But seriously, corrections officers as an elite?
Keith and John,

Please excuse me for the delayed response. With mid terms around the corner for me and my new position at work, my plate has become full.


Keith Hart said:
Steven and John, I have learned a tremendous amount from this exchange between the two of you. Thanks to you both.

This last suggestion to study the rulers rather than the ruled goes to the heart of a perennial problem for ethnographic method. Anthropologists tend to study down rather than up. Without wishing to oversimplify, this has traditionally made it politically easier for them to study their informants and write about them (since they often could not read and had no way of representing themselves if they did). It springs I think from the nationalist roots of the method when central European urban intellectuals used peasant studies to create myths of an independent nation. I don't knock this impulse: it underlies the truly democratic revolution in method that sustained our discipline in the 20th century. But studying elites is another kettle of fish, since they often have more power, individually and collectively, than the ethnographer. It helps to be a member yourself, but that is not the end of it.

I remember reading about what you have stated in one of my course books. I believe that it is important that we start looking into studying government agencies specifically those that enforce laws and regulations. Not that there is some underlying problem, but so that we can understand the mechanisms in place and the people who make those mechanisms possible.

Perhaps one of the saddest things officers commonly have to deal with is that many people don’t regard them as humans, or so it seems most of the time. People tend to forget that they have families and can hurt emotionally especially when they see a family torn apart due to one of the parents being incarcerated. But I do think this feeling is mutual in a way. As I have already mentioned, many officers tend to feel the same way about offenders. They forget that they have families and can hurt too regardless how harden they can be.

The study of anthropology is the study of the human experience. What does it mean to be human? And the study of indigenous cultures that still rely on primitive methods in daily life is fascinating. But the global society that operates on a modern basis is very complex. What does it mean to be human now relying on modern technology and methods? Furthermore, what does it mean to be a human now and charged with regulating the daily lives of humans today? I believe that such a study could be beneficial to agencies who want more productive officers and less civil liability.

No, correctional officers are not the elite, but they have a very important responsibility. They are the most underutilized part of the criminal justice system and perhaps the most misrepresented. Such a study would have to be carefully approached. I believe even I would have a hard time dismissing myths and officer stereotypes.

John McCreery said:
Points to consider, to be sure. But I note, first, that what Steven is proposing to do is neither to study up nor to study down, but rather to study peers, people like himself. Second, so long as his research remains informal, taking notes and considering their relationship to anthropological ideas, he has no access problem. He is already a member of the community he wishes to study; being on-site is his job. When and if he wishes to do a more formal study or publish his results, he will, of course, have to consider the consequences.
Any study I do now would have to be informal. For the most part, I still need much anthropological training. My biggest goals right now are to make critical thinking a habit and perfect my communication skills, specifically my writing. I don’t plan to be in corrections forever, or at least I don’t want my tombstone to read “Here lies Steven, he was a good corrections officer.” Given the current economy, it is stable, pays the bills, provides a roof and feeds the family. So until then this would have to be my stepping stone.

The most useful tool I have acquired from anthropology is the ability to observe and dissect what I am seeing. I spent five out of my eight years in the Corps as a reconnaissance scout. And even though I developed keen observation skills, I have just recently begun to understand why things are the way they are in what I observe. If there is anything I have taken in abundance from being a Marine it is tenacity. In a bureaucracy, tenacity can be seen as overbearing. While tenacity worked wonders for me in the Corps, it has had mixed results in my current line of work. While some bridges were built and even strengthened, others have been burnt beyond recognition.

It has been over a year since the restorative justice project I mentioned earlier. I’m still rebuilding my reputation. I went into the program known as a “no non-sense” officer with hard work ethics and when it was over, I had the reputation of a “neo liberal” to say the least. So yes, I do agree that there would be consequences.

For my independent study I am working on securing an internship at the crime lab for next summer. Physical anthropology is what I am interested in most. So what I can realistically see happen over the course of the next two years is an informal comparison of two extremes within the field of criminal justice. One the highly celebrated crime lab detective and the other a simple jail guard. However sticking to John’s advice I will be sure to “read widely and not focus to quickly.”

I believe that whatever the outcome of my informal study, I will have learned a lot. I have in a sense learned a lot from this discussion already. I feel that having the opportunity to exchange dialogue with experienced professionals in the field of anthropology such as yourselves has for me, shed a lot of light on the discipline. I want to thank you both very much. Once I have my thoughts together I will be sure to post in hopes that others can offer their guidance and perhaps some can learn from the exchange.
John McCreery said:
Perhaps this is an area that should be focused on? We have plenty of literature dealing with the inmate population. I have not run across anything that analyzes the culture of corrections officers.

Steven,

Yes, yes, a thousand times, yes.

Keith,

I can see where you are coming from. But seriously, corrections officers as an elite? It would certainly be hard to ground that in media portrayals. Working class would, I suspect, be more like it. Relatively stable jobs doing hard, often boring, sometimes dangerous work that better off people don't want to do. Definitely feeling under-appreciated, since —again from media representations— they are somewhere near the bottom of a law-enforcement/military continuum with special ops, CSI, detectives (the "hero" classes) at the top and them at the bottom, relegated to the background in prison-visit scenes, when, that is, they aren't being portrayed as sadistic brutes.

Steven, am I talking through my hat?

You speak the truth. Even within our own agency some of the personnel who work the streets look down upon those who work the jails. It gets very interesting when we fight for pay raises.

I do believe however that if utilized more effectively, correctional officers can play a major role in lowering the amount of recidivism among today’s offenders.

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