Institutional aggression in the context of prisons - Aggression

AQA A-level Psychology: Revision Made Easy - Jean-Marc Lawton 2017

Institutional aggression in the context of prisons


Theories of institutional aggression in prisons focus on two explanations. (1) The dispositional explanation focuses on the personality characteristics of prisoners in order to explain the high aggression levels found in prisons. This explanation encompasses the importation model, which sees individuals as bringing their aggressive tendencies with them into prison, forming an aggressive sub-culture within the institution. (2) The situational explanation sees aggression as due to 3 specific types of factors found within a prison setting: (i) organisational — aggression being prompted by being forced to follow prison rules and norms, (ii) physical — aggression being prompted by poor social conditions and threatening environments, and (iii) staff characteristics — clashes occurring due to attitudes and behaviour of prison officers. This explanation encompasses the deprivation model, which sees aggression as emanating from the injustices and deprivations of institutional life, like deprivation of liberty, deprivation of autonomy (independence), deprivation of goods and services, deprivation of heterosexual relationships and deprivation of security. Such deprivations lead to increased stress, with aggression being used in an attempt to reduce such stress and obtain deprived resources and therefore gain some control over the social constraints of institutional life. Both explanations are seen as valid theories of prison aggression.


Fig 15.4 A person with aggressive tendencies will display them in prison as well as at home

Focal study

Lahm (2008) performed a study that assessed the relative contributions of the situational and dispositional explanations of aggression levels within prison settings. She looked at prison records to assess incidences of violence experienced by 1,054 inmates serving sentences of varying lengths in 30 prisons. It was found that the main predictors of violence were the age of prisoners (younger prisoners were found to be generally more aggressive) and prisoners’ usual aggression levels. These findings would seem to suggest that the importation model is the most valid explanation of violence in prisons. However, Lahm also found that the level of overcrowding within a prison played a part (the more overcrowding, the more aggression there was), so there is some evidence to suggest that situational factors are important too. This illustrates how both the situational and the dispositional theories can be seen as valid explanations of aggression in prison settings.of emotional information.


• Kane & Janus (1981) found that if a prisoner had previously had a low level of education, a serious criminal record and spent a lot of time unemployed, then they were more likely to be aggressive once in prison. This illustrates how violence can be imported due to the previous experience of offenders.

• Kane & Janus (1981) found that younger offenders and non-white prisoners were more likely to be aggressive while in prison. This may be due to the influence of gang culture and/or the marginalisation of ethnic groups. This supports the idea that outside influences affect aggression.

• Johnston (1991) found there is intense competition for resources available in prison. This competition elicits in-group/out-group aggressive conflicts between gangs formed explicitly to compete for such resources. This relates to deprivation of goods and services, therefore supporting a situational explanation for prison violence.

Positive evaluation

Image A strength of the dispositional model is that it looks at prisoners in a more idiographic way (sees prisoners as individuals who differ from each other rather than seeing them in a nomothetic way by perceiving them as all the same). This explains why some prisoners are aggressive and some are not.

Image Riots in prison settings can give support to the situational model, as they tend to occur when there has been a withdrawal of privileges, or when the imposition of prison rules is tightened up. The resulting tensions and frustration often lead to an outburst of violence.

Negative evaluation

Image The importation model is accused of lacking recommendations of how to manage aggressive prisoners and reduce overall prison aggression levels. Theories that do not generate practical applications are generally seen as lacking validity.

Image Although gang culture is a good predictor of violence levels in young offender institutions, it does not explain aggression in adult prisons very well. Poole & Regoli (1983) found levels of pre-institutional violence predicted inmate aggression in juvenile correction institutions, but not adult prisons, lowering support for the importation model.

Image Although prison riots can occur due to deprivations within a prison setting, they can also sometimes flare up without any apparent reason, lowering support for the situational model.

Practical application

Research into aggression in prisons has led to the formation of strategies to reduce and manage aggression levels. Decreasing overcrowding, allowing more comforts and privileges, etc. have all been seen to help lower aggression levels in prisoners.