Volume 73 Number 3
Federal Probation

Revisiting The Society of Captives
Handbook of Restorative Justice: A Global Perspective
Books Received


Revisiting The Society of Captives

Reviewed by Robert Herner

Review of The Society of Captives: A Study of a Maximum Security Prison, by Gresham M. Sykes. Princeton University Press, 2007 (originally published 1958).

The Society of Captives was originally published in 1958. Gresham Sykes had recently received his doctorate from Northwestern University and was teaching at Princeton University. There he had the opportunity to make friends with Lloyd McKorkle, the warden at the New Jersey State Penitentiary, who was leading discussion sections for a criminology course at Princeton. Sykes broached the idea of doing research at the prison and McKorkle welcomed it, giving Sykes access to prisoners, staff, and prison records. Early in his observations, Sykes noted that the official prison rules and those that the prisoners followed were two entirely different sets of rules. Employing a structural functionalist approach, which was prominent in sociology at the time, Sykes explained the evolution, nature, and purpose of the rules which guide the society of captives. His analysis of the prison culture has become a standard in the literature of penology.

Almost every chapter in this little volume spawned new strains of research in penology for decades to come. In the chapter on the “defects of total power” Sykes answers the question probably on the minds of many in the lay public, “why are there so often disturbances in the prison when the prison staff should have nearly total control over the prisoners?” Sykes explains that, in practice, it is not possible to enforce all of the detailed rules imposed on prisoners and that, given the potential for violent outbreaks, guards must depend on the cooperation of the prisoners and, thus, allow their authority to be compromised; “…for it is a paradox,” he writes, “that they can insure their dominance only by allowing it to be corrupted” (p. 58).

In the chapter on the “pains of imprisonment,” Sykes discusses the all-out assault that incarceration imposes on the prisoner’s selfhood. Incarceration itself and the deprivation of liberty represent society’s rejection of that individual as someone who is unworthy of living among us. The deprivation of heterosexual relationships represents another attack on the self in that so much of our self identity is tied to our sexuality. The deprivation of autonomy is another threat to the self in that the prisoner is reverted to a childlike state, dependent on the staff for the granting of privileges, much as we were dependent on our parents for such. It is only when we become independent from these authority figures that we come to identify our “selves” as adults. These are just some of the pains of imprisonment. Sykes argues that the structure of incarceration is potentially devastating to the prisoner’s self-esteem and that the often-violent prison subculture emerges as a means for at least some prisoners to feel good about themselves by dominating other prisoners. The attack on the prisoner’s sense of self and the violent subculture that emerges in response may both go a long way toward explaining our high recidivism rates.

These are but a few of the influential arguments in the book. Another chapter concerns argot roles that emerge in the maximum security prison. These roles—such as “gorillas,” “rats,” “merchants,” and “punks”—have detailed effects on the ways that prisoners relate to one another, how the prisoners bide their time, and how the prison culture functions. And one of the last chapters in the book presents Sykes’ theory of prison riots. The prison culture, he says, cycles between equilibrium and crisis, with the prison staff ceding authority to the prisoners, the prisoners taking advantage of that authority, the staff cracking down to reestablish their authority, and the prisoners revolting against the crackdown.

Written a half century ago, The Society of Captives remains one of a handful of works in criminology that has maintained a significant audience for so long a time. (Another such notable classic is the article “Techniques of Neutralization,” which Sykes coauthored with David Matza, and which is still reprinted in many, if not most, anthologies in criminology today.) It is difficult to measure its importance throughout the years, but indicators of its influence abound. In an article published in The Prison Journal in 2001 (more than 40 years after the original publication of this book), author Michael Reisig surveyed a number of well-published scholars in criminology to determine the most influential books written in prison studies. The Society of Captives was ranked number one. “It will surprise few readers,” writes Reisig, “that the panel selected Gresham Sykes’s The Society of Captives as a book of great importance. . . . And, according to the panel, his work continues to influence the way contemporary researchers conceptualize the world behind the prison walls.” Reisig further notes that the Social Sciences Citation Index in 2001 cited Sykes “nearly 500 times in social science journals since 1977” (Reisig, 2001: 390, 395). In another article published in the Journal of Criminal Justice Education in 2002 entitled “The Pains of Imprisonment: Exploring a Classic Text with Contemporary Authors,” author John Riley devotes the entire article to a demonstration of how concepts developed more than 40 years earlier in The Society of Captives are exemplified in contemporary prison literature (Riley, 2002). Another indicator of the current influence of this work is to be found in the fact that the new millennium saw new grant-funded research at Cambridge University entitled “The New Society of Captives,” which examined the application of concepts developed by Sykes and his contemporaries in the modern prison culture in England.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of The Society of Captives is that such a short book can be so densely packed with theoretical insight and that such a treatise can be as readable as it is. Each of Sykes’s arguments concerning the pains of imprisonment, the corruption of authority, argot roles, and prison riots is well-known by criminologists throughout the United States and Europe and each is classic in its own right. The fact that all of these arguments can be found in one book rightfully establishes The Society of Captives as one of the most important books ever written in prison studies and the most important book written in the field during the past half century.

Not only has the book inspired a good deal of scholarship, it has also roused a good deal of scholarly controversy. In particular, The Society of Captives has fueled the debate between the adaptation and the importation models of the prison culture. This debate centers over whether the prison culture is as violent and unruly as it is often portrayed because we have imported society’s most violent and unruly individuals into the prison (as is often assumed), or because violence and unruliness represent adaptive responses to the conditions of imprisonment. The structural functionalist approach that Sykes employed was inclined to view the prison as a total, self-encapsulated, system and thus was disposed to deemphasize influences that were imported from outside of the prison. Since the publication of the original book, however, prisoners have increasingly divided themselves up into gangs. and very frequently their gang membership inside the prison has depended upon their gang membership before their incarceration. The relevance of imported influences in the prison culture has, therefore, become quite apparent since the publication of the book. The relevance of the importation model to today’s prison culture, however, does not negate the validity of the adaptation model articulated by Sykes. Most criminologists today would agree that the prison culture is best explained by the interplay of the two models. In particular, prisoners are inclined to act on violent subcultural tendencies that may have been present before their incarceration as a means of adapting to the pains of imprisonment, which are better described by Sykes than by anyone else.

Another important change that has taken place since the first publication of this book has been in society’s attitudes toward crime and prisoners and prison. In the 1950s and ‘60s, there was a good deal of hope for prisoners and the possibility of their rehabilitation. Since then, we have become an increasingly punitive society. Sentences today are much longer and U.S. incarceration rates are the highest in the world. In recent decades there has been very little sympathy for offenders and minimal concern for their rehabilitation. The Society of Captives pointed out the deleterious effects of prison life on the inmate’s psyche and on his or her prospects for rehabilitation. The book was taken to heart by reformminded practitioners, scholars, and citizens. Today, there seems to be very little concern about the “pains of imprisonment,” the prisoner’s psyche, or his or her rehabilitation. But there should be more of such concern, because most of the people in prison today will eventually be released. If little attention has been paid to their rehabilitation, then quite likely they will be as dangerous to society (if not more so) than they were before their incarceration.

In the newest edition, the original text is preceded by an introduction by Bruce Western and concludes with a new epilogue by Gresham Sykes. The two entries bracket the book very nicely. Western is a sociologist at Princeton University who has taught classes to prisoners in the nearby New Jersey State Prison. Sykes was at Princeton and based his book on his observations at the New Jersey State Prison. Western, then, is in a unique position to discuss the changing relevance of Sykes’ work to what goes on in the prison system today and, specifically, to the prison where Sykes did his work. In the epilogue, Sykes describes the historical context and fortuitous events that led to his writing the book 50 years ago. For those who have been familiar with the book for many years, this is a fascinating insider’s guide to an historical moment in the history of sociology and penology.

After the book’s initial publication, a review appeared in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science written by James V. Bennett, the Director of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. Bennett concludes the review, “Sykes’ book must be recognized as an unusually capable and thoughtful discussion of the American prison, and it should be read by the general public, practicing penologists, students, and professors” (Bennett, 1959: 194). Given the book’s status as a classic, and given that the nation’s incarceration rate is nearly seven times what it was when The Society of Captives was first published, Bennett’s advice is as timely today as it was then.


back to top


Handbook of Restorative Justice: A Global Perspective

Reviewed by Harry Mika

Review of Handbook of Restorative Justice: A Global Perspective. Dennis Sullivan & Larry Tifft (Eds.). New York, NY: Routledge, 2008 (paper). 574 pp. $52.

The editors of this book have intended to create a forum and a catalyst for a broad discussion of restorative justice. How well does the Handbook accomplish this task and reflect the current state of the field?

On balance, the Handbook appears to succeed rather well, in part because it accurately stakes out the major strengths and deficiencies of restorative justice theory and philosophy, processes and practices, and possibilities. The editors have successfully included significant discussions across the architecture of restorative justice, namely its value orientations, the goals and objectives it seeks to address, its mechanics and processes, its organizational manifestations, and its vision of a “just” community. One might find the diversity of opinion and approach unsettling, and the lack of consensus and seeming babble disconcerting. But these are familiar characteristics of what is still the recently constituted restorative justice “field.” The restorative justice “movement” has come some distance and increasingly enjoys international respectability. But it has far to go, and thankfully, many of these 56 authors are both resolute and attentive to this point.

An asset of this collection is that the community of contributors is diverse, with somewhat more than half from the U.S. and the remainder representing 12 other nations of origin. Disciplinary affiliations of members of the academy include criminology, law, psychology, education, sociology, religion, public policy and administration, and social work. Non-academic authors are community, human rights, and social justice advocates; statutory workers; judges; mediators/facilitators; pastors; attorneys; and staff and administrators in the non-profit, voluntary, and non-governmental sectors. The multidisciplinary presentation helps to achieve a robust overview of the field.

In their introduction, Sullivan and Tifft describe restorative justice as “a form of insurgency and subversive in nature,” partly because it confronts the realities of social arrangements and processes that restrict and deny human potential, growth, and need. In fundamental respects, the editors see the restorative justice project as community development, where harm, responsibility, intervention, and resolve are collective in nature, and where personal empowerment, growth, and well-being become a segue to the collective peace.

In its initial section, the Handbook engages a range of competing justice visions and practices. From U.S. and European variants of victim and offender mediation, to family group conferencing for juveniles, with a focus on New Zealand and Australia, to other collaborative programming efforts, through to peacemaking circles, these contributions selectively consider the impact of restorative justice processes and practices on recidivism, the needs of victims, and the very prevalence of crime and harm.

Contributors trace the foundations of restorative justice to historical political economy and cultural arrangements that seek to manage conflict and harm. Such a framework proposes restorative justice as a way of life. A raft of illustration seeks to make this case, from the Navajo peacemaking tradition, to African ubuntu, to faith traditions and spiritual processes of transformation, to sanctuary justice.

In the first of three sections devoted to victims and harms, the victim’s rights movement in the United States is used to point out significant remaining deficiencies, such as lack of enforcement, lack of funding, and competing interests of prosecution (that appear to significantly escalate with the seriousness of crime). Restorative justice attempts to play its part in amplifying the victim and survivor voice. After all, its starting point is to acknowledge and respond to victim harms, on the face of it an alternative to the retributive agenda’s relentless focus on law breaking and offender punishment.

Other insights from a restorative orientation are helpful as well. The theory and practice of capital punishment in the U.S. is steeped with the imagery and rationale of punishment in the name of victims and survivors. However, the state’s “final solution” is arguably anathema to survivor needs and may well deepen harms for some with its unqualified rejection of redemptive and reconciliatory possibilities. Similarly, the concept of “harm” itself extends across the gamut of victim/survivor, offender, witnesses, family, advocates, community—all of whom to one degree or another face a certain level of harm or injustice when excluded from processes of truth, accountability, and reconciliation. Lack of responsiveness to the harms created by punishment, as they are distributed to offenders and their families alike, seriously undermines restoration, rehabilitation, and change, with ominous present and future implications for the wider community.

The third set of essays on victim issues considers needs of survivors in transition settings and circumstances, and reviews case studies of reparations (Canada, Australia, South Africa), truth and reconciliation (Serbia), transitional justice (South Africa), governance of security (Melanesian southwest Pacific countries), and grassroots justice (Rwanda). The complexity of these needs reveals peace-building imperatives and an apt agenda for restorative justice: shared mourning, memory and memorialization, truth recovery, education, rehabilitation, reparation, rejection of impunity, and the like.

A number of critical commentaries suggest limitations on the promise and prospects for restorative justice. More recent attention to crimes of globalization, crimes of state, and victimology reflect somewhat more concern with a broader range of harms, the role of dialogic strategies, and human rights. While restorative justice is often considered to be a major frontal assault on the hegemony of criminological discourse, its excesses are duly noted here, including a lack of concern with consequence (i.e., punishment), exacerbating harms to “shamed” offenders, promoting community power that could undermine state authority, expanding the “net” of formal justice processing, and enshrining inequitable justice (e.g., creating a hierarchy of victims).

A postmodernist critique of restorative justice highlights the limitations of reparative dialogue, as well as rigid procedures and order that frustrate the possibilities of spontaneous, organic, and genuine expression; an overreliance on legal discourse; and an emphasis on reconciliation that overshadows addressing the structural roots of conflict. From the feminist perspective, the role of narrative in restorative justice; the possibilities of enhanced community involvement; and attention to race, class, and cultural overlays of crime and peace hold significant promise but also challenges to realizing a vision of justice.

The book concludes with several deliberations on the relationship between transformative justice (an explicit focus on changing relationships within a context of social change) and restorative justice. In doing so, it implicitly sets a very high bar for the latter. Finally, the editors insist that restorative justice and transformative justice should be interchangeable; when they are not in practice, restorative justice is deficient and itself in need of transformation. Restorative justice should embrace and include the character, values, and goals of societal transformation.

All that said, is the Handbook a completely satisfactory exposition of restorative justice? It is not, and perhaps it does not have to be. It certainly offers a very robust agenda for restorative justice, and the best sections of the book present finely textured arguments for stretching a vision and exploring possibilities. There are occasional bursts of territoriality, doctrinal rigidity and the like, offered by the usual suspects. Fortunately, these have little net effect on the constructive “dialogue” throughout the remainder of the text.

As noted earlier, there is ample evidence here of a fledgling field. The paucity of empirical case study, despite the pedigrees of the contributors, is somewhat unsettling. There is scant consideration of measures of performance and outcomes. There is also too much of the fetishism of the “victim and offender” dichotomy. In the main, however, the Handbook accomplishes its intended purpose: a forum on restorative justice. While the contributors variably take up the editor’s “restorative justice as insurgency” mantra, their processional through that gauntlet is gratifying.

At the end of the day, the conditio sine qua non for restorative justice will be its responsiveness to a nuanced understanding of justice and peace. This will not and cannot flow from either conventional justice agendas or even these fledgling restorative justice ones, fortunately. We deserve better than that, and will need to struggle mightily to create more clarity in our vision and resolve in our practice.

back to top


Books Received

Alcatraz: The Gangster Years. By David Ward with Gene Kassebaum. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2009. 548 pp., $34.95 hardcover.

The Prison Library Primer: A Program for the Twenty-First Century. By Brenda Vogel. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, 2009. 272 pp., hardcover.

A Handbook for Correctional Psychologists: Guidance for the Prison Practitioner, 2nd edition. By Kevin Correia. Springfield, ILL: Charles C. Thomas Pub., 2009. 202 pp., $54.95 hardcover, $34.95 softcover.

Criminalization of Mental Illness: Crisis and Opportunity for the Justice System. By Risdon N. Slate and Wesley Johnson. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2008. 375 pp. plus index, $45 softcover.

A Comprehensive Study of Female Offenders: Life Before, During, and After Incarceration. By Martin Guevara Urbina. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Pub., 2009. 268 pp. plus index, $62.95 harcover.

Beyond Bars: Rejoining Society After Prison. By Jeffrey Ian Ross and Stephen C. Richards. Indianapolis, IN: Alpha Books. 2009, 224 pp., $12.95 softcover.

Prisons in America. By Marilyn D. McShane. El Paso, TX: LFB Scholarly Publishing. 2008, 274 pp., $39.95 softcover.

back to top