Institutional Aggression in the context of prisons: Dispositional and Situational Explanations.

AO1: Explanations of Institutional Aggression (the AQA Specification refers to aggression in prisons):Psychologists have been very interested in how institutions such as prisons might cultivate aggressive and violent behaviour. Two major theoretical stances have arisen to account for institutional aggression:

(1) Dispositional Explanations (the Importation Model) suggesting that aggression that occurs in prisons is as a result of the aggressive disposition of the prisoner.

(2) Situational explanations: (the Deprivation Model) suggesting that aggression that occurs on prisons is as a result of the prison environment.

AO1: The Importation Model Dispositional (Prisoner)

Prisoners ‘import’ their own social histories and traits with them to the prison environment Therefore, aggression is explained as a result of these traits/characteristics that belong to the prisoner, rather than being caused by the situation they’re on, e.g. the prison system itself. It is the ‘pre-existing’ traits of the prisoners which influence their subsequent behaviour in prison (Irwin and Cressey, 1962). The aggressive behaviour carried out in prison is therefore not specific to the institution/prison. The aggression it has also been acted out in the wider society by the same individuals; indeed, for many of them that is precisely why they have ended up in prison. Due to the fact that aggression has been displayed outside of the prison, before custody, any aggression within a prison has essentially, been ‘brought in from outside’. Therefore, what you get in prisons is a concentration of aggressive members of society. Such people bring with them into prison a ready-made way of behaving, which they simply apply to their new institutional setting. Toch (1977) suggests that ‘all prisons inherit their sub-cultural sediments from the street corners that supply them with clients’, suggesting that similar influences drive aggression amongst young people both on the street and in prison.

AO1: Research into the Importation Model:
DeLisi et al (2011) studied 813 juvenile delinquents confined in institutions in California. There were inmates who brought into confinement several negative dispositional features such as experiences of childhood trauma, high levels of anger and irritability, a history of substance abuse, and a history of violent behaviour. Compared to a control group (those with fewer negative dispositional features), these inmates were more likely to engage in suicidal activity and sexual misconduct. They also committed more acts of physical violence that were brought to the attention of the parole board. This shows that it is the pre-existing trait of violence and aggression in prisoners (i.e. the aggressive personality/trait) that causes the concentration of aggression in prison environments.

AO3: Evaluation of the Importation Model of Institutional Aggression:

Strengths (and counter-part weaknesses):

(1) Point: Evidence for the importation model comes from Kane and Janus et al
Evidence/Example: They found that long periods of unemployment and a more serious crime record correlated positively with aggression within prisons. Elaboration: This is a strength because it shows that pre-existing factors within the prisoners affect levels of aggressive behaviour within the prison setting, thus supporting the importation model as an explanation for institutional aggression.

However,  this research can be criticised for being correlational. As a result, it is not possible to establish a cause and effect relationship (i.e. does the inmates having a natural trait/disposition for aggression cause lots of aggressive behaviour to be displayed in prisons or, does the prison environment itself cause an influx in aggressive behaviour?). An inability to establish this relationship makes it difficult to draw firm conclusions about the cause of institutional aggression.

(2) Point: An additional strength of the importation model comes from research from Harer & Steffensmeiser who collected data from 58 US prisons support the importation model. Example/Evidence: For example, they found higher rates of violence and lower rates of alcohol and drug-related behaviour among black prisoners, compared to white prisoners. These patterns match racial differences within US society. Elaboration: This is a strength because therefore supporting the importation model in suggesting that personality traits, like aggression, are imported into the prison settings.

However, it could be argued that these ‘groups’ may in turn be subjected to more segregation and abuse and thus respond with aggression in defence rather than instigate it within such institutional settings.

AO1: Explanations of Institutional Aggression The Deprivation Model:

Sykes (1958) argues that the origin of the prison subculture comes from within the institution, not from the outside. This is therefore a ‘situational explanation’ as it suggests that the aggression occurs as a result of the ‘environment’ that the individuals are in and not necessarily as a result of the individuals themselves. It is thought that it occurs as a result of the ‘deprivations’ that the inmates experienced on a daily basis.

Sykes outlined five deprivations that arise ‘from the indignities and degradations suffered by becoming an inmate’.

1. Deprivation of liberty (permission needed to eat/interact/shower)
2. Deprivation of autonomy (very few choices)
3. Deprivation of goods & services (few material possessions)
4. Deprivation of heterosexual relationships (lack of female company)
5. Deprivation of security (many prisoners do report fears for their own safety)

All of the above deprivations can lead to increased stress for inmates. It is therefore as a consequence of these deprivations that some inmates act aggressively towards others in order to both reduce stress and obtain the desired resources. Aggression is therefore a way in which prisoners can gain some control over the social order imposed on them in prison.

AO1: Research investigating the Deprivation Model of Aggression:
Steiner (2009) studied the factors that predicted inmate aggression in 512 prisons in the United States. He found that inmate-on-inmate violence was more common in prisons where there were higher proportions of female staff, African-American inmates, Hispanic inmates, and inmates in protective custody for their own safety. These are all prison-level factors because they are independent of the individual characteristics of prisoners. In this study the factors reliably predicted aggressive behaviour in line with the deprivation model.

AO3: Evaluation of the Deprivation Model of Institutional Aggression:


(1) Point: Research has supported the idea that the prison environment is the motivating factor in aggressive inmate behaviour. Example/Explanation: For example, Johnston conducted research and found that prison overcrowding led to increased aggression as there was more competition for resources and the tendency to adopt violent defensive behaviours. Elaboration: This suggests that the prison system itself is responsible for a change in behaviour of the inmates, and could be assumed to be the cause of institutional aggression supporting the deprivation mode.


(1) Point: A weakness is that the Deprivation Model can be seen to be an inadequate explanation of prison and inmate aggression. Example/Explanation: For example, in prison it can be seen that there are constant levels of prison stress, it is apparent that spontaneous riots can occur within a prison, yet the prisoners have not experienced any more deprivation than usual prior to the riot. Elaboration: This is a weakness for the deprivation model of prison aggression as, if the environment is relatively stable in terms of ‘deprivation’ you would expect levels of aggression to be ‘constant’ and ‘stable’ also. The fact that aggression can peak and trough suggests that other factors must come into play when explaining inmate aggression (perhaps a more valid explanation is indeed that aggression in prisoners is as a result of ‘importation’ and individual prisoner’s aggressive traits.

(2) Point: The Deprivation Theory can also be criticised for ignoring “Nature” as a factor explaining inmate aggression. Example/Explanation: For example, an alternative way to view institutional aggression is from a biological perspective. Raine et al (1997) highlighted neurological differences between murderers and controls using PET scans, and Dabbs et al (1995) showed that inmates convicted of violent crimes tended to have higher levels of testosterone than those convicted of less aggressive offences. Elaboration: These findings imply that the prison is not the main cause of institutional aggression (but that the prisoners are inherently aggressive) therefore calling into question the validity of the Deprivation Model.

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