aqa  Institutional aggression in the context of prisons: dispositional and situational explanations

Importation Model

(Irwin and Cressey, 1962)

The model claims that some people who enter prison do so already possessing certain characteristics (i.e. values, attitudes and experiences) that predispose them toward interpersonal violence within prison. According to this explanation of institutional aggression, interpersonal violence is not a product of the institution itself (i.e. any ‘violent’ characteristics of the prison itself), but rather of the characteristics of those violent individuals who enter such institutions.

Statistics suggest that young inmates have a more difficult time adjusting to prison; therefore, they are more likely to have confrontations with other inmates and with prison staff, and are more likely to view violence as an appropriate way to deal with conflicts within prison.

Research in the US has shown that Black inmates are more likely to be associated with interpersonal violence than are White inmates. An explanation typically offered for this is that more Black prisoners enter prison from impoverished communities with higher rates of violent crime. As a result, they are more likely to bring (i.e. import) into prison the cultural norms that condone violent behaviour.

Research into the Importation model

Harer and Steffensmeier (1996) analysed data from 58 US prisons and found that Black inmates displayed significantly higher levels of violent behaviour but lower rates of alcohol and drug misconduct compared to White inmates. They concluded that these differences reflected racial differences in these behaviours in US society generally, supporting the claim that such characteristics are imported into the prison environment.

Delisi et al. (2004) contradicted the importation model, as their study of over 800 male inmates found no evidence that membership of a violent gang prior to prison had any bearing on levels of violence within prison.[/message_box][/toggle_item]

Deprivation Model

(Sykes, 1958)

This model claims that it is the characteristic of the prison itself rather than the prison population that accounts for violence in prisons. Proponents of this model argue that it is primarily the experience of imprisonment that causes extreme stress and frustration for inmates and this, in turn, leads to violence against other inmates or members of prison staff.


Sykes (1958) commented on those factors that are part of the prison experience for inmates and that might be expected to contribute to interpersonal violence as a response. They include the loss of freedom, boredom, discomfort and loneliness. Social psychological research also suggests that other factors that are a common part of the prison experience would also be more likely to contribute to violence among inmates. These include heat, noise and overcrowding. For example, the overcrowding crisis in UK prisons has forced many inmates to share cells, and this is linked to an increase in interpersonal violence.

Research into the Deprivation model

McCorkle et al. (1995) found that overcrowding, lack of privacy and a lack of meaningful activity in prison all significantly influence interpersonal violence. Likewise Light (1990) found that when overcrowding in prisons increases, so do the levels of violence.

Poole and Regoli’s (1983) findings challenge the deprivation model. They found that among juvenile offenders in four different institutions, pre-institutional violence was the best predictor of inmate aggression regardless of the particular features (e.g. overcrowding, discomfort) of that institution. This finding supports the importation model and casts doubt on the validity of the deprivation model as an explanation for institutional aggression.

Importation vs Deprivation

Ethnic differences: Gaes et al. (2002) conducted a study of inmate violence using the entire male inmate population in the US, a sample that exceeded 82 000 cases. Several important findings emerged, including the finding that, regardless of citizenship, Hispanics (i.e. Americans with origins in the Hispanic countries of Latin America or Spain) were more violent prisoners than non-Hispanics. On the other hand, inmates of Asian descent were less likely than other prisoners to engage in serious violent behaviour. Thus, ethnicity appeared to be a powerful correlate of prisoner violence, supporting the importation model of institutional aggression.

Relevance in the 21st century: The deprivation model might not be particularly applicable today because many of the deprivations originally described by Sykes in 1958 have been reduced considerably as a result of prison reform and the inmate rights movement. An increased emphasis on training, education and other meaningful activities, as well as an increasing provision of anger management courses in prison, has decreased the deprivations experienced by prisoners in UK prisons. Despite this, however, the levels of violence remain high, suggesting that much of this violence can be attributed to prisoner characteristics prior to confinement.

Real life application: In 1998, criminologist and former prison governor David Wilson designed and managed two special units for the 12 most violent prisoners in the UK at HMP Woodhill. Wilson argued that, in line with the deprivation model, most violence occurs in environments that are hot, noise-polluted (e.g. lots of shouting, banging of cell doors) and overcrowded – that is, in situations where conditions contribute to the ‘deprivation’ of prison life. By changing the levels of noise, heat and crowding at Woodhill, there was a dramatic decrease in violent conduct among these prisoners. This supports the deprivation model because, despite these violent prisoners being ‘imported’ into Woodhill, it was situational changes that led to a change in their aggressive behaviour.


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