The Operational Pains of Carceral Confinement: Prison Staff as Front-Line Arbiters of Punishment


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Prisons are notoriously painful places that cause a great deal of harm to incarcerated people (Sykes, 1958). They are often dirty, dehumanizing, and can pose serious risks to both mental and physical health (Brinkley-Rubinstein, 2013; Caravaca-Sanchez et al., 2022; Crewe, 2011). Existing literature considers not only people’s actual carceral experiences, but also how these experiences translate into perceptions of punishment. This research suggests that staff play a large role in shaping the confinement experience but does not adequately consider how staff actions contribute to people’s perceptions of punishment. Using the penal consciousness framework proposed by Sexton (2015), this thesis explores how staff influence people’s perceptions of punishment. Through mailed correspondence with 83 incarcerated people living in 13 different prisons across one U.S. state, I find that staff act as front-line arbiters of punishment in three ways: in their role as gatekeepers to goods, services, and systems; when they physically assault incarcerated people; and when they purposefully antagonize the individuals they supervise. The practical and theoretical implications of staff arbitrating punishment in these ways suggests that without reform, prison staff will continue to cause additional, excessive, and unjust harm to incarcerated people.