Games Prisoners Play. Allocation of Social Roles in a Total Institution
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A new inmate, or 'rookie', who enters a total institution, usually faces 'tests' and 'games' organized by the 'old crew'. This paper argues that such initiation rituals are often designed by inmates in order to uncover a rookie's personal characteristics, such as toughness and cleverness. While such rituals may seem violent, they usually involve more skillful deception and tricks than pain and suffering. The basic idea is to persuade the rookie that he or she faces some tough choice - and watch his or her reaction to adverse or unusual circumstances. The mock character of a typical test creates a fundamental problem for its validity since an informed rookie can simulate both toughness and cleverness. Thus, an informed rookie cannot be distinguished from one with the desired characteristics. This problem is well recognized by most knowledgeable inmates and motivates them to search for new games and tests. The result is a wide variety of competing tests, frequent changes of argot and the secret code of behavior. The initiation rituals are modeled as simple games and decision problems. The ethnographic material was collected by the author as a political prisoner in Poland in 1985.
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