The self-fulfilling prophecy occurs when expectations influence behavior in a manner that will confirm the original expectations (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012). For example, guards expect inmates in a supermax prison to be aggressive or violent and thus, treat inmates as violent individuals. This in turn causes the inmates to behave violently – ultimately confirming the guards expectation of the inmate. Furthermore, guards may behave with racial prejudice and harassment which has the potential to turn an inmate into a hateful, aggressive individual. Austin and Irwin (2001) examined this problem closely within the prison environment and point out that an inmate may be treated as a violent criminal, regardless if they are or not. This may result in exacerbating violent qualities in inmates or create these qualities in the first place.
Supermax prisons exist with the purpose of housing the most dangerous criminals around the country. Inmates are sent to supermax prison when they are deemed to be resistant to adherence of prison regulations, pose a threat to the prison staff and fellow inmates and exhibit violent or disruptive behavior (King, Steiner, & Breach, 2008). Within the climate of a supermax, prisoners are confined in solitary housing units for up to 23 hours per day (King et al., 2008). The treatment of supermax inmates often foregoes the “common decency and dignity” of treatment towards human beings in favor of cruel and harsh tactics (Madrid v. Gomex, 1995). In a prison, inmates are vulnerable to inhumane treatment, racial prejudice and harassment for an extended period of time. Toch (1990) has uncovered that a constant negative environment will only enhance negative behaviors and desensitize inmates.
King et al. (2008) have pointed out that within supermax prisons, inmates are well aware of their labels as “the worst of the worst” and treated as such (p. 162). Furthermore, officers employed at supermax prisons are briefed repeatedly that they are in contact with violent and dangerous individuals and emphasize the threat of death by inmates (King et al., 2008). While it is true that inmates can behave violently and never abide by prison rules, this cannot be the case for every single prisoner. Therefore, treatment for the masses should not be based on the minority. On a smaller, less intense scale, the Stanford prison simulation revealed the capability of power and social roles within prison culture that can turn guards to behave in a very cruel manner (Schneider et al., 2012). A similar behavioral pattern can be seen within supermax prisons and guard treatment towards inmates. The social roles and norms of prison guards are often associated with the negative treatment of inmates because guards feel superior and view the inmates as “less than human” for being sent to a supermax prison (King, Steiner, & Breach, 2008, p. 164).
King et al. (2012) focus on the Pelican Bay supermax as an example of the self fulfilling prophecy and its repercussions within prison climates. Pelican Bay has the reputation of being one of the worst prisons in the country. Pelican Bay is described as an environment that is filled with “harassment, sensory deprivation, and isolation” which leads to an environment that further enhances inmate aggression (Wienstein & Cummins, 1996). The solitary housing unit of a supermax exposes inmates to exactly this environment for 23 hours a day contributing to anger, frustration, loneliness, aggression, etc. Weinstein and Cummins (1996) defend inmates saying that even the “‘worst of the worst’ – are members of the human community” (p.1).
The environment, expectations and behaviors of both the guards and inmates contribute to the self fulfilling prophecy and enhanced violence in supermax prisons. Guards are trained to dehumanize criminals and use aggression in supermax prisons with the expectation that these criminals will behave violently. Inmates in turn will react to the aggressive treatment and harassment with violence. Additionally, inmates believe if they have made it to the supermax, they must be a terrible criminal and so they behave in such a manner to confirm their beliefs and expectations. In order to eliminate or reduce the cycle of the self fulling prophecy from occurring within supermax prisons, guards must first be dedicated to believing inmates are human beings (King, Steiner, & Breach, 2008). Johnson (2002) explains that guards have the ability to promote helping activities and setting examples within the prison environment. Rather than further enhance an inmates hate, anger and aggression, guards should be civil and use tactics to promote positive behavior. These changes will allow a climate of basic human dignity and reduce the enhancement of aggressive and violent behavior due to the effects of the self fulfilling prophecy.
Austin, J. & Irwin, J. (2001). It’s about time: American’s imprisonment binge (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Johnson, R. (2002). Hard time (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
King, K., Steiner, B., & Breach, S. (2008). Violence in the supermax: A self-fulfilling prophecy. The Prison Journal, 88(1), 144-168. doi:10.1177/0032885507311000.
Madrid v. Gomez, 889 F. Supp. 1146 (N.D. Cal. 1995).
Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., and Coutts, L. M. (Eds.) (2012). Applied Social Psychology: Understanding and Addressing Social and Practical Problems (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Toch, H. & Klofas, J. (1982). Alienation and desire for job enrichment among correction officers. Federal Probation, 46(1), 35-44.
Toch, H. (1990). The good old days in the joint. In T. Flanagan (Ed.), Long-term imprisonment: Policy science and correctional practice (pp. 186-196). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Wienstein, C. & Cummins, E. (1996). The crime of punishment: Pelican Bay Maximum Security Prison. San Francisco, CA: South End Press.