Charles Bernstein/Erving Goffman


[interview with Robin Seguy]

rooms, suites of rooms, buildings, or plants

                             in line. Their encompassing or total character

          intercourse with the outside and to departure

  such as locked doors, high walls, barbed
                    wire, cliffs, water, forests, or moors.

              conflicts, discreditings, and failures

                             orf assimilation. If cultural change

      the outside. Thus, if the inmate's stay

                               victory. They create and sustain

a particular kind of tension

                      dangers to it, with the welfare

              jails, penitentiaries, P.O.W.
             camps, and concentration camps

                                       some worklike task and justifying themselves

             army barracks, ships, boarding schools, work
camps, colonial compounds, and large mansions

             abbeys, monasteries, convents

             starting point. By anchoring

       them; what is distinctive

                       attributes. In speaking of

       outside world. Each grouping

                          bitter, secretive, and untrustworthy

condescending, high handed, and mean

                    superior and righteous

                                          inferior, weak, blameworthy, and guilty.

   Even talk across the boundaries
     may be conducted in a special tone of voice

                               swamped. On Ward 30

                                      unless Dr. Baker
                                     himself asked for them

                       persevering, nagging delusional group—

                                                     “worry warts,
                                                     “bird dogs,

                                       in the attendants''s slang

passage of information, especially information

  excluded from knowledge of the decisions taken regarding his fate

                            a special basis of distance from and control over inmates

               restrictions of contact presumably

                                           worlds develop, jogging alongside

                                              bounds. But to say

                                               work, then, this

                                       outside. There

                                                          it. This is

  ceremonial, payments, such

                                    required, induced not by reward

                                                           can buy; all needs

                                      staff; here

                                            tThey say.   Is it

                                                       us?    For by

                      hour; paid to work, paid

                                        sleep: always those halfpence

                                               up. Impossible, therefore,
                                                                     to dignify a job

                    it well. It must

                                    waiting, but another job

                                           self-respect. (Staff members

                         the family. Family life

                                  living, but in fact

     existence. Conversely,

                                                                culture” (to modify

of being “in” or “on the inside” does not exist apart

                                     home world. Upon entrance

               abasements, degradations,
                             humiliations, and profanations

                                    is mortified

                                            of self. In civil life

                                     taboo. Although

                                                   home. The role

                    such. It may not be

                                         up, at a

                             cycle, the time

                                      advancement, in

                                                “civil death”

                                world. The process

                                         well. We

life history, photographing, weighing, fingerprinting, assigning
numbers, searching, listing personal possessions for storage,
undressing, bathing, disinfecting, haircutting

                                nakedness. Leaving off

                                                         on, with

Cclothing, combs, needle and thread, cosmetics, towels, soap, shaving sets, bathing facilities

                               disfigurement. B, beatings,
                                                    shock therapy, or, in mental hospitals, surgery


                                                  integrity. At admission

                                                       way. Given

                              movements, postures, and stances

                                                               demeaning. Any

                                                  regulation, command, or task

                                                      that forces

                                                       pose, so he may

                                                                “sir.” Another

                                   beg, importune, or humbly ask

                                                             a daily round of life

                   his body, his immediate actions, his thoughts

                                                                                clear of contact

                                    violated; the boundary

                                              relationships. (Similarly,

                                                     hold oneself off

                         every gesture and nuance of expressionerror

                                             forms, for therse

                                                over: forcing upon

              men of his own type and badge

                          its effect, with

                                          a disruption

                                 his acrts

                                    attacks. The individual

                                              situation; he

                                society, when

                                         of self, he is

sullenness, failure to offer usual signs of deference, sotto
profaning asides, or fugitive expressions of contempt, irony

                                         derision. Compliance

                                   activity, citing

                      society, audience

                                        avowals and implicit claims

                                                      thrown up

                              well-oriented, unantagonistic

                                                       process, since

                                                          doctrine. A “permissive”

                                           situation is collapsed

                                itself, and he

                                            action. A second assault

                                    of regimentationregulation and tyrannization

                                             judged. Beyond this

                                     pace. He need not

                                                                      fit into

                            regulations and judgments

                                            by staff; the inmate's

                                                    above, especially





                              shirts on

                        pants at

                                 shoes at

                                            Aany noise, like

                    attention, hands

                                        thumbs even

                           face or head

      enforced. No

                official, visitor or, guard

        beyond sight

                                     still and hidden

smoking, shaving, going to the toilet, telephoning,
spending money, or mailing letters

                                      submissive or suppliant

   teased, denied, questioned at length, not noticed

                                                   put off

                                 able bodied yet lacking

                                           unsupplied. Even

                                     indefinitely, while

           dress, deportment, manners

                                        the press of

       enveloping tissue of constraint

                                      school, but

                                                certain rights

                                 sanction. (This arrangement,

                                                              outside, the adultaudit

                                    work, or

                                           diffuse, novel, and strictly enforced

                                                     ones, to live

           the consequence of breaking

                                              disrupt or defile

                             over his world— that he is a person

                                                          a soft bed

                                                quietness at night

                                                               “pretty please”

                             jump up for it

                                    his will. Less ceremonialized

                                                          superfluous. And instead

restrictions by renunciations, beatings, by
           self-flagellations, inquisition by confession

                                          to talk; on the inoutside

                                                such rights

                      Tthe building of a world

                                culture, and yet

                  sharing; it almost

         cigarettes, candy, and newspapers

                         animals and children

                                components, put together

                   power. This power

ridicule, vicious ribbing, moderate and sometimes severe corporal punishment

                                   “messing up.” Messing up

                                                                      escape), getting caught

fights, drunkenness, attempted suicide, failure at
examinations, gambling, insubordination, homosexuality,
improper leave-taking, and participation in collective riots

                                 cussedness, villainy, or “sickness,

                                                       a vocabulary

                                                                   “the angles,


                                                                   as by

                                                   objects, then

                                                                  decent human beings


slogan shouting, booing,tray thumping, mass food rejection

                                              mutinies; but these

          plateaus of disinvolvement

                                     broken (as they

 disciplined, moralistic, monochromatic

                            sponsor an ideal

           it cool.” This

                          cramped, arduous

                                                    engendered. The low

                                   processes, creates

                                      a story, a line, a sad tale

                   means of accounting

                             conversation and concern

            tactful, suppressing

                        misdeeds, and the refusal

                                              on, and

               wasted or destroyed or taken

“done” or “marked” or “put in” or “pulled.

                                                hard. This time


                              dead and heavy-hanging

field games, dances, orchestra orand band playing,
choral singing, lectures, art classes or woodworking classes, and card playing

                                         industrial alcohol, nutmeg, or ginger

                                  of dead sea in

                                          vivid, encapturing

                                                                              outside?”. This

                      sharp smell of fresh air


  loss or failure

                                                      circles from which




Social establishments—institutions in the everyday sense of that term—are places such as rooms, suites of rooms, buildings, or plants in which activity of a particular kind regularly goes on. In sociology we do not have a very apt way of classifying them. Some establishments, like Grand Central Station, are open to anyone who is decently behaved; others, like the Union League Club of New York or the laboratories at Los Alamos, are felt to be somewhat snippy about who is let in. Some, like shops and post offices, have a few fixed members who provide a service and a continuous flow of members who receive it. Others, like homes and factories, involve a less changing set of participants. Some institutions provide the place for activities from which the individual is felt to draw his social status, however enjoyable or lax these pursuits may be; other institutions, in contrast, provide a place for associations felt to be elective and unserious, calling for a contribution of time left over from more serious demands. In this book another category of institutions is singled out and claimed as a natural and fruitful one because its members appear to have so much in common—so much, in fact, that to learn about one of these institutions we would be well advised to look at the others.


Every institution captures something of the time and interest of its members and provides something of a world for them; in brief, every institution has encompassing tendencies. When we review the different institutions in our Western society, we find some that are encompassing to a degree discontinuously greater than the ones next in line. Their encompassing or total character is symbolized by the barrier to social intercourse with the outside and to departure that is often built right into the physical plant, such as locked doors, high walls, barbed wire, cliffs, water, forests, or moors. These establishments I am calling total institutions, and it is their general characteristics I want to explore.

The total institutions of our society can be listed in five rough groupings. First, there are institutions established to care for persons felt to be both incapable and harmless; these are the homes for the blind, the aged, the orphaned, and the indigent. Second, there are places established to care for persons felt to be both incapable of looking after themselves and a threat to the community, albeit an unintended one: TB sanitaria, mental hospitals, and leprosaria. A third type of total institution is organized to protect the community against what are felt to be intentional dangers to it, with the welfare of the persons thus sequestered not the immediate issue: jails, penitentiaries, P.O.W. camps, and concentration camps. Fourth, there are institutions purportedly established the better to pursue some worklike task and justifying themselves only on these instrumental grounds: army barracks, ships, boarding schools, work camps, colonial compounds, and large mansions from the point of view of those who live in the servants' quarters. Finally, there are those establishments designed as retreats from the world even while often serving also as training stations for the religious; examples are abbeys, monasteries, convents, and other cloisters. This classification of total institutions is not neat, exhaustive, nor of immediate analytical use, but it does provide a purely denotative definition of the category as a concrete starting point. By anchoring the initial definition of total institutions in this way, I hope to be able to discuss the general characteristics of the type without becoming tautological.

Before I attempt to extract a general profile from this list of establishments, I would like to mention one conceptual problem: none of the elements I will describe seems peculiar to total institutions, and none seems to be shared by every one of them; what is distinctive about total institutions is that each exhibits to an intense degree many items in this family of attributes. In speaking of “common characteristics,” I will be using this phrase in a way that is restricted but I think logically defensible. At the same time this permits using the method of ideal types, establishing common features with the hope of highlighting significant differences later.


In total institutions there is a basic split between a large managed group, conveniently called inmates, and a small supervisory staff. Inmates typically live in the institution and have restricted contact with the world outside the walls; staff often operate on an eight-hour day and are socially integrated into the outside world. Each grouping tends to conceive of the other in terms of narrow hostile stereotypes, staff often seeing inmates as bitter, secretive, and untrustworthy, while inmates often see staff as condescending, highhanded, and mean. Staff tends to feel superior and righteous; inmates tend, in some ways at least, to feel inferior, weak, blameworthy, and guilty.

Social mobility between the two strata is grossly restricted; social distance is typically great and often formally prescribed. Even talk across the boundaries may be conducted in a special tone of voice, as illustrated in a fictionalized record of an actual sojourn in a mental hospital:
“I tell you what,” said Miss Hart when they were crossing the dayroom. “You do everything Miss Davis says. Don't think about it, just do it. You'll get along all right.”
As soon as she heard the name Virginia knew what was terrible about Ward One. Miss Davis. “Is she the head nurse?”
“And how,” muttered Miss Hart. And then she raised her voice. The nurses had a way of acting as if the patients were unable to hear anything that was not shouted. Frequently they said things in normal voices that the ladies were not supposed to hear; if they had not been nurses you would have said they frequently talked to themselves. “A most competent and effcient person, Miss Davis,” announced Miss Hart.
Although some communication between inmates and the staff guarding them is necessary, one of the guard's functions is the control of communication from inmates to higher staff levels. A student of mental hospitals provides an illustration:
Since many of the patients are anxious to see the doctor on his rounds, the attendants must act as mediators between the patients and the physician if the latter is not to be swamped. On Ward 30, it seemed to be generally true that patients without physical symptoms who fell into the two lower privilege groups were almost never permitted to talk to the physician unless Dr. Baker himself asked for them. The persevering, nagging delusional group— who were termed “worry warts,” “nuisances,” “bird dogs, in the attendants' slang—often tried to break through the attendant-mediator but were always quite summarily dealt with when they tried.”
Just as talk across the boundary is restricted, so, too, is the passage of information, especially information about the staff's plans for inmates. Characteristically, the inmate is excluded from knowledge of the decisions taken regarding his fate. Whether the official grounds are military, as in concealing travel destination from enlisted men, or medical, as in concealing diagnosis, plan of treatment, and approximate length of stay from tuberculosis patients, such exclusion gives staff a special basis of distance from and control over inmates.

All these restrictions of contact presumably help to maintain the antagonistic stereotypes. Two different social and cultural worlds develop, jogging alongside each other with points of official contact but little mutual penetration. Significantly, the institutional plant and name come to be identified by both staff and inmates as somehow belonging to staff, so that when either grouping refers to the views or interests of “the institution,” by implication they are referring (as I shall also) to the views and concerns of the staff.

In the ordinary arrangements of living in our society, the authority of the work place stops with the worker's receipt of a money payment; the spending of this in a domestic and recreational setting is the worker's private affair and constitutes a mechanism through which the authority of the work place is kept within strict bounds. But to say that inmates of total institutions have their full day scheduled for them is to say that all their essential needs will have to be planned for. Whatever the incentive given for work, then, this incentive will not have the structural significance it has on the outside. There will have to be different motives for work and different attitudes toward it. This is a basic adjustment required of the inmates and of those who must induce them to work.

Sometimes so little work is required that inmates, often untrained in leisurely pursuits, suffer extremes of boredom. Work that is required may be carried on at a very slow pace and may be geared into a system of minor, often ceremonial, payments, such as the weekly tobacco ration and the Christmas presents that lead some mental patients to stay on their jobs. In other cases, of course, more than a full day's hard labor is required, induced not by reward but by threat of physical punishment. In some total institutions, such as logging camps and merchant ships, the practice of forced saving postpones the usual relation to the world that money can buy; all needs are organized by the institution and payment is given only when a work season is over and the men leave the premises. In some institutions there is a kind of slavery, with the inmate's full time placed at the convenience of staff; here the inmate's sense of self and sense of possession can become alienated from his work capacity. T. E. Lawrence gives an illustration in his record of service in an R.A.F. training depot:
The six-weeks men we meet on fatigues shock our moral sense by their easy-going. “You're silly —, you rookies, to sweat yourselves” they say. Is it our new keenness, or a relic of civility in us? For by the R.A.F. we shall be paid all the twenty-four hours a day, at three halfpence an hour; paid to work, paid to eat, paid to sleep: always those halfpence are adding up. Impossible, therefore, to dignify a job by doing it well. It must take as much time as it can for afterwards there is not a fireside waiting, but another job.

Whether there is too much work or too little, the individual who was work-oriented on the outside tends to become demoralized by the work system of the total institution. An example of such demoralization is the practice in state mental hospitals of “bumming” or “working someone for” a nickel or dime to spend in the canteen. Persons do this—often with some defiance—who on the outside would consider such actions beneath their self-respect. (Staff members, interpreting this begging pattern in terms of their own civilian orientation to earning, tend to see it as a symptom of mental illness and one further bit of evidence that inmates really are unwell.)

There is an incompatibility, then, between total institutions and the basic work-payment structure of our society. Total institutions are also incompatible with another crucial element of our society, the family. Family life is sometimes contrasted with solitary living, but in fact the more pertinent contrast is with batch living, for those who eat and sleep at work, with a group of fellow workers, can hardly sustain a meaningful domestic existence. Conversely, maintaining families off the grounds often permits staff members to remain integrated with the outside community and to escape the encompassing tendency of the total institution.



It is characteristic of inmates that they come to the institution with a “presenting culture” (to modify a psychiatric phrase) derived from a “home world”—a way of life and a round of activities taken for granted until the point of admission to the institution. (There is reason, then, to exclude orphanages and foundling homes from the list of total institutions, except in so far as the orphan comes to be socialized into the outside world by some process of cultural osmosis even while this world is being systematically denied him.) Whatever the stability of the recruit's personal organization, it was part of a wider framework lodged in his civil environment—a round of experience that confirmed a tolerable conception of self and allowed for a set of defensive maneuvers, exercised at his own discretion, for coping with conflicts, discreditings, and failures.

Now it appears that total institutions do not substitute their own unique culture for something already formed; we deal with something more restricted than acculturation or assimilation. If cultural change does occur, it has to do, perhaps, with the removal of certain behavior opportunities and with failure to keep pace with recent social changes on the outside. Thus, if the inmate's stay is long, what has been called “disculturation” may occur—that is, an “untraining” which renders him temporarily incapable of managing certain features of daily life on the outside, if and when he gets back to it.

The full meaning for the inmate of being “in” or “on the inside” does not exist apart from the special meaning to him of “getting out” or “getting on the outside.” In this sense, total institutions do not really look for cultural victory. They create and sustain a particular kind of tension between the home world and the institutional world and use this persistent tension as strategic leverage in the management of men.


The recruit comes into the establishment with a conception of himself made possible by certain stable social arrangements in his home world. Upon entrance, he is immediately stripped of the support provided by these arrangements. In the accurate language of some of our oldest total institutions, he begins a series of abasements, degradations, humiliations, and profanations of self. His self is systematically, if often unintentionally, mortified. He begins some radical shifts in his moral career, a career composed of the progressive changes that occur in the beliefs that he has concerning himself and significant others.

The processes by which a person's self is mortified are fairly standard in total institutions; analysis of these processes can help us to see the arrangements that ordinary establishments must guarantee if members are to preserve their civilian selves.

The barrier that total institutions place between the inmate and the wider world marks the first curtailment of self. In civil life, the sequential scheduling of the individual's roles, both in the life cycle and in the repeated daily round, ensures that no one role he plays will block his performance and ties in another. In total institutions, in contrast, membership automatically disrupts role scheduling, since the inmate's separation from the wider world lasts around the clock and may continue for years. Role dispossession therefore occurs. In many total institutions the privilege of having visitors or of visiting away from the establishment is completely withheld at first, ensuring a deep initial break with past roles and an appreciation of role dispossession. A report on cadet life in a military academy provides an illustration:

This clean break with the past must be achieved in a relatively short period. For two months, therefore, the swab is not allowed to leave the base or to engage in social intercourse with non-cadets. This complete isolation helps to produce a unified group of swabs, rather than a heterogeneous collection of persons of high and low status. Uniforms are issued on the first day, and discussions of wealth and family background are taboo. Although the pay of the cadet is very low, he is not permitted to receive money from home. The role of the cadet must supersede other roles the individual has been accustomed to play. There are few clues left which will reveal social status in the outside world.
I might add that when entrance is voluntary, the recruit has already partially withdrawn from his home world; what is cleanly severed by the institution is something that had already started to decay.

Although some roles can be re-established by the inmate if and when he returns to the world, it is plain that other losses are irrevocable and may be painfully experienced as such. It may not be possible to make up, at a later phase of the life cycle, the time not now spent in educational or job advancement, in courting, or in rearing one's children. A legal aspect of this permanent dispossession is found in the concept of “civil death”: prison inmates may face not only a temporary loss of the rights to will money and write checks, to contest divorce or adoption proceedings, and to vote but may have some of these rights permanently abrogated.

The inmate, then, finds certain roles are lost to him by virtue of the barrier that separates him from the outside world. The process of entrance typically brings other kinds of loss and mortification as well. We very generally find staff employing what are called admission procedures, such as taking a life history, photographing, weighing, fingerprinting, assigning numbers, searching, listing personal possessions for storage, undressing, bathing, disinfecting, haircutting, issuing institutional clothing, instructing as to rules, and assigning to quarters. Admission procedures might better be called “trimming” or “programming” because in thus being squared away the new arrival allows himself to be shaped and coded into an object that can be fed into the administrative machinery of the establishment, to be worked on smoothly by routine operations. Many of these procedures depend upon attributes such as weight or fingerprints that the individual possesses merely because he is a member of the largest and most abstract of social categories, that of human being. Action taken on the basis of such attributes necessarily ignores most of his previous bases of self-identification.

The admission procedure can be characterized as a leaving off and a taking on, with the midpoint marked by physical nakedness. Leaving off of course entails a dispossession of property, important because persons invest self feelings in their possessions. Perhaps the most significant of these possessions is not physical at all, one's full name; whatever one is thereafter called, loss of one's name can be a great curtailment of the self.

Once the inmate is stripped of his possessions, at least some replacements must be made by the establishment, but these take the form of standard issue, uniform in character and uniformly distributed. These substitute possessions are clearly marked as really belonging to the institution and in some cases are recalled at regular intervals to be, as it were, disinfected of identifications. With objects that can be used up—for example, pencils— the inmate may be required to return the remnants before obtaining a reissue. Failure to provide inmates with individual lockers and periodic searches and confiscations of accumulated personal property reinforce property dispossession. Religious orders have appreciated the implications for self of such separation from belongings. Inmates may be required to change their cells once a year so as not to become attached to them. The Benedictine Rule is explicit:
For their bedding let a mattress, a blanket, a coverlet, and a pillow suffice. These beds must be frequently inspected by the Abbot, because of private property which may be found therein. If anyone be discovered to have what he has not received from the Abbot, let him be most severely punished. And in order that this vice of private ownership may be completely rooted out, let all things that are necessary be supplied by the Abbot: that is, cowl, tunic, stockings, shoes, girdle, knife, pen, needle, handkerchief, and tablets; so that all plea of necessity may be taken away. And let the Abbot always consider that passage in the Acts of the Apostles: “Distribution was made to each according as anyone had need.”

On admission to a total institution, however, the individual is likely to be stripped of his usual appearance and of the equipment and services by which he maintains it, thus suffering a personal defacement. Clothing, combs, needle and thread, cosmetics, towels, soap, shaving sets, bathing facilities—all these may be taken away or denied him, although some may be kept in inaccessible storage, to be returned if and when he leaves. In the words of St. Benedict's Holy Rule:
Then forthwith he shall, there in the oratory, be divested of his own garments with which he is clothed and be clad in those of the monastery. Those garments of which he is divested shall be placed in the wardrobe, there to be kept, so that if, perchance, he should ever be persuaded by the devil to leave the monastery (which God forbid), he may be stripped of the monastic habit and cast forth.

In addition to personal defacement that comes from being stripped of one's identity kit, there is personal disfigurement that comes from direct and permanent mutilations of the body such as brands or loss of limbs. Although this mortification of the self by way of the body is found in few total institutions, still, loss of a sense of personal safety is common and provides a basis for anxieties about disfigurement. Beatings, shock therapy, or, in mental hospitals, surgery—whatever the intent of staff in providing these services for some inmates—may lead many inmates to feel that they are in an environment that does not guarantee their physical integrity.

At admission, loss of identity equipment can prevent the individual from presenting his usual image of himself to others. After admission, the image of himself he presents is attacked in another way. Given the expressive idiom of a particular civil society, certain movements, postures, and stances will convey lowly images of the individual and be avoided as demeaning. Any regulation, command, or task that forces the individual to adopt these movements or postures may mortify his self. In total institutions, such physical indignities abound. In mental hospitals, for example, patients may be forced to eat all food with a spoon. In military prisons, inmates may be required to stand at attention whenever an officer enters the compound. In religious institutions, there are such classic gestures of penance as the kissing of feet, and the posture recommended to an erring monk that he
... lie prostrate at the door of the oratory in silence; and thus, with his face to the ground and his body prone, let him cast himself at the feet of all as they go forth from the oratory. In some penal institutions we find the humiliation of bending over to receive a birching.

Just as the individual can be required to hold his body in a humiliating pose, so he may have to provide humiliating verbal responses. An important instance of this is the forced deference pattern of total institutions; inmates are often required to punctuate their social interaction with staff by verbal acts of deference, such as saying “sir.” Another instance is the necessity to beg, importune, or humbly ask for little things such as a light for a cigarette, a drink of water, or permission to use the telephone.

Whatever the form or the source of these various indignities, the individual has to engage in activity whose symbolic implications are incompatible with his conception of self. A more diffuse example of this kind of mortification occurs when the individual is required to undertake a daily round of life that he considers alien to him— to take on a disidentifying role. In prisons, denial of heterosexual opportunities can induce fear of losing one's masculinity. In military establishments, the patently useless make-work forced on fatigue details can make men feel their time and effort are worthless. In religious institutions there are special arrangements to ensure that all inmates take a turn performing the more menial aspects of the servant role. An extreme is the concentration-camp practice requiring prisoners to administer whippings to other prisoners.

There is another form of mortification in total institutions; beginning with admission a kind of contaminative exposure occurs. On the outside, the individual can hold objects of self-feeling—such as his body, his immediate actions, his thoughts, and some of his possessions—clear of contact with alien and contaminating things. But in total institutions these territories of the self are violated; the boundary that the individual places between his being and the environment is invaded and the embodiments of self profaned.

I have suggested that the inmate undergoes mortification of the self by contaminative exposure of a physical kind, but this must be amplified: when the agency of contamination is another human being, the inmate is in addition contaminated by forced interpersonal contact and, in consequence, a forced social relatorigionship. (Similarly, when the inmate loses control over who observes him in his predicament or knows about his past, he is being contaminated by a forced relationship to these people—for it is through such perception and knowledge that relations are expressed.)

One routine instance of this contaminative contact is the naming system for inmates. Staff and fellow inmates automatically assume the right to employ an intimate form of address or a truncated formal one; for a middle-class person, at least, this denies the right to hold oneself off from others through a formal style of address. When the individual has to eat food he considers alien and polluted, this contamination sometimes derives from other persons' connection with the food, as is nicely illustrated in the penance of “begging soup” practiced in some nunneries:
. . . she placed her pottery bowl on the left of the Mother Superior, knelt, clasped her hands and waited until two spoonfuls of soup had been put into her beggar's bowl, then on to the next oldest and the next, until the bowl was filled. . . . When last her bowl was filled, she returned to her place and swallowed the soup, as she knew she must, down to the last drop. She tried not to think how it had been tossed into her bowl from a dozen other bowls that had already been eaten from.. . .

Visits take place in a room by the main gate. There is a wooden table, at one side of which sits the prisoner and at the other side his visitors. The warder sits at the head; he hears every word that is spoken, watches every gesture and nuance of expression. There is no privacy at all—and this when a man is meeting his wife whom he may not have seen for years. Nor is any contact allowed between prisoner and visitor, and, of course, no articles are allowed to change hands.

In total institutions, exposure of one's relationships can occur in even more drastic forms, for there may be occasions when an individual witnesses a physical assault upon someone to whom he has ties and suffers the permanent mortification of having (and being known to have) taken no action. Thus we learn of a mental hospital:
This knowledge [of shock therapy] is based on the fact that some of the patients in Ward 30 have assisted the shock team in the administration of therapy to patients, holding them down, and helping to strap them in bed, or watching them after they have quieted. The administration of shock on the ward is often carried out in full sight of a group of interested onlookers. The patient's convulsions often resemble those of an accident victim in death agony and are accompanied by choking gasps and at times by a foaming overflow of saliva from the mouth. The patient slowly recovers without memory of the occurrence, but he has served the others as a frightful spectacle of what may be done to them. Melville's report on flogging aboard a nineteenth-century man-of-war provides another example:
However much you may desire to absent yourself from the scene that ensues, yet behold it you must; or, at least, stand near it you must; for the regulations enjoin the attendance of almost the entire ship's company, from the corpulent captain himself to the smallest boy who strikes the bell.
And the inevitableness of his own presence at the scene: the strong arm that drags him in view of the scourge, and holds him there till all is over: forcing upon his loathing eye and soul the sufferings and groans of men who have familiarly consorted with him, eaten with him, battled out watches with him—men of his own type and badge—all this conveys a terrible hint of the omnipotent authority under which he lives.


I have considered some of the more elementary and direct assaults upon the self—various forms of disfigurement and defilement through which the symbolic meaning of events in the inmate's immediate presence dramatically fails to corroborate his prior conception of self. I would now like to consider a source of mortification that is less direct in its effect, with a significance for the individual that is less easy to assess: a disruption of the usual relationship between the individual actor and his acts.

The first disruption to consider here is “looping”: an agency that creates a defensive response on the part of the inmate takes this very response as the target of its next attack. The individual finds that his protective response to an assault upon self is collapsed into the situation; he cannot defend himself in the usual way by establishing distance between the mortifying situation and himself.

Deference patterns in total institutions provide one illustration of the looping effect. In civil society, when an individual must accept circumstances and commands that affront his conception of self, he is allowed a margin of face-saving reactive expression—sullenness, failure to offer usual signs of deference, sotto voce profaning asides, or fugitive expressions of contempt, irony, and derision. Compliance, then, is likely to be associated with an expressed attitude to it that is not itself subject to the same degree of pressure for compliance. Although such self-protective expressive response to humiliating demands does occur in total institutions, the staff may directly penalize inmates for such activity, citing sullenness or insolence explicitly as grounds for further punishment. Thus, in describing the contamination of self resulting from having to drink soup from the beggar's bowl, Kathryn Hulme says of her subject that she
... blanked out from her facial expression the revolt that rose up in her fastidious soul as she drank her dregs. One look of rebellion, she knew, would be enough to invite a repetition of the awful abasement which she was sure she could never go through again, not even for the sake of the Blessed Lord Himself.

The desegregating process in total institutions creates other instances of looping. In the normal course of affairs in civil society, audience and role segregation keep one's avowals and implicit claims regarding self made in one physical scene of activity from being tested against conduct in other settings. In total institutions spheres of life are desegregated, so that an inmate's conduct in one scene of activity is thrown up to him by staff as a comment and check upon his conduct in another context. A mental patient's effort to present himself in a well-oriented, unantagonistic manner during a diagnostic or treatment conference may be directly embarrassed by evidence introduced concerning his apathy during recreation or the bitter comments he made in a letter to a sibling—a letter which the recipient has forwarded to the hospital administrator, to be added to the patient's dossier and brought along to the conference.

Psychiatric establishments of the advanced type provide excellent illustrations of the looping process, since in them didactic feedback may be erected into a basic therapeutic doctrine. A “permissive” atmosphere is felt to encourage the inmate to “project” or “act out” his typical difficulties in living, which can then be brought to his attention during group-therapy sessions.

Through the process of looping, then, the inmate's reaction to his own situation is collapsed back into this situation itself, and he is not allowed to retain the usual segregation of these phases of action. A second assault upon the inmate's status as an actor may now be cited, one that has been loosely described under the categories of regimentation and tyrannization.

In civil society, by the time the individual is an adult he has incorporated socially acceptable standards for the performance of most of his activity, so that the issue of the correctness of his action arises only at certain points, as when his productivity is judged. Beyond this, he is allowed to go at his own pace. He need not constantly look over his shoulder to see if criticism or other sanctions are coming. In addition, many actions will be defined as matters of personal taste, with choice from a range of possibilities specifically allowed. For much activity the judgment and action of authority are held off and one is on one's own. Under such circumstances, one can with over-all profit schedule one's activities to fit into one another—a kind of “personal economy of action,” as when an individual postpones eating for a few minutes in order to finish a task, or lays aside a task a little early in order to join a friend for dinner. In a total institution, however, minute segments of a person's line of activity may be subjected to regulations and judgments by staff; the inmate's life is penetrated by constant sanctioning interaction from above, especially during the initial period of stay before the inmate accepts the regulations unthinkingly. Each specification robs the individual of an opportunity to balance his needs and objectives in a personally efficient way and opens up his line of action to sanctions. The autonomy of the act itself is violated.

Although this process of social control is in effect in all organized society, we tend to forget how detailed and closely restrictive it can become in total institutions. The routine reported for one jail for youthful offenders provides a striking example:
At 5:30 we were wakened and had to jump out of bed and stand at attention. When the guard shouted “One!” you removed your night shirt; at “Two!” you folded it; at “Three!” you made your bed. (Only two minutes to make the bed in a difficult and complicated manner.) All the while three monitors would shout at us: “Hurry it up!” and “Make it snappy!”
We also dressed by numbers: shirts on at “One!”; pants at “Two!”; socks at “Three!”; shoes at “Four!” Any noise, like dropping a shoe or even scraping it along the floor, was enough to send you to the line.
. . . Once downstairs everyone faced the wall at strict attention, hands at side, thumbs even with trouser seams, head up, shoulders back, stomach in, heels together, eyes straight ahead, no scratching or putting hands to face or head, no moving even the fingers.
A jail for adults provides another example:
The silence system was enforced. No talking outside the cell, at meals or at work.
No pictures were allowed in the cell. No gazing about at meals. Bread crusts were allowed to be left only on the left side of the plate. Inmates were required to stand at attention, cap in hand, until any official, visitor or guard moved beyond sight.

Similarly, an ex-nun is reported as having to learn to keep her hands still and hidden and to accept the fact that only six specified items were permitted in one's pockets.

As suggested earlier, one of the most telling ways in which one's economy of action can be disrupted is the obligation to request permission or supplies for minor activities that one can execute on one's own on the outside, such as smoking, shaving, going to the toilet, telephoning, spending money, or mailing letters. This obligation not only puts the individual in a submissive or suppliant role “unnatural” for an adult but also opens up his line of action to interceptions by staff. Instead of having his request immediately and automatically granted, the inmate may be teased, denied, questioned at length, not noticed, or, as an ex-mental patient suggests, merely put off:
Probably anyone who has never been in a similarly helpless position cannot realize the humiliation to anyone able bodied yet lacking authority to do the simplest offices for herself of having to beg repeatedly for even such small necessities as clean linen or a light for her cigarette from nurses who constantly brush her aside with, “I'll give it to you in a minute, dear”, and go off leaving her unsupplied. Even the canteen staff seemed to share the opinion that civility was wasted upon lunatics, and would keep a patient waiting indefinitely, while they gossiped with their friends.

I have suggested that authority in total institutions is directed to a multitude of items of conduct—dress, deportment, manners—that constantly occur and constantly come up for judgment. The inmate cannot easily escape from the press of judgmental officials and from the enveloping tissue of constraint. A total institution is like a finishing school, but one that has many refinements and is little refined. I would like to comment on two aspects of this tendency toward a multiplication of actively enforced rulings.

Second, these diffuse rulings occur in an authority system of the echelon kind: any member of the staff class has certain rights to discipline any member of the inmate class, thereby markedly increasing the probability of sanction. (This arrangement, it may be noted, is similar to the one that gives any adult in some small American towns certain rights to correct any child not in the immediate presence of his parents and to demand small services from him.) On the outside, the adult in our society is typically under the authority of a single immediate superior in connection with his work, or the authority of one spouse in connection with domestic duties; the only echelon authority he must face—the police—is typically not constantly or relevantly present, except perhaps in the case of traffic-law enforcement.

Given echelon authority and regulations that are diffuse, novel, and strictly enforced, we may expect inmates, especially new ones, to live with chronic anxiety about breaking the rules and the consequence of breaking them—physical injury or death in a concentration camp, being “washed out” in an officer's training school, or demotion in a mental hospital:
Yet, even in the apparent liberty and friendliness of an “open” ward, I still found a background of threats that made me feel something between a prisoner and a pauper. The smallest offence, from a nervous symptom to displeasing a sister personally, was met by the suggestion of removing the offender to a closed ward. The idea of a return to “J” ward, if I did not eat my food, was brandished at me so constantly that it became an obsession and even such meals as I was able to swallow disagreed with me physically, while other patients were impelled to do unnecessary or uncongenial work by a similar fear.

In total institutions staying out of trouble is likely to require persistent conscious effort. The inmate may forego certain levels of sociability with his fellows to avoid possible incidents.

First, total institutions disrupt or defile precisely those actions that in civil society have the role of attesting to the actor and those in his presence that he has some command over his world—that he is a person with “adult” self-determination, autonomy, and freedom of action. A failure to retain this kind of adult executive competency, or at least the symbols of it, can produce in the inmate the terror of feeling radically demoted in the age-grading system.

There are certain bodily comforts significant to the individual that tend to be lost upon entrance into a total institution—for example, a soft bed or quietness at night. Loss of this set of comforts is apt to reflect a loss of self-determination, too, for the individual tends to ensure these comforts the moment he has resources to expend.

Loss of self-determination seems to have been ceremonialized in concentration camps; thus we have atrocity tales of prisoners being forced to roll in the mud, stand on their heads in the snow, work at ludicrously useless tasks, swear at themselves, or, in the case of Jewish prisoners, sing anti-Semitic songs. A milder version is found in mental hospitals where attendants have been reported forcing a patient who wanted a cigarette to say “pretty please” or jump up for it. In all such cases the inmate is made to display a giving up of his will. Less ceremonialized, but just as extreme, is the embarrassment to one's autonomy that comes from being locked in a ward, placed in a tight wet pack, or tied in a camisole, and thereby denied the liberty of making small adjustive movements.

The inmate in a total institution can find himself denied even this kind of protective distance and self-action. Especially in mental hospitals and political training prisons, the statements he makes may be discounted as mere symptoms, with staff giving attention to non-verbal aspects of his reply. Often he is considered to be of insufficient ritual status to be given even minor greetings, let alone listened to. Or the inmate may find that a kind of rhetorical use of language occurs: questions such as, “Have you washed yet?” or, “Have you got both socks on?” may be accompanied by simultaneous searching by the staff which physically discloses the facts, making these verbal questions superfluous. And instead of being told to move in a particular direction at a particular rate, he may find himself pushed along by the guard, or pulled (in the case of overalled mental patients), or frog-marched. And finally, as will be discussed later, the inmate may find that a dual language exists, with the disciplinary facts of his life given a translated ideal phrasing by the staff that mocks the normal use of language.

In religious institutions the implications environmental arrangements have for the self are explicitly recognized:

That is the meaning of the contemplative life, and the sense of all the apparently meaningless little rules and observances and fasts and obediences and penances and humiliations and labors that go to make up the routine of existence in a contemplative monastery: they all serve to remind us of what we are and Who God is—that we may get sick of the sight of ourselves and turn to Him: and in the end, we will find Him in ourselves, in our own purified natures which have become the mirror of His tremendous Goodness and of His endless love. . . The inmates, as well as the staff, actively seek out these curtailments of the self, so that mortification is complemented by self-mortification, restrictions by renunciations, beatings, by self-flagellations, inquisition by confession. Because religious establishments are explicitly concerned with the processes of mortification, they have a special value for the student.


Secondly, against this stark background, a small number of clearly defined rewards or privileges are held out in exchange for obedience to staff in action and spirit. It is important to see that many of these potential gratifications are carved out of the flow of support that the inmate had previously taken for granted. On the outside, for example, the inmate probably could unthinkingly decide how he wanted his coffee, whether to light a cigarette, or when to talk; on the inside, such rights may become problematic. Held up to the inmate as possibilities, these few recapturings seem to have a reintegrative effect, re-establishing relationships with the whole lost world and assuaging withdrawal symptoms from it and from one's lost self. The inmate's attention, especially at first, comes to be fixed on these supplies and obsessed with them. He can spend the day, like a fanatic, in devoted thoughts about the possibility of acquiring these gratifications or in contemplation of the approaching hour at which they are scheduled to be granted. Melville's report on navy life contains a typical example:
In the American Navy the law allows one gill of spirits per day to every seaman. In two portions, it is served out just previous to breakfast and dinner. At the roll of the drum, the sailors assemble round a large tub, or cask, filled with the liquid; and, as their names are called off by a midshipman, they step up and regale themselves from a little tin measure called a “tot.” No high-liver helping himself to Tokay off a well-polished sideboard smacks his lips with more mighty satisfaction than the sailor does over his tot. To many of them, indeed, the thought of their daily tots forms a perpetual perspective of ravishing landscapes, indefinitely receding in the distance. It is their great “prospect in life.” Take away their grog, and life possesses no further charms for them.
It is one of the most common punishments for very trivial offences in the Navy, to “stop” a seaman's grog for a day or a week. And as most seamen so cling to their grog, the loss of it is generally deemed by them a very serious penalty. You will sometimes hear them say, “I would rather have my wind stopped than my grog!”

The building of a world around these minor privileges is perhaps the most important feature of inmate culture, and yet it is something that cannot easily be appreciated by an outsider, even one who has previously lived through the experience himself. This concern with privileges sometimes leads to generous sharing; it almost always leads to a willingness to beg for such things as cigarettes, candy, and newspapers. Understandably, inmate conversation often revolves around a “release binge fantasy,” namely, a recital of what one will do during leave or upon release from the institution. This fantasy is related to a feeling that civilians do not appreciate how wonderful their life is.

First, punishments and privileges are themselves modes of organization peculiar to total institutions. Whatever their severity, punishments are largely known in the inmate's home world as something applied to animals and children; this conditioning, behavioristic model is not widely applied to adults, since failure to maintain required standards typically leads to indirect disadvantageous consequences and not to specific immediate punishment at all. And privileges in the total institution, it should be emphasized, are not the same as perquisites, indulgences, or values, but merely the absence of deprivations one ordinarily expects not to have to sustain. The very notions of punishments and privileges are not ones that are cut from civilian cloth.

The privilege system consists of a relatively few components, put together with some rational intent, and clearly proclaimed to the participants. The over-all consequence is that co-operativeness is obtained from persons who often have cause to be unco-operative. An illustration of this model universe may be taken from a recent study of a state mental hospital:
The authority of the attendant in the operation of his control system is backed up by both positive and negative power. This power is an essential element in his control of the ward. He can give the patient privileges, and he can punish the patient. The privileges consist of having the best job, better rooms and beds, minor luxuries like coffee on the ward, a little more privacy than the average patient, going outside the ward without supervision, having more access than the average patient to the attendants companionship or to professional personnel like the physicians, and enjoying such intangible but vital things as being treated with personal kindness and respect. The punishments which can be applied by the ward attendant are suspension of all privileges, psychological mistreatment, such as ridicule, vicious ribbing, moderate and sometimes severe corporal punishment, or the threat of such punishment, locking up the patient in an isolated room, denial or distortion of access to the professional personnel, threatening to put, or putting, the patient on the list for electroshock therapy, transfer of the patient to undesirable wards, and regular assignment of the patient to unpleasant tasks such as cleaning up after the soilers. A parallel may be found in British prisons in which the “four-stage system” is employed, with an increase at each stage of payment for labor, “association” time with other prisoners, access to newspapers, group eating, and recreation periods.

Furthermore, the staff and inmates will be clearly aware of what, in mental hospitals, prisons, and barracks, is called “messing up.” Messing up involves a complex process of engaging in forbidden activity (including sometimes an effort at escape), getting caught, and receiving something like full punishment. There is usually an alteration in privilege status, categorized by a phrase such as “getting busted.” Typical infractions involved in messing up are: fights, drunkenness, attempted suicide, failure at examinations, gambling, insubordination, homosexuality, improper leave-taking, and participation in collective riots. Although these infractions are typically ascribed to the offender's cussedness, villainy, or “sickness, they do in fact constitute a vocabulary of institutionalized actions, but a limited one, so that the same messing up may occur for quite different reasons. Inmates and staff may tacitly agree, for example, that a given messing up is a way for inmates to show resentment against a situation felt to be unjust in terms of the informal agreements between staff and inmates, or a way of postponing release without having to admit to one's fellow inmates that one does not really want to go. Whatever the meaning imputed to them, messings up have some important social functions for the institution. They tend to limit rigidities which would occur were seniority the only means of mobility in the privilege system; further, demotion through messing up brings old-time inmates into contact with new inmates in unprivileged positions, assuring a flow of information concerning the system and the people in it


In total institutions there will also be a system of what might be called secondary adjustments, namely, practices that do not directly challenge staff but allow inmates to obtain forbidden satisfactions or to obtain permitted ones by forbidden means. These practices are variously referred to as “the angles, “knowing the ropes,” “conniving,” “gimmicks,” “deals,” or ”ins. Such adaptations apparently reach their finest flower in prisons, but of course other total institutions are overrun with them, too. Secondary adjustments provide the inmate with important evidence that he is still his own man, with some control of his environment; sometimes a secondary adjustment becomes almost a kind of lodgment for the self, a churinga in which the soul is felt to reside.

We can predict from the presence of secondary adjustments that the inmate group will have evolved some kind of code and some means of informal social control to prevent one inmate from informing staff about the secondary adjustments of another. On the same ground, we can expect that one dimension of social typing of and among inmates will be this question of security, leading to definitions of persons as “squealers,” “finks,” “rats,” or “stoolies” on one hand, and “right guys” on the other. When new inmates can play a role in the system of secondary adjustments, as by providing new faction members or new sexual objects, then their “welcome” may indeed be a sequence of initial indulgences and enticements instead of exaggerated deprivations. Because of secondary adjustments we also find “kitchen strata,” a kind of rudimentary, largely informal stratification of inmates on the basis of differential access to disposable illicit commodities; again, too, we find social typing to designate the powerful persons in the informal market system.

While the privilege system seems to provide the chief framework within which reassembly of the self takes place, there are other factors that characteristically lead by different routes in the same general direction. Relief from economic and social responsibilities—much touted as part of the therapy of mental hospitals—is one, although in many cases it seems that the disorganizing effect of this moratorium is more significant than its organizing effect. More important as a reorganizing influence is the fratemalization process, through which socially distant persons find themselves developing mutual support and common counter-mores in opposition to a system that has forced them into intimacy and into a single, equalitarian community of fate. The new recruit frequently starts out with something like the staff's popular misconceptions of the character of the inmates; he comes to find that most of his fellows have all the properties of ordinary, occasionally decent human beings worthy of sympathy and support. The offenses that inmates are known to have committed on the outside cease to provide an effective means for judging their personal qualities—a lesson that conscientious objectors, for example, seem to have learned in prison. Further, if the inmates are persons who are accused of having committed a crime of some kind against society, then the new inmate, even though sometimes in fact quite guiltless, may come to share both the guilty feelings of his fellows and their well-elaborated defenses against these feelings. A sense of common injustice and a sense of bitterness against the outside world tend to develop, marking an important movement in the inmate's moral career. This response to felt guilt and massive deprivation is most clearly illustrated, perhaps, in prison life:
By their reasoning, after an offender has been subjected to unfair or excessive punishment and treatment more degrading than that prescribed by law, he comes to justify his act which he could not have justified when he committed it. He decides to “get even” for his unjust treatment in prison and take reprisals through further crime at the first opportunity. With that decision he becomes a criminal. An imprisoned conscientious objector provides a similar statement from his own experience:
A point I want to record here is the curious difficulty I have in feeling innocent, myself. I find it very easy to accept the notion that I am paying for the same kind of misdeeds as those charged to the other men in here, and I must remind myself from time to time that a government that actually believes in freedom of conscience should not put men in prison for practicing it. Consequently, what indignation I feel toward martyr, but of the guilty who feels his punishment to be beyond his deserts and inflicted by those who are not themselves free of guilt. This latter point is one that all the inmates feel strongly, and is the source of the deep cynicism that pervades the prison.

There is one secondary adjustment that very clearly reflects the fraternalization process and the rejection of the staff, namely, collective teasing. Although the punishment-reward system can deal with individual infractions that are identifiable as to source, inmate solidarity may be strong enough to support brief gestures of anonymous or mass defiance. Examples are: slogan shouting, booing,tray thumping, mass food rejection, and minor sabotage. These actions tend to take the form of “rise-getting”: a warder, guard, or attendant—or even the staff as a whole—is teased, mocked, or accorded other forms of minor abuse until he loses some measure of self-control and engages in ineffective counteraction.


Although there are solidarizing tendencies such as fraternalization and clique formation, they are limited. Constraints which place inmates in a position to sympathize and communicate with each other do not necessarily lead to high group morale and solidarity. In some concentration camps and prisoner-of-war installations the inmate cannot rely on his fellows, who may steal from him, assault him, and squeal on him, leading to what some students have referred to as anomie. In mental hospitals, dyads and triads may keep secrets from the authorities, but anything known to a whole ward of patients is likely to get to the ear of the attendant. (In prisons, of course, inmate organization has sometimes been strong enough to run strikes and short-lived insurrections; in prisoner-of-war camps, it has sometimes been possible to organize sections of the prisoners to operate escape channels; in concentration camps there have been periods of thoroughgoing underground organization; and on ships there have been mutinies; but these concerted actions seem to be the exception, not the rule.) But though there is usually little group loyalty in total institutions, the expectation that group loyalty should prevail forms part of the inmate culture and underlies the hostility accorded those who break inmate solidarity.

First, there is the tack of “situational withdrawal.” The inmate withdraws apparent attention from everything except events immediately around his body and sees these in a perspective not employed by others present. This drastic curtailment of involvement in interactional events is best known, of course, in mental hospitals, under the title of “regression.” Aspects of “prison psychosis” or going “stir simple” represent the same adjustment, as do some forms of “acute depersonalization” described in concentration camps and “tankeritis” apparently found among confirmed merchant mariners. I do not think it is known whether this line of adaptation forms a single continuum of varying degrees of withdrawal or whether there are standard plateaus of disinvolvement. Given the pressures apparently required to dislodge an inmate from this status, as well as the currently limited facilities for doing so, this line of adaptation is often effectively irreversible.

Secondly, there is the “intransigent line”: the inmate intentionally challenges the institution by flagrantly refusing to co-operate with staff. The result is a constantly communicated intransigency and sometimes high individual morale. Many large mental hospitals, for example, have wards where this spirit prevails. Sustained rejection of a total institution often requires sustained orientation to its formal organization, and hence, paradoxically, a deep kind of involvement in the establishment. Similarly, when staff take the line that the intransigent inmate must be broken (as they sometimes do in the case of hospital psychiatrists prescribing electroshock or military tribunals prescribing the stockade), then the institution shows as much special devotion to the rebel as he has shown to it. Finally, although some prisoners of war have been known to take a staunchly intransigent stance throughout their incarceration, intransigence is typically a temporary and initial phase of reaction, with the inmate shifting to situational withdrawal or some other line of adaptation.

A fourth mode of adaptation to the setting of a total institution is that of “conversion”: the inmate appears to take over the official or staff view of himself and tries to act out the role of the perfect inmate. While the colonized inmate builds as much of a free community for himself as possible by using the limited facilities available, the convert takes a more disciplined, moralistic, monochromatic line, presenting himself as someone whose institutional enthusiasm is always at the disposal of the staff. In Chinese P.O.W. camps, we find Americans who became “Pros” and fully espoused the Communist view of the world. In army barracks there are enlisted men who give the impression that they are always “sucking around” and always “bucking for promotion.” In prisons there are “square johns.” In German concentration camps, a long-time prisoner sometimes came to adapt the vocabulary, recreation, posture, expressions of aggression, and clothing style of the Gestapo, executing the role of straw boss with military strictness. Some mental hospitals have the distinction of providing two quite different conversion possibilities—one for the new admission, who can see the light after an appropriate inner struggle and adopt the psychiatric view of himself, and another for the chronic patient, who adopts the manner and dress of attendants while helping them to manage the other patients, employing a stringency sometimes excelling that of the attendants themselves. And of course in officer training camps we find trainees who quickly become “G.I.,” espousing a torment of themselves that they will soon be able to inflict on others.

Here is a significant way in which total institutions differ: many, like progressive mental hospitals, merchant ships, TB sanitaria, and brainwashing camps, offer the inmate an opportunity to live up to a model of conduct that is at once ideal and staff-sponsored—a model felt by its advocates to be in the best interests of the very persons to whom it is applied; other total institutions, like some concentration camps and some prisons, do not officially sponsor an ideal that the inmate is expected to incorporate.

The alignments that have been mentioned represent coherent courses to pursue, but few inmates seem to pursue any one of them very far. In most total institutions, most inmates take the tack of what some of them call “playing it cool.” This involves a somewhat opportunistic combination of secondary adjustments, conversion, colonization, and loyalty to the inmate group, so that the inmate will have a maximum chance, in the particular circumstances, of eventually getting out physically and psychologically undamaged. Typically, the inmate when with fellow inmates will support the counter-mores and conceal from them how tractably he acts when alone with the staff. Inmates who play it cool subordinate contacts with their fellows to the higher claim of “keeping out of trouble”; they tend to volunteer for nothing; and they may learn to cut their ties to the outside world just enough to give cultural reality to the world inside but not enough to lead to colonization.

I have suggested some of the lines of adaptation that inmates can take to the pressures present in total institutions. Each tack represents a way of managing the tension between the home world and the institutional world. Sometimes, however, the home world of the inmate has been, in fact, such as to immunize him against the bleak world on the inside, and for these persons no particular scheme of adaptation need be carried very far. Some lower-class mental-hospital patients who have lived all their previous lives in orphanages, reformatories, and jails tend to see the hospital as just another total institution, to which they can apply the adaptive techniques learned and perfected in similar institutions. For these persons, playing it cool does not represent a shift in their moral career but an alignment that is already second nature. Similarly, Shetland youths recruited into the British merchant service are apparently not much threatened by the cramped, arduous life on board, because island life is even more stunted; they make uncomplaining sailors because from their point of view they have little to complain about.


First, in many total institutions a peculiar kind and level of self-concern is engendered. The low position of inmates relative to their station on the outside, established initially through the stripping processes, creates a milieu of personal failure in which one's fall from grace is continuously pressed home. In response, the inmate tends to develop a story, a line, a sad tale—a kind of lamentation and apologia—which he constantly tells to his fellows as a means of accounting for his present low estate. In consequence, the inmate's self may become even more a focus of his conversation and concern than it does on the outside, leading to much self-pity. Although the staff constantly discredit these stories, inmate audiences tend to be tactful, suppressing at least some of the disbelief and boredom engendered by these recitations. Thus, an ex-prisoner writes:
Even more impressive is the almost universal delicacy when it comes to inquiring into another man's misdeeds, and the refusal to determine one's relations with another convict on the basis of his record. Similarly, in American state mental hospitals, inmate etiquette allows one patient to ask another what ward and service he is on, and how long he has been in the hospital; but questions about why the other is in are not quickly asked, and, when asked, the biased version almost inevitably given tends to be accepted.

Second, among inmates in many total institutions there is a strong feeling that time spent in the establishment is time wasted or destroyed or taken from one's life; it is time that must be written off; it is something that must be “done” or “marked” or “put in” or “pulled. In prisons and mental hospitals, a general statement of how well one is adapting to the institution may be phrased in terms of how one is doing time, whether easily or hard. This time is something its doers have bracketed off for constant conscious consideration in a way not quite found on the outside. As a result, the inmate tends to feel that for the duration of his required stay—his sentence— he has been totally exiled from living. It is in this context that we can appreciate something of the demoralizing influence of an indefinite sentence or a very long one.

However harsh the conditions of life in total institutions, harshness alone cannot account for this sense of life wasted; we must rather look to the social disconnections caused by entrance and to the failure (usually) to acquire within the institution gains that can be transferred to outside life—gains such as money earned, or marital relations formed, or certified training received. One of the virtues of the doctrine that insane asylums are treatment hospitals for sick people is that inmates who have given up three or four years of their life to this kind of exile can try to convince themselves they have been busily working on their cure and that, once cured, the time spent getting cured will have been a reasonable and profitable investment.

This sense of dead and heavy-hanging time probably explains the premium placed on what might be called removal activities, namely, voluntary unserious pursuits which are sufficiently engrossing and exciting to lift the participant out of himself, making him oblivious for the time being to his actual situation. If the ordinary activities in total institutions can be said to torture time, these activities mercifully kill it.

Some removal activities are collective, such as field games, dances, orchestra or band playing, choral singing, lectures, art classes or woodworking classes, and card playing; some are individual but rely on public materials, such as reading and solitary TV watching. No doubt private fantasy ought to be included, too, as Clemmer suggests in his description of the prisoner's “reverie-plus.” Some of these activities may be officially sponsored by staff; some, not officially sponsored, will constitute secondary adjustments—for example, gambling, homosexuality, or “highs” and “jags” achieved with industrial alcohol, nutmeg, or ginger. Whether officially sponsored or not, whenever any of these removal activities become too engrossing or too continuous, the staff is likely to object—as they often do, for example, to liquor, sex, and gambling—since in their eyes the institution, not some other kind of social entity enclosed within the institution, must possess the inmate.

Every total institution can be seen as a kind of dead sea in which little islands of vivid, encapturing activity appear. Such activity can help the individual withstand the psychological stress usually engendered by assaults upon the self. Yet it is precisely in the insufficiency of these activities that an important deprivational effect of total institutions can be found. In civil society, an individual pushed to the wall in one of his social roles usually has an opportunity to crawl into some protected place where he can indulge in commercialized fantasy—movies, TV, radio, reading—or employ “relievers” like cigarettes or drink. In total institutions, especially right after admission, these materials may be too little available. At a time when these resting points are most needed, they may be most difficult to obtain.


Although inmates do plan release binges and may keep an hourly count of the time until their release date, those about to be released very often become anxious at the thought, and, as suggested, some mess up or re-enlist to avoid the issue. The inmate's anxiety about release often seems to take the form of a question put to himself and his friends: “Can I make it on the outside?” This question brackets all of civil life as something to have conceptions and concerns about. What for outsiders is usually an unperceived ground for perceived figures is for the inmate a figure on a larger ground. Perhaps such a perspective is demoralizing, providing one reason why ex-inmates often think about the possibility of “going back in” and one reason why an appreciable number do return.

Of course, immediately upon release the inmate is likely to be marvelously alive to the liberties and pleasures of civil status that civilians ordinarily do not see as events at all—the sharp smell of fresh air, talking when you want to, using a whole match to light a cigarette, having a solitary snack at a table set for only four people. A mental patient, back at the hospital after a weekend visit home, describes her experience to a circle of closely listening friends:
I got up in the morning, and I went into the kitchen, and I fixed coffee; it was wonderful. And in the evening we had a couple of beers and went and had chili; it was terrific, really delicious. I didn't forget one minute that I was free.

But what the ex-inmate does retain of his institutional experience tells us important things about total institutions. Very often, entrance means for the recruit that he has taken on what might be called a proactive status: not only is his social position within the walls radically different from what it was on the outside but, as he comes to learn, if and when he gets out, his social position on the outside will never again be quite what it was prior to entrance. Where the proactive status is a relatively favorable one, as it is for those who graduate from officers' training schools, elite boarding schools, ranking monasteries, etc., then jubilant official reunions, announcing pride in one's “school,” can be expected. When the proactive status is unfavorable, as it is for those who graduate from prisons or mental hospitals, we can employ the term “stigmatization” and expect that the ex-inmate may make an effort to conceal his past and try to “pass.”

We can now return to a consideration of release anxiety. One explanation offered for it is that the individual is unwilling or too “sick” to reassume the responsibility from which the total institution freed him. My own experience in the study of one type of total institution, mental hospitals, tends to minimize this factor. A factor likely to be more important is disculturation, the loss or failure to acquire some of the habits currently required in the wider society. Another is stigmatization. When the individual has taken on a low proactive status by becoming an inmate, he finds a cool reception in the wider world—and is likely to experience this at a moment, hard even for those without his stigma, when he must apply to someone for a job and a place to live. Furthermore, release is likely to come just when the inmate has finally learned the ropes on the inside and won privileges that he has painfully learned are very important. In brief, he may find that release means moving from the top of a small world to the bottom of a large one. In addition, when the inmate returns to the free community, he may leave with some limits on his freedom. Some concentration camps required the inmate to sign a release, attesting that he had been treated fairly; he was warned of the consequences of telling tales out of school. In some mental hospitals an inmate being prepared for discharge is interviewed a final time to discover whether or not he harbors resentment against the institution and those who arranged his entrance into it, and he is warned against causing trouble to the latter. Further, the departing inmate must often promise to seek help should he again find himself “getting sick” or “getting into trouble.” Often the ex-mental patient learns his kin and employer have been advised to get in touch with the authorities should trouble arise again. For the man who leaves prison, there may be formal parole, with the obligation to report regularly and to keep away from the circles from which he originally entered the institution.