A detail from left half of 1972 Clinton CF report photo viewing courts from basketball level.

 'the courts' of clinton prison
 (part 5: functions & meanings of the courts)

by Ron Roizen

As mentioned in the beginning of this report, a series of in-depth interviews were held with small sample of staff and inmates. These interviews were too few in number to be considered a representative sample of the population; on the other hand, my interest was to explore in the manner of a pilot study the functions and meanings that would be raised.


Not all of the staff members view the courts similarly. Nevertheless, the dissensus among the staff was not great, and similar estimates were made of the utility of the courts to staff objectives. Several kinds of responses, however, were frequently mentioned.
The above "zoom-in" close-up detail, like the detail at the top of this web page, was sliced from the left half of the 1972 report's photo showing the basketball area of the North Yard.

  • First of all, the courts were seen as valuable insofar as they released the pent-up frustrations and anxieties of prison life. The staff saw the courts as limited free zones in which inmates were allowed the maximum of autonomy within the routine of the prison, and recreation is, after all, antithetical to the notion of involuntariness.
  • Secondly, one gets the impression that the courts have important symbolic value to the staff -- standing as an objective statement of humanitarian feelings and willingness to apply no more force than is necessary to the inmate population.
  • Thirdly, staff saw the existence of the courts as a valuable element in the array of social control devices. That inmates valued the courts provides the manipulation of the courts as a controlling influence. One respondent, in responding to a question concerning how he would describe the courts, called them a "weapon."

Paradoxically, the maintenance of the inmate value on the courts becomes something of a structural necessity to their effective functioning as a social control implement. Thus, the minimizing of intervention on the courts -- the turning of blind eye (or even a wink) to contraband, delinquent behaviors, and court-related pilfering from other parts of the institution -- serves to retain social control by indirect rather than direct means.

Staff repeatedly mentioned the ingenuity of inmates in procuring raw materials and the construction artifacts in a situation of admittedly scarce resources. This ingenuity provides something of a common ground of esteem in an otherwise rather distant and bleak territory between staff and inmates -- only inmates prepared to participate in the courts, however, are benefitted with this particular esteem.

Over the years, the staff has served to enhance rather than limit the resources picture of the courts: firewood, for example, is regularly supplied, manure truck-loads are offered for inmate gardens, seeds are available, water is unlimited and the clandestine pilfering of mess hall food and shop raw materials is countenanced. The fact that the commissary does a thriving business (over $300,000 last year) is a testimony, in part, to the staff's willingness for courts-related activities to be invested with inmate value. . . .


In discussing the inmate functions of the courts, the use of the "function" requires comment. Current sociological perspectives on the prison tend to highlight the existence and functions of an inmate subculture or social system which is an artifact of the collective response to the deprivations and circumstances of inmate life.

The top of the chapel (Church of Saint Dismas) can be seen beyond the wall in the above "zoom-in" close-up detail. Like the detail at the top of this web page, this close-up was sliced from the left half of the 1972 report's photo showing the basketball area of the North Yard. This zoom-in view also shows a covered guard stand near the wall and an edge of the courts area.

Giallombardo summarizes the position as follows:

. . . The inmate social system emerges as a response to the deprivations of imprisonment; namely, material goods and services; the constant surveillance of the guard; the attack on one's self esteem; the deprivation of heterosexual activities; the loss of liberty; and the deprivation of security.

It is argued that although the prisoner can not completely eliminate the pains of imprisonment, a cohesive inmate system which has group allegiance as its dominant value provides the inmate with a meaningful reference group that may either reinstate the inmate's self-image or neutralize the deleterious effects of its loss. . . . [#16]

Although this view has produced many illuminating insights into the social organization of the prison, in my view it may have been somewhat overplayed.

The cardinal difficulty is that the prison as a whole does not form an integrated social corpus whose continued existence can be counted on for the sake of functional theory.

Open the doors, and most inmates will leave. The glue that provides the cohesion for the inmate social system is supplied from outside -- by the existence of involuntary incarceration -- rather than from inside by the natural affinities of prison life. In this light the use of the "function" -- insofar as it presupposes a self-sustaining, integrated social whole -- is inappropriate.

Nevertheless, inmates may be said to pursue individually and collectively certain ends, and these ends may form the basis of a structure to inmate social organization, staff organization, and the organization of the prison as a whole.

In discussing the function of the courts, therefore, I would like the reader to see what are called "functions" as objectives which do not necessarily imply group cohesion or organization which is intrinsically supplied. In her work on women's prisons, Giallombardo suggested the term calculated solidarity to distinguish involuntary social organizations from those in the wild.

, . . Calculated solidarity is defined as a social unity based not on automatic conformity to a set of common social norms perceived to be morally binding, but rather on a unity which is subject to constant interpretation by the inmate as she perceives each situation from the point of view of her own interests. [#17]

More of the courts can be near the wall in the above "zoom-in" close-up detail. Like the detail at the top of this web page, this close-up was sliced from the left half of the 1972 report's photo showing the basketball area of the North Yard.

I wish to stress that the social organization of the prison should not be too readily compared to that of a family, a commercial organization, or a college fraternity wherein, if the strains of participation become too great, the actor can leave. The prison wall enforces integration in spite of tastes, cohesion in the form of calculated solidarity regardless of moral consensus.

In attempting to discover the importance of the courts to the inmates, I began each interview with a question concerning life at Clinton in general -- usually something like: "What is it like to do time in this place?"

The responses to this question varied with the frame of reference to which the respondent applied. Compared to freedom, say, prison life was odious; compared to what a prison ought to be, say, a variety of responses were possible.

Thus, in approaching the deprivation reducing impact of the courts it is necessary to specify the deprivation with respect to what. As a general rule, the more extended the context from which the respondent launched his response, the more serious were his condemnations of life at Clinton. A man who used the frame of comparative institutions, for example, was less unfavorable to the institution than a man who compared Clinton to "life on the street" or his conception of the ideal (or for that matter the minimally acceptable) prison.

Naturally, this pattern of responses poses something of a problem for the environmental researcher -- the most important determinant of the response does not pertain to the shared physical environment but to the alternative frames of reference from which it may be viewed.

Thus, paradoxically, the environmental evaluation becomes a byproduct of the choice of context. Equally problematic is the fact that deprivations are felt in relation to possible changes.

In the course of several days of interviews and conversations, heterosexual deprivation went almost unmentioned, perhaps because the subject did not promise to be an avenue in which fruitful and quick-coming changes could be lobbied for. In short, the concept of deprivation cannot be taken in an absolute sense but only with respect to some context and in the light of certain political realities about change.

Our analysis takes these limits at face value. In the framework of these limitations, the courts were not prominently mentioned by unprompted respondents. The courts, this suggests, are "there" -- a pleasure to some and a pain to others -- and the consciousness of the inmate population has moved on to other ground.

A covered guard stand and more of the courts can be near the wall in the above "zoom-in" close-up detail. Like the detail at the top of this web page, this close-up was sliced from the left half of the 1972 report's photo showing the basketball area of the North Yard.

The mere fact that the courts were at one time bought and sold suggests that they had or have value, but that value is now perhaps assumed rather than a point in contention. Equally important is the actual variation in prison deprivations experienced by different inmates: for some each day holds forth the possibility of perceived arbitrary and brutal action; for others, some of whom are on a first name basis with their keepers, life has settled into a regular and minimally discomforting routine.

It is convenient to invent a typology of inmate responses to the question regarding doing time at Clinton. This typology is neither mutually exclusive nor exhaustive of the types of responses garnered about the courts -- nevertheless it may stand as three ideal types of perspectives.

For purposes of retaining a link to discussion of the courts, let us name these types in terms of their responses to queries about the courts: some thought they were "great," others irrelevant; and still others saw them as no good.

Respondents favorable to the courts were generally favorable to the circumstances at Clinton as a whole, given the abridged meaning of favorable that we have argued for. The courts were seen to provide a release from the humdrum and drabness of daily life. They afforded a degree of privacy, creature comforts and protection from unwanted encounters.

This last is perhaps quite important. In a changing and diverse inmate population, the sanctioned right to protect oneself from encounters with diverse inmates may generate increased security for the inmate. Likewise the courts serve to break up the nameless mass of fellow inmates into groups that reflect similar interests, background, or tastes. Cooking, as mentioned, may serve to lighten the passivity of most inmate roles.

Moreover, one of the least mentioned deprivations of prison life --that of a paucity of roles to play in which to exercise the various facets of a single personality -- is reduced insofar as the courts create new roles: manager, assistant manager, newcomer, host, guest, and so forth. They vary the alternatives of interaction. Being small, they may serve to open the door to primary group relationships.

The hierarchy of the courts may afford something of a readymade structure for establishing power relations among inmates, thus reducing conflict. In short, the courts for this group represent a panoply of activities and rewards which are, perhaps, "... not much but it's all that we've got."

In digesting the meanings of responses, it is well to recall that some respondents were unquestionably influenced by the presence of the guard. One, indeed, called out to him for confirmation on a particular point. These attitudes reflected the "official position" on the courts, and respondents who voiced them would seem to have adopted prison perspectives in viewing prison facilities, including the courts.

The second type of response saw the courts as "irrelevant." There are several interpretations which may be put on this irrelevancy.

Like the detail at the top of this web page, this close-up was sliced from the left half of 1972 report's photo showing both the basketball area and the courts of the North Yard. Part of the facility hospital can be seen over the top of the wall.

First, the pains of prison life may have been sufficiently great such that the courts made little difference. Second, the courts may have been viewed as unconnected to the appropriate functions of penal institutions. Third, the courts may be viewed as a diversionary tactic functioning to draw attention away from the pressing conditions of life at Clinton.

Whether or not a treatment orientation is workable, desirable, or possible at Clinton prison, some inmates have come to view the primary job of the institution as that of providing educational, vocational, cultural, and psychological services. Thus, Clinton is seen as hypocritical, old-fashioned, and barren with regard to these services. Monotony, authoritarianism, and the threat of force become the realities held up to the repairative ideals.

Within this frame of reference, the courts are irrelevant -- what is cooking in a hobo jungle going to teach you about getting along outside. In fact, some of these kinds of responses seemed factitious -- attempting to disparage the prison at the expense of the courts. Changing fashions in Albany or in the nation at large may make the constancy and antiquarian activities appear increasingly distasteful. The sources of deprivation are as much in ideas as in conditions, and any institution that is perceived to stand motionless in a past century is generating strain and conflict effortlessly.

A third set of responses is hostile. The courts are perceived to be the implement of anti-inmate goals. Briefly, the points of dispute are as follows:

  • First, the courts serve to fractionalize and distract the inmate population from the courses of action which may better their circumstances. In this sense, the courts are an ill-intended effort to co-opt and to colonize the inmate population.
  • Secondly, the "voluntary" character of recruitment and retention of courts members serves to underwrite de facto segregation in the yard a tactic which is seen to obscure and misdirect the appropriate objects for inmate grievances and hostilities.
  • Thirdly, the courts limit the degree to which one inmate may engage another in communication.
  • Fourth, the courts muffle the possibility for collective action by investing court members with ambivalence toward instability. In short, the courts are seen as insidious devices of the staff.

In most cases, antipathy toward the courts was coupled with broad-ranging objections to the institution as a whole. In part, these objections may have been exaggerated, in part not. One thing seems relatively certain: the operant criterion for evaluating the environment -- physical or social -- must be adjusted for the respondent and for the context.

With regard to the institution as a whole, several kinds of objections seemed to dominate. Perhaps most common were objections regarding correspondence handling practices, hair and moustache practices; sanguinary and arbitrary punishment; religious persecution; sentencing disparities; differential treatment, lack of correctional programs; intransigent administration.

All of these objections are a single objection to the extent that they each imply a code or rule which is perceived to be regularly violated by the staff: selective enforcement of prison rules; selective punishment of violators; sanguinary punishments; failure to follow state policies; failure to meet state standards. Beyond these specific complaints there lay the sense that the institution itself had incompatible images in which helping goals were for public consumption and custodial goals for the inmates.

Little personal hostility was generated toward the guard force -- most prisoners I talked to felt that they were there, too, to put in their time (and pick up their paycheck). To be sure, the largely local guard force was seen as distant from the largely urban inmate population. This however, may not have generated hostility in and of itself -- the sheer distance between the two may have served to lessen rather than increase conflict in all but ideological or political cases.

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