Prison friendships don’t have traditional meanings, UT professor says

Kate Dannenmaier

In the last 30 years, the U.S. incarceration rate has risen to the highest in the world, sparking an abundance of research on the social consequences of imprisonment.

Derek Kreager, professor of sociology and criminology at Pennsylvania State University, gave an on-campus talk Friday about his research regarding prison social networks. 

Kreager said he is starting a new research agenda looking at the social ties of inmates in prison. According to Kreager, there are well-established findings about the causes and effects of incarceration, but what’s missing from prison research is the experiences of inmates while they are still in prison.

“The social system within the prison itself is still pretty much a black box,” Kreager said. “We know a lot about the causes of crime, we know a lot about the consequences of incarceration, but we don’t know what’s going on inside.”

Kreager said his research would also focus on prison outcomes such as the effects on employment, health, family ties and recidivism, which is the rate at which prisoners reoffend after being released from prison.

“Essentially we are just interested in the structure, the causes of the structure, the consequences of the structure, and also how the out-of-network or out-of-prison ties affect the prison experience and the post-prison experience,” Kreager said.

Kreager said in order to investigate the social structure within prisons, his team would interview prisoners in person about their relationships with fellow inmates. According to Kreager, in prison, friendship doesn’t have quite the same meaning as it does in other environments. Kreager said asking who prisoners trust or fight with is more relevant than asking who prisoners are friends with.

“The prison itself has a culture, and that culture creates norms, and status relationships among the inmates that affect the outcomes and the way the prison functions,” Kreager said. “It’s the deprivations of prisons that generate the status and hierarchy that you observe among inmates.”

Sociology professor Shannon Cavanagh said she worked with Kreager in the 2010-2011 academic year when he was at UT.

“[Kreager] is a very creative and rigorous methodologist who does very thoughtful sociology,” Cavanagh said.

Sociology graduate student Carmen Gutierrez said Kreager’s project interested her because it relates to her own criminology research.

“It’s great to see a project that is taking on work that’s unprecedented, hasn’t been done before, to maybe get at effective changes that can help reduce some of the problems that were seen, such as really high rates of recidivism, violence, health problems, things like that,” Gutierrez said.