Every institution, whether it be a government building, a private home or an airport, reveals something about the kinds of people that enter and interact within them and how they present themselves. Total institutions are generally laid out and filled with things necessary to provide for the people whom come and go. This essay will discuss prisons’ tendency toward total institutions and the rites of passage that go hand in hand with entering and exiting these institutions. Goffman and Enchandela (Goffman 1962, p.4 & Enchandela 1991 p. 131)  describe a total institution as something that consists of three crucial elements: all elements of life (eating, sleeping, bathing, working) are performed in the same place and under the same authority, all activities mentioned above are performed in the company of a large group of people, all activities are prearranged and scheduled by a body of officials. According to Goffman (Goffman 1962, p.6) there are 5 rough groupings of total institutions. First type, institutions are to care for people that are incapable of doing so themselves (orphanages, nursing homes). A second type of institutions are to care for people that are incapable of doing so themselves, and post an unintentional threat to the community (mental asylums, tuberculosis and swine flu quarantine). A third type is an Institution that aims to protect the community from intentional dangers (prison, prisoner of war camps). A forth type provides work like education and training and only serve under these premise (boarding schools, navy vessels) and fifth are, retreats from the world that also serve as training institutions (convent, monasteries).

Rites of passage are defined by Turner as changes within one’s life, generally transitions into new stages of life, which make up one’s lifecycle. These transitions are generally marked by a ceremony or performance and consist of three stages: separation; symbolic behaviour signifying the detachment of a previous status or phase of life, the liminal stage; where the person is ambiguous, they are not what they were before the rite of passage, nor are they what they are going to be and finally the reincorporation, the stage where the passage is fulfilled (Turner 1964, p. 5).

 Modern day high and low security prisons meet the criteria of all three crucial elements of a total institution as defined by Goffman. The main agenda of a jail or correctional facility falls under the group of institutions that aim to protect the community from intentional dangers. Modern prisons offer education to inmates not only in the sense of how to fit into society, but also university level education. Nevertheless education is not the sole purpose of the facility, and it is not defined as an institution that provides work like education and training although it lightly leans toward this type of institution. (Department for Correctional Services website).

Goffman explains that the large ‘block’ of people within a total institution are split up into inmates and the supervisory staff. These two groups of people have little communication with one another, although being in close contact with one another on a regular basis. “Within total institutions, two different social and cultural worlds develop, jogging alongside each other with points of official contact but little mutual penetration” Goffman 1962, p.9). Goffman makes the point that those who have only lived domestically, whether they are currently solitary or still domestic find it easy to uphold domestic relations. Whereas a person who has experienced long term batch living (define) find it hard to re-establish a domestic relationship with the family they have outside of the institution.

 Upon entering a jail, the inmate is removed from many roles they identified with on the outside. They no longer have the ability to earn or possess money, cannot contest divorce or adoption of their children or vote. Often, these limitations are removed from the inmate for life, even after being released from prison (Goffman 1962, p.16)

 In the prison setting, inmates no longer have the ability to work for money, and spend their earnings on leisure. Completion of work is met with payments of tobacco or the promise of Christmas presents, however if inmates refuse to do the work allocated to them, they can be threatened with physical violence or containment. In some prisons, harder working inmates get more privileges such as longer ‘outside’ time and receiving of mail from family on the outside (Goffman 1962, p.10)

 The rite of passage of entering prison is made up of three phases, the separation from society and identity, the liminal stage where the person lacks identity and is doing their time in prison and in some cases the final reincorporation stage. The separation phase plays out in a very ceremonial way. The offenders hair is cut, body disinfected, fingerprinted and provided with a number which is the only way of identifying that person from that stage forward. This is a very crucial point at which offenders can make a positive impression on the prison staff. While the process of destructing the self is being carried out, cooperation from the offender is expected from prison staff. Staff members feel that if an offender is compliant during these tasks, they will prove to be a compliant prisoner (Goffman 1962, p.17)

The liminal stage of the prison rite of passage is one of very little status. Offenders identify with the role of inmate through the wearing of the prisons uniform, and the customary haircut. New inmates have no status or property, and have very little ways of distinguishing themselves from fellow inmates (Turner 1964, pp. 8-9) The identity constructed through the years within society is physically, mentally and materially stripped from inmates through the initiations stage. Though, it may be possible for inmates to recreate their outside identity, it would be irrelevant within the total institution of a prison as the norms and social mobilisers within prison are vastly different to the society in which the inmate came from.

 The final stage of the rite of passage is the reincorporation stage, again generally quite ceremonial through the court hearing and the “treatment plan” administered months before being released from prison. The treatment plan and rehabilitation attempts to readapt the inmate to society, and remove institutionalisation from their persona. Upon completion of the treatment, and upon exiting the prison, the inmate is introduced to a new status, get their name back and is allowed to wear clothing brought to them by family or from the outside(Federal Bureau of Prisons website).

 One of the very few ways an inmate can quickly make a status for himself within the prison is through the presentation of the self, specifically tattooing. For the purposes of this essay I will be defining the term ‘tattoo’ as to include ink tattoos and scarring left from injections of narcotics. McCarron (2008 p.2) states that “tattoos of addict inmates (heroin addiction scarification) are designed to dramatize their desolation, while the tattoos of criminal inmates are designed to demonstrate their agency”. These definitions and categories of tattoos help slot inmates into groups or gangs within the prison; it is said that in prison tattoos that are bold, large and colourful, generally lead to a greater amount of respect being paid to the person that bares them, than to someone with no, or small tattoos.

 Alongside these kinds of tattoos, those placed on areas of the body such as the eyelids, penis or anus cause the most offence to other inmates, creating an identity within the prison as “tough” or “able to tolerate high amounts of pain. For these inmates I would suggest that this form of tattooing could represent an increased desire to distance themselves from society or even from the prison norms themselves. Tattoos may be a significant visual presentation of the self, arising from a homogeneous masculine perception of toughness. Also, a highly visual presentation is important due to the limited contact and socialising allowed for inmates in order to establish their social positioning. A form of communication transcendent of the laws of the institution is how prisoners negotiate their social positioning and self-presentation.

 As tattoos and deep scarring are permanent, it is seen by inmates as property and a source of identity that cannot be stolen by the prison. In conjunction with tattoos and scarring, skin colour is also a very important tool in negotiating a position within the prison setting.

 “Race, itself inseparable from skin colour, is a crucial aspect of American prison life; indeed, it is the most significant; the nature of an inmate’s crime has far less importance in a prison yard than the colour of a convict’s skin.” (McCarron, 2008: 6)

 Inmates seek out other prisoners to form a group with to provide additional protection for themselves, and more times than not, the members of a group are of the same ethnicity (McCarron 2008 p. 6) This ethnic affiliation is another role inmates identify with in prisons, either as a member of a gang (protected) or an outsider of a gang (the hunted). These roles influence inmates’ social positioning and may even lead to an emphasising of racial ethnicity when presenting the self in order to be accepted into a gang for protection.

Individuals that end up in prison often find it hard to negotiate any position for themselves other than what is outlined in the prisons mandate for them. However, once explored through the lense of an anthropologist, there are quite a few ways for the inmate to mould an identity within the institution. First and foremost, the role of inmate is a position that is expected of offenders by the outside world and of prison staff; this role is cemented through the wearing of the uniform, haircut and strict regimes that must be followed. Ethnicity and tattoos also prove to be a handy tool to distinguish the self from other inmates, along with the labelling as tough and respected by others in the institution. Looking at the institution of prison as a rite of passage: separation from society, liminality of personhood and citizenship, and re-entry into society, it appears to have negative outcomes for prisoners. The inmate emerges from prison, labelled as an offender or criminal and often finds it hard to remove the subsequent stigma of being a convict.






Department for Correctional Services, Government of South Australia, 2010, viewed 9th June 2010, < http://www.corrections.sa.gov.au/prison-industries&gt;


Enchandela, Danger at Sea: Social Hierarchy and Social Solidarity, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 20 (1991:Apr.-1992:Jan.)


Federal Bureau of Prisons, 2012, viewed 9th June 2010, < http://www.bop.gov/.>


Goffman, E 1962, ‘On the characteristics of total institutions’  in Asylums: essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates, Aldin Pub Co., Chicago, III., pp. 1-59


McCarron, K 2008, “Skin and Self – Indictment: Prison tattoos, race and heroin addiction.” English studies in Canada, Edition 34.1


Turner, V 1964. Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites of Passage. In J. Helms (ed) New Approaches to the Study of Religion. American Ethnological Society, pp. 4-20


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