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Missouri Professor Taps Time in Streets for Study of Prison


Wearing shorts in 30-degree weather and a yellow raincoat revealing tattoos on his left triceps and left pinky finger, University of Missouri-Columbia sociology professor Brian Colwell is no ordinary researcher.

But no ordinary researcher could get inside California’s prison system to examine hierarchy, social order and the meaning of respect among inmates in a way that draws parallels to modern conflicts in Bosnia and Iraq.

Colwell interviewed 74 inmates for his recent article in Social Psychology Quarterly, choosing long-term and short-term inmates and trying to interview a representative proportion of Whites, Blacks and Hispanics.

He didn’t use a recorder. Adapting a conversational approach, he learned how racial and group divisions were reinforced by inmates as a way to prevent violence.

“You don’t have much of a choice because of the violence,” Colwell said. “They don’t integrate well these groups. When you put them together, people die.”

Colwell, 34, got his first tattoo at 14, dropped out of high school at 16, graduated from the University of Washington at 27 and got his doctorate in social psychology from Stanford University a little less than two years ago.

“My friends, the vast majority of them, are still in prison,” Colwell said, pointing out that he has never served time in prison but he has come close. “I’ve been in lots of holding cells and police cars.”

When Colwell dropped out of high school, he also left home. He described himself as a “rambunctious” teen whose experiences on Seattle’s streets would color his perception of those with less opportunity who follow a criminal path.

“My approach toward prisons doesn’t come from a law enforcement mentality,” Colwell said, noting that his study was not intended as a policy analysis. Rather, it was a study of the meaning of different behaviors in a high-stress environment that features sharp ethnic divides.

“When you’re doing the same kind of behaviors, they’ll be taken in one setting as establishing a hierarchy; in another setting, which will be less goal-oriented, would be a way of establishing a sense of mutual identification with the person.”

That means direct eye contact, a pat on the back, handshake or invasion of personal space mean different things, depending on the situation.

In a forced group-work setting, where different ethnicities and races must work together, a stare can mean someone is getting ranked to a lower status. In private, a stare could lend importance to a person.

“The society you’ll find in California’s prisons is much more close to what you’ll find in, say, a Bosnian community where you have different ethnic groups that are to a large degree self-contained,” Colwell said.

“What you’re seeing is a horizontal integration where now the groups have broken apart and said, ‘We’re going to run our own show. We don’t work together. We have separate communities, and we don’t want to work with you anymore.’”

Byron Scott, head of the university’s European Union Center and a Balkans expert, said the ethnic divisions that Colwell sees in California prisons are a necessary social orientation that exists in Bosnia and other parts of the former Yugoslavia.

“In a situation where you are under stress economic stress, social stress, where violence is still a political option you think about those you are related to by blood or upbringing, those who have the same background and who have as much to lose as you do,” said Scott, who often traveled under the protection of a tie someone had because of their loyalty to a group.

“It works for small groups and for segments of society, but it does not work if you want to do something broader or larger,” Scott said. “It doesn’t tend to work very well when you’re trying to set up a federated government, for example.’”

Scott extends the ancient protective use of clans to Iraq and other transitional societies struggling for social order.

“In times of stress, war, famine, these organizations tend to come forward and emphasize the we-versus-they thing, and I would imagine that’s a lot of what’s coming out of Iraq,” Scott said, referring to troubles between Sunnis and Shiites.

In the Balkans, he said, “Their biggest problems are trying to create an infrastructure which is better and more predictable and gives wider access than the clans can or could do.”

Colwell said that just as tribal leaders maintain social order and their own rule of law in places such as Iraq, cell block “key holders,” yard “shot callers” and an apolitical administration at larger California prisons maintain social order and limit large-scale group conflicts and rioting.

Colwell believes the prison culture of California is a fair comparison to a community under stress.

“I see a lot of similarities. There’s a lot of the difficulty in, say, defusing ethnic conflict in Bosnia, how it’s a difficult thing to do, and the best minds in government are having a hard time dealing with it,” Colwell said.

Of inmates he’s studied and their social structures, he said, “These are very smart people and smart enough to live in this type of environment and create complex social organizations and cooperate.”

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