Peeking behind the Iron Curtain: How Law "Works" behind Prison Walls


The prison disciplinary process plays a major role in maintaining institutional order. It starts from the premise that the safety of the institution trumps the punishment of the inmate. Given the massive incarceration rates in virtually every part of the United States, most prisons are overcrowded and, therefore, forced to place a premium on order and safety. The only way to maintain order and safety is to have prison rules that deter inmate behavior; and the only way to enforce those rules is fairly and humanely.

Peeking Behind the Iron Curtain is a study of the law-in-action. Using a variety of research methodologies, including observational research, recorded interviews, and research in documents, it examines the inmate disciplinary process at a medium/minimum security mid-Western correctional institution. At issue is the role of legality in governing fair and impartial inmate disciplinary hearings. The goal is to go beyond what the substantive law says should happen and instead produce a written record of what actually does happen when inmates are subject to a rule-driven prison disciplinary process.

Does law “work” behind prison walls? This answer to this question is implicated both by law’s practicality to mediate conflict in a tense environment as is the special environment in which it operates, for example the prison. Behind prison walls assumptions influence the disciplinary process in many more instances than law itself. As a consequence of these assumptions, the burden of responsibility shifts to the inmate to show that he is not guilty of violating institutional law. A task, in both my opinion and experience, that is insurmountable. Further, since the significance of guilty assumptions are so deeply rooted in the functioning of the penal institutions, the very question regarding the validity of law’s capability to mediate that tension is not only raised, but also answered. As a succinct answer to the posed query, law does “work” behind prison walls – sometimes.


Administrative Law | Law | Law and Society

Date of this Version

September 2006