Inmate Balance Theory Explained


The inmate balance theory looks at systems of administrative control within prison culture. Administrators in prisons are responsible for measuring and correcting individuals when they are no longer following the rules. Officers are administrators, just as office workers are. The corrections occur with prisoners when it is deemed that they are not meeting the measure of the rules.

This makes it possible for the prison culture to define a specific direction in which the administrators and the prisoners can travel. It creates routines and predictability, which is referred to as inmate balance.

When administrators exercise an excessive level of quality control measures on prisoners in a way that is deemed to be unwarranted, then a lack of balance occurs. In prisons that are out of balance, there is a higher risk of violent conduct possible. Rioting, targeted attacks, and other forms of violence are seen to be justified because the administrators, in the minds of the prisoners, have disrupted the necessary balance.

Administrative Control Can Be Positive or Negative

Within the inmate balance theory, administrative control is an essential concept for the necessary social exchanges that occur. Its presence is absolutely necessary, but negative administrative control creates different outcomes when compared to positive administrative control.

It is a similar concept to authoritarian parenting compared to authoritative parenting. Authoritarian attitudes would trend toward a negative outcome, while authoritative attitudes would trend toward a positive outcome.

Within the prison social culture, guards and office workers can approach prisoners in one of two ways. They can choose to exert their authority because the law says they have the right to do so. They can also choose to build quality relationships with the prisoners and use those relationships to exert the influence that is necessary to keep order.

When relationships are created, humans naturally become protective of that structure. A lack of violence typically occurs when positive administrative control methods are used because the relationship is valued higher than the possible outcomes which violence could offer.

With negative administrative control, the opposite is true. The relationships are not valued, so a possible outcome holds more value than saving the relationship.

Why Don’t Prisons Use Positive Administrative Control?

Even when administrators may wish to use positive reinforcement methods that are supported by concepts within the inmate balance theory, they may be authoritarian instead of authoritative. For a positive emphasis to be effective, the administrators must be encouraged and rewarded for using the methods that avoid administrative breakdowns. The relationships must be observed, documented, and developed.

It isn’t just the prisoners that need these positive relationships to form. In his dissertation for Arizona State University’s doctorate program, Rodger Benefiel suggests that employees who have quality relationships with their supervisors are more likely to find success within the prison environment. Quality supervisor relationships encourage high-quality prisoner/administrator relationships as well.

At the same time, when rewards are in place for administrators to supervise inmates properly, they are monitored more frequently and in a more active way. The additional levels of monitoring are able to reduce the rates of misconduct, which allows the social structures of that prison to achieve a long-term balance between all parties involved.

How Can Inmate Balance Theory Be Promoted?

The first step toward success within the inmate balance theory concepts is to create a hierarchy of leadership which will influence administrators toward authoritative, not authoritarian, interactions. The rules of the prison must be followed for everyone’s safety, but how those rules are enforced will either create more balance or increase the risks of imbalance.

At the same time, the leadership of the prison must be forming the same type of relationships with their administrators that they want the administrators to form with the prison population. The leadership group must lead by example. If they do not, then the administrators that would naturally form high-quality relationships and promote balance are ridiculed because they are “not normal.”

Without leadership support, authoritative personnel become targets of authoritarian personnel. That dysfunction filters down to the prison population, which then moves toward imbalance because the administrators are out-of-balance. At that point, the risks for violence within the social structure of the prison rise exponentially.

It is possible for a prison to do everything right and still have violent outbreaks occurs. The inmate balance theory is all about managing risk. By creating relationships, the risks of violence go down, and that makes it possible for prison culture to be more about rehabilitation than survival.