Prisoner culture, drug use and drug traffic within a Flemish prison

Research Period

1 January 2009 – 30 June 2011





Key Words

prison, prisoner culture, drug use, drug traffic, coping strategy, adaptation style,  ethnographic research, in depth-interviews


Social relevance

Since the seventies, the number of drug using detainees in the Belgian prisons and in most European countries has risen sensitively (F.O.D.Justitie, 2005; Lo & Stephens, 2000). Some detainees are imprisoned in relation to drug use or drug related crimes, others start to experiment with some substances in prison. In their study of 10 Belgian prisons, Todts et al. (2000) concluded that 50% of the prisoners use illegal drugs (mostly poly drug use), and that around 10% of the detainees start to use drugs inside prison. Although in a few prisons specific treatment projects have been set up, it is generally accepted that the presence of drugs in prison on one hand and the minimal medical and psycho-social assistance to drug using detainees on the other hand, produce a high level of relapse.

The approach of the drug problem (both use and traffic) has been an issue of debate inside the penitentiary administration during the last years. This internal discussion has been intensified by the recent politic and social evolutions concerning drug policy ‘outside’ the prison walls, more specifically the apparent discrepancy between the dominant approach of drug users inside the prisons (a rather prohibition policy oriented towards abstinence and the policy towards some substances in the society (e.g. the law reforms about the personal possession of small amounts of cannabis). The present research proposal will contribute to the scientific discussion about an appropriate and humane drug policy inside Flemish prisons, and yield insights in some underexposed aspects of the drug problem, in particular the role and meaning of drug use and drug traffic in prison, and the individual characteristics of the detainee and the contextual factors (the prison culture) which may influence them. This study focuses on the self- understanding of the “insiders”, but may contribute to more efficient prison management treatment strategies, which in turn can stimulate the eventual resocialization of (drug using) prisoners.

Theoretical assumptions

Criminological literature about (problem) experiences of detainees and their adaptation to prison life is dominated by two theories: the deprivation and the importation theory (see Parisi, 1982; Goodstein & Wright, 1989). The traditional deprivation model emphasizes the prison environment itself as source of stressors, which lead to certain modes of adaptation (Seal et al, 2004; Cooke et al., 1990; Grapendaal, 1990). This theory suggests that the prison context hinders detainees to satisfy some important basic needs (such as the need for autonomy and privacy). This frustrating situation thus generates adaptation styles –like the use of substanceswhich are favourable inside the prison environment but have baleful effects for the reintegration of detainees after release. Central concepts linked with this phenomenon are ‘prisonization’ and ‘criminalization’ (the process of secondary socialization through which detainees claim for themselves a criminal ideology that makes them in high degree immune for the influences of conventional values and norms and which allows them in this way to conserve their personal integrity inside prison). (Clemmer, 1958; Thomas, 1973; Peters, 1976; Bondeson,1989).

The more recent importation model emphasizes the pre- and extra- prison influences on both the problems experienced in prison and the adaptation to them (Seal et al., 2004; Cheeseman et al., 2003; Irwin et al., 1962; Grapendaal, 1990; Neys, 1994). This theory focuses on the personal and social characteristics which each detainee along from outside prison (such as experiences with drugs before detention). Unconventional values and norms about the use and/or traffic in psychotropic substances may be imported by persons with a criminal lifestyle in the outside world, instead of being generated by the deprivation of the prison environment. Several authors (Thomas, 1977; Johnson & Toch, 1982; Hunt et al., 1993) suggest that the integration of the deprivation and importation model provides the most complete explanatory basis for the lifestyle of prisoners inside the prison walls. Responses of detainees on the imprisonment experience, in psychological sense and in terms of specific behaviour concerning the use and/or traffic in drugs, can be seen as a complex product of detainees’ background characteristics (socio demographic characteristics, personality, degree of ‘criminal involvement’, nature of the crime which caused the imprisonment, drug career before detention,…), the prisoner’s detention circumstances (custody title under which one is confined, length of punishment, residency phase, features of the institution concerning overpopulation, architecture, safety measures, activities offered, treatment possibilities, management style of the prison administration, …), and the (stressing) interaction between this individuals and their prison environment. (Vandebosch, 2000).

In this research the (non-) use of drugs and the (non-) involvement in the drug traffic inside prison are considered as one of the possible adaptation styles or coping strategies with which the detainees react on the prison experience. An adaptation style or coping strategy is a constellation of more or less conscious behavior and cognitions, which help the prisoner to ‘resolve’, experienced problems and stress, or may ‘alleviate’ the ‘prison experience’ in its totality (Toch, 1977). According to Huspek and Comerford (1996), the incoming detainee has to make a choice that or will be positively appreciated by the institution, or by the prisoners (but never by both groups) (Cordilia, 1983; Schmid & Jones, 1990). This refers to the existence of a “prisoners culture”, oriented against the institution, and (to a smaller extent) shared and supported by the detainees. The prisoners’ subculture is, similar to other subcultures, generated through the interaction of individuals with similar problems, and just like in other subcultures it offers ‘solutions’ (Thomas & Peterson, 1977). The degree of involvement in the prisoners’ culture (which on psychological level manifests itself in the degree of ‘prisonization’) is thus a way to distinguish adaptation styles. Furthermore, individual adaptation styles of detainees may be individualistic (characterized by separation) or collectivistic (characterized by a high degree of participation in activities with other detainees), they may be oriented towards the outside world (targeting to leave prison as soon as possible) or just towards the prison world (the prison as a world where one feels at home), they may be oriented towards violence or towards resistance, or otherwise a form of mental escapism (e.g. by using anesthetic substances) (Cope, 2000).

Research problems and research questions

With this research we want to examine the role and meaning are of (both legal and illegal) drug use and drug trafficking in the prison as an adaptation style or coping strategy of prisoners. Firstly, we want to check if and which influence individual characteristics such as sociodemographic features, personal factors, the degree of ‘criminal involvement’, the type of crime for which one has been imprisoned, drug career before the detention, … have on (non-)involvement in drug use and/or drug trafficking in prison. Secondly we want to investigate the nature and extent of the influence of contextual factors (custody title under which one is confined, length of punishment, residency phase, features of the institution concerning overpopulation, architecture, safety measures, supply of activities, supply of assistance, management style in the prison, …). Thirdly we want to examine whether and to which extent there is a ‘prisoner culture’ in relation to drug use and/or trafficking.

The answers to these research questions may lead to important implications and recommendations concerning the treatment possibilities offered to drug using prisoners, strategies for stimulating motivational and behavioral change among prisoners, and management styles in prisons.


Given the difficult circumstances to conduct scientific research in prisons on a sensitive topic such as use of and/or trafficking in drugs (the greatest challenge is to develop trustworthy relationships with prisoners and prison staff), the research will be restricted to three prisons. These will be selected in consultation with the prison administration (the national drug coordinator of the prisons, Dr. Sven Todts) on the basis of different criteria. Beside to some pragmatic criteria (accessibility, willingness of the prison direction to cooperate, etc.), prisons with divergent prison populations (men and women, remand and convicted prisoners, long and short punished people), different degrees of overcrowding, activities offered, treatment possibilities and degree of security will be selected. Prisoners detained under social defence law will not be included in this study.

Sample survey and method

Given the ‘closed’ nature of the research setting, its relative uneasy accessibility and our conscious choice for a qualitative approach, the representativeness of the sample survey and the empirical generalization of the research results are less important. However, theoretical generalisability of the findings on meanings of human behaviour and explanatory mechanisms are very important. The number of respondents we would like to reach and the research methods we propose are based on the experiences of international researchers in comparable settings (Dillon, 2001; Cope, 2000; Pearson & Hobbs, 2004; Seal, et al., 2004; Long, et al, 2004).

In every prison, in-depth interviews will be conducted on the basis of a previously constructed topic- list (based on existing research in Belgian prisons and relevant international research literature) with staff members (both persons who work on drug problems within their job function and regular prison guardians) and with as much prisoners as possible (also prisoners who do not consume drugs or are not involved in the distribution or trafficking of drugs) (see Todts, 2000; Dillon, 2001; Cope, 2000). For every institution minimum  10 staff members and 20 prisoners will be interviewed individually and face-to- face. Whenever feasible, prisoners will be interviewed more than once (see Cope, 2000). Next to this, interviews will be done with at least 15 ex-prisoners. Initial respondents will be recruited through contacts and networks of the Institute for Social Drug Research that were developed trough previous and ongoing research projects (FWO-projects G.00125.02 en G.0197.96, ‘Cannabis in Flanders’, ‘Drug nuisance in Antwerp and Charleroi’, ‘Asylum seekers and drugs’), and through contacts that will be set up during the proposed research project. The initial sample of ex-prisoners will be extended on the basis of ‘snowball sampling techniques’.

The validity of the research results will be checked as far as possible by presenting them to a panel of 4-5 (ex-)prisoners (Huberman et al, 1998). The data will be analyzed with the help of specialized software for qualitative data processing (Nvivo) (see Cope, 2000; Dillon, 2001).

A necessary procedure before the start of the actual fieldwork is the agreement of the prison administration of the prisons involved with an ethical guideline, which guarantees anonymity of all respondents (prison staff and prisoners), and non- interference by prison staff in the research (this procedure was also used in the ongoing research project on the needs of ATS- users). Every participant must sign a ‘letter of informed consent’.


In a first stage (6 months: 01.01.2009 - 30.06.2010) relevant Belgian and international literature will be analyzed, and topic- lists will be constructed for the interviews with staff, detainees and ex-detainees. Meanwhile, the necessary preparations for fieldwork will be made (selection of 3 prisons, in consultation with Mr. Sven Todts, signature of ethical guidelines, exploration of the three selected settings through informal contacts and available statistics and so on). Upon approval of this research project, some preparatory steps can already be taken before the start of the project (01.01.2009) (permission of the Director-General of Prisons, selection criteria of the three prisons,…). The fieldwork phase covers 12 months (01.07.2009 - 30.06.2010) for the depth- interviews with staff and detainees (4 month for each prison) and with ex-detainees. During this stage, processing and analysis of the qualitative data will commence. In a third stage (6 months: 01.07.2010 – 31.12.2010) the data will be further analyzed and the final report will be drawn up.

Valorisation: publications and lectures

MICHIELS, E. (2010), In search of a theoretic framework for analysing layered interview data. Presentation at the 21ste ESSD Conference, Dubrovnik (Croatia), 2 oktober 2010.