Welcome to Jail: Some Dramaturgical Notes on Admission to a Total Institution


David Asma




Conditions of human interaction may be considered within the "social" realm of action and communication. Interactive situations between individuals can be thought of as dramatic performances. Therefore, social dramas dominate the interactive world of human activity. While some social dramas are said to celebrate the sacred, such as Christmas Day, Independence Day, or the Coronation of Royalty (Shils and Young, 1975, p.305), other dramas are less positive and are designed to degrade or lower the status of an individual or group. Through dramatic structure, a community expresses its moral indignation toward an individual, bringing about ritual denunciation and degradation (Combs and Mansfield, 1976, p.243).


Let us consider degradation in terms of criminal justice and the criminal offender. A defendant undergoes a public denunciation by means of arrest and the potential instance of a criminal trial to determine guilt or innocence. If the defendant is proven accountable for the given infraction of law, he or she is ritually destroyed. His or her identity is transformed and replaced by another. The defendant is now a different person -- a "reconstituted" person -- a guilty person (Garfinkle, 1956, p.421).


Public denunciation and degradation create a response toward the perpetrator. In the case of a guilty criminal defendant, successful denunciation is usually met with some form of punitive sanction. Incarceration is perhaps the most well known and traditional response to moral indignation and criminal denunciation. Therefore, this paper will attempt to address and identify the features of degradation within a facility devoted to incarceration, specifically, an institution housing inmates who have been publicly denounced as criminal (awaiting trial) and those "reconstituted" as guilty. Denunciation, degradation, and the punishment of offenders is undoubtedly a "dramatic" situation and performance.  




Denunciation and punishment can be considered an aspect of human activity: roles, behavior, and self-presentation. Identity, meaning, and social acts are the stuff of drama; expressive action between individuals/roles assist in establishing a dramatic situation. Utilizing a metaphor which holds that human life is theater-like, one can identify "performances" which are rich with action/dialogue and are, therefore, dramatic. Moreover, from an organizational point of view (i.e., criminal justice system), Hare and Blumberg (1988) note that drama results from occasions where the apparatus of the public media, official authorities, or professional practitioners [socially] act to build a sense of an orderly world (p.156). Dramaturgically speaking, this paper focuses on expressive "action" associated with the intake procedures of an "official" custodial institution.  


Meaning of the Situation


According to Brissett and Edgley (1990), meaning emerges out of a behavioral consensus between human beings. It is a behavioral outcome of human activity, as well as, a defining characteristic of what is referred to as the "social act" (p.2). Mead (1934) noted the following:


Meaning is not to be conceived fundamentally as a state of consciousness or as a set of organized relations existing or subsisting mentally outside the field or experience into which they enter; on the contrary, it should be conceived objectively as having its existence entirely within the field itself. The response of one organism to the gesture of another in any given social act is the meaning of that gesture (p.78).


Meaning of a situation is thus a behavioral, socially emergent, problematic creation of human interaction. Meaning is established through responsive discourse between participants (actors) in a social act (e.g. Brissett & Edgley, 1990, pp.2-3; Perinbanayagam, 1974, p.524; Hopper, 1981, p.48).


The interaction between human beings and the meaning that results from such action is the basis for dramaturgical study. Moreover, dramaturgy is not concerned with what people intend to do, but, rather, how they do it. Symbolic and expressive actions, both verbal and nonverbal, are essential for human interaction. Perception of such symbols and actions contributes to the process of framing or defining one's situation; what and how we perceive allows us to organize our experiences (Manning, 1980, p.252). Perceived environments, therefore, assist in framing events, activities, or more specifically, performances. Within the institutional setting, frames are created, maintained, and destroyed. They are utilized to provide and lend meaning to "doing time" within the staged performances associated with total institutions (prison, military, asylums, etc.). The context in which one finds oneself helps to determine the meanings that can be attached to that particular situation.


In the upcoming pages, an attempt will be made to identify and describe interaction between correctional institution staff and inmates during a processing, or booking phase within a county jail facility. To begin with, however, a brief discussion of the "self" is necessary before proceeding.


The dramaturgical perspective focuses on the sense of individuality persons acquire through social interaction. Mead's conception of self entails that individual selves are the products of social interaction and not the pre-existent conditions of that interaction. Brissett and Edgley (1990) briefly summarize Mead's point of view by reminding us that a person's self is a shared interactive phenomenon that emerges only in conduct with others. The self "is the meaning of the organism, and it is created just as any meaning is -- established by the action of that organism and the action of others with respect to it" (p.15). Hare and Blumberg (1988), drawing on the work of Sarbin, define the self as the recognition of individuality and of separateness of others. Such recognition is constructed through social interaction (p.5). The individuality of a person is an interactive phenomenon that only emerges in conduct with others. Dramaturgically speaking, the self is not an entity, but rather, a meaning and, as a result, there is nothing that can be discovered apart from the process of doing; "It is in the doings, not the minds and hearts of people, that selves emerge" (Brissett and Edgley, 1990,p.18).


If, according to Mead, the self is developed and nurtured by means of role taking and interaction, it should continue to develop throughout the social life of the individual. Mead articulates the process-oriented emergence of self from play in children through its most developed state in the generalized other. The self, bestowed upon the individual by symbolic actions of others, is processual and subject to both novel and expected events. Degradation and mortification can be considered social processes affecting self; if selves are brought about and produced by others, selves can also be stripped-away by others.


Using Erving Goffman's study of institutional life (1961) as a template, this paper will address methods by which degradation/mortification of the self occurs with respect to inmate situation(s) within a custodial, incarceration facility. More specifically, observations will be made regarding the "welcome" which inmates experience upon entering an institution.


The Total Institution and Self


In 1955-56, Erving Goffman conducted field work at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington D.C. where he collected material for his book Asylums, which argued that there exists a class of institutions that share a certain important feature: relationships within establishments are structured primarily along coercive lines because of the very nature of the institutions (Straus, 1978, p.31). Goffman's chapter entitled "On the Characteristics of Total Institutions" (1961, pp.1-124) provides a framework from which this paper's observations were made. Field observations were conducted during Spring of 1992 inside a county jail (herein referred to under the pseudonym Metro County Jail), located in a Midwestern U.S. county consisting of a population of approximately 600,000 residents. The majority of observations took place in the booking (or processing) area of the facility and allowed for a dramaturgical examination as to inmate intake and admission to a "total institution."


Goffman (1961) defined a "total institution" as a "place of residence and work where a large number of like situated individuals, cut off from the wider society for an appreciable period of time, together lead an enclosed, formally administered round of life" (p. xiii). Metro County Jail, although much smaller than other institutions such as state mental hospitals or penitentiaries, falls within Goffman's definition and therefore can be considered "total." Metro County Jail is designed to incarcerate individuals awaiting criminal trial or perpetrators who are serving a sentence of less than one year; the facility [at the time of this research] holds a maximum population of roughly 350 inmates. Upon entrance to this jail facility, the inmate is processed and, as Goffman suggests, "welcomed" by institutional staff (p.18).


When entering a jail or incarceration institution, an individual carries with him or her a conception of self that is based on social arrangements in the "home" world. Goffman defines "home world" as a way of life and a round of activities which are taken for granted until the point of admission to an institution (p.12, 14). Meaningful situations and arrangements established in the outside "home" world create the civilian self. In entering the jail institution, the civilian role or self is systematically stripped from the individual by means of processing or booking the newly arrived subject. The individual undergoes a series of degradations, humiliations, and profanations, which result in the mortification of the self (p.14). The process by which mortification takes place, as well as what kinds of degradation face a new inmate will represent the bulk of this paper. It should be noted, however, that this observation of admission procedures is primarily just that -- observational notes. Psychological factors that may result from the mortification of self, although important issues, are beyond the scope of this brief exploration.



The civilian self is initiated into the institutional world. The self is "welcomed" by institutional staff through jail booking procedures. Alleged offenders as well as sentenced perpetrators undergo the same booking process. Regardless of a finding of guilt, once booking occurs, the self is "reconstituted" (or in the process of reconstitution) as an inmate. Hopper (1987) notes that "despite the myth of the presumption of innocence until guilt is proven, [a] defendant's moral identity has already been severely damaged by the accusations [and arrest]" (p.190, my emphasis). In addition, Goffman (1961) states that an interpretive scheme of a total institution automatically begins to operate as soon as the inmate enters. Staff utilize the defendant's admission to the facility as prima facie evidence that he or she must be the kind of person the institution was set up to handle: an individual in a mental hospital must be ill and an inmate in a prison/jail must be a lawbreaker (p.84). Given this implicit "construction" of an inmate's arrival or presence, it's understandable why Metro County Jail booking staff made little or no distinction between those individuals housed awaiting trial or those who had received a punitive sanction upon the determination of guilt. Booking staff rarely made inquiries toward an inmate as to the reason he or she was present in jail. Knowing that the "offender" was in custody by simply having been arrested by a police agency, booking personnel are primarily interested only in processing and "welcoming" an individual into the institutional population. According to jail staff, booking procedures ("welcoming") are designed ostensibly for the overall safety of guards and inmates. However, to implement such security measures, systematic processing occurs and, as we shall see, admission procedures can be considered degrading, intentionally humiliating, and destructive to the civilian self.


Observations of inmate processing were limited to the booking area of the jail only. Mortifications and degradations undoubtedly occur in other regions of the facility, however, the stripping of the civilian self is most pronounced during the initial admission to jail.


Upon entering the jail facility, the new inmate is faced with a break from the outside world. He or she is now "inside." A physical barrier exists between the self and the relative freedom associated with the world "beyond the walls." This disruption of "world", as well as the degradation of admission to the facility may be said to reconstitute the civilian self into an inmate self.


New arrivals (arrestees, transfers, etc.) are usually transported to Metro County Jail by means of fully emblazoned police vehicles. The prisoner entrance consists of a high security sally port or garage area that is isolated from the "outdoors." Defendants or perpetrators are escorted by staff into the booking area for admission to the institution-- the individual is not allowed to move at will as he or she is usually restrained by shackles or handcuffs. The physical structure of an institution [jail, prison, etc.] may present what Meisenhelder (1981) refers to as a rhetorical atmosphere or device (pp.52-53): the exterior face of the building, as well as, the internal "cells", thick glass and/or metal doors communicate to the new participant a sense of isolation and authority.


Goffman (1961) informs us that the mortification of the self associated with admission includes a contaminative exposure:


On the outside the individual can hold objects of self-feeling -- such as body, his immediate actions, his thoughts, and some of his possessions -- clear of contact with alien and contaminating things. But in total institutions these territories of the self are violated; the boundary that the individual places between his being and the environment is invaded and the embodiments of self are profaned (p.23).


The initial physical pat-down or frisk when entering the jail is just such a contamination: facing the wall with arms and legs spread apart, the new arrival is vulnerably positioned and physically touched and handled by staff. Although such a search is designed to locate potential weapons or contraband, it also produces an invasion and contamination of an inmate's physical body. Consequently, most extraneous personal belongings (jewelry, loose change, wallet, purse, hats, coats, etc.) are removed from the body/clothing, and are generally kept in inaccessible storage. Personal belongings are costumes and equipment used by the individual to control the guise in which he or she appears before others on the "outside" (p.20). Removal of property further strips the self of ties to the civilian world.

After the frisk search, laces are removed from the inmate's personal shoes and he or she is placed in a large holding cell with others awaiting booking.[1] Female inmates are generally held in holding tanks separate from male holding areas. Contamination of self also takes place by forced interpersonal contacts and social relationships (p.28). New inmates may spend hours enclosed in a holding cell exposed to a variety of personalities.

Holding cells (or cells in general) at Metro County Jail consist of cinderblock and glass construction -- there are no metal "bars" at the facility. Thus, all areas are enclosed, with the exception of metal doors, producing isolation within an already sequestered facility. Once inside the closed cell a lone inmate is confronted with silence as he or she is shut off from communication with others in the facility.[2] In addition, lavatories are not separate from the cell(s); stainless steel toilet bowls (without comfortable seats) and sinks are located in open areas without partitions. Relieving oneself must often be done in the presence of other inmates or staff, as is the case in large holding cells, further contaminating the self.


Mortification continues by means of a violation of one's informational preserve regarding self (p.23). After waiting for a period of time, an inmate is escorted from a holding cell to the booking desk where he or she is compelled to provide personal information to institutional staff. Information such as an inmate's home address, occupation, date of birth, and number of dependents may be considered trivial, however providing such information can be, at times, embarrassing and revealing for an individual. Medical conditions and past attempts at suicide are among the probing questions and forced disclosure associated with intake. Questions are very direct giving an inmate no time to elaborate. For instance, during initial intake, inmates are asked "Do you have any of the following: aidsasthmabronchitisdiabetesinfluenzarupturetetnus-venerealdisease?" Due to the frequency of its recitation, the list of conditions has become a single word. Staff members are very proficient at asking speedy questions to which new inmates have little opportunity to respond. After the list of medical conditions, the inmate merely shakes his or her head indicating denial of symptoms. Moreover, body tattoos are to be identified and categorized and, therefore, must be shown to staff. Displaying tattoos located in intimate areas is another example of privacy contamination.


While disclosure of personal information is undertaken primarily by means of verbal interaction, problems arise when a new inmate is unable to effectively communicate with staff. Barriers are created (in an already isolated environment) by a lack of verbal understanding of one's situation and the procedures associated with it. For example, on one occasion, a bilingual guard was not present when a Hispanic male, who was unable to speak English, was to be processed. The booking officer on duty, rather than wait for a bilingual staff member, created a fictitious personal history for the inmate. Birthplace, marital status, number of children, and personal health were quickly invented by the officer as a representative history of the defendant. Place of employment was randomly chosen from many different business cards found in the inmate's wallet. Such degradation may be said to exist due to the cold, efficient processing procedure and the lack of explanation as to the inmate's situation. The Hispanic man was observed to be very frustrated with his "entrance" to the institution.


A photographic record of an inmate's admission is then made. For the booking photo the inmate is required to stand on a specific marking on the floor while posing for the event. Posing or positioning the body can reflect humiliating postures and responses associated with institutional intake (p.23).


Additionally, new inmates are required to sign several booking documents pertaining to their stay "inside." For example, near the end of the information disbursement (booking), the inmate must sign two forms directed to the Metro County Sheriff -- one reads as follows:


I hereby authorize you or your designated officer to open and inspect all mail addressed to me in your custody. Same to be given to me after such inspection.

Signature _______________


The other form carries with it a sense of finality:


I do hereby resolve, discharge, and forever hold harmless the Sheriff of [Metro] County, and any of his employees, agents, solicitor, or anyone acting in his behalf, from any causes of action which now exist as a result of my arrest and/or incarceration.

Signature _______________


These documents exemplify mortification and contamination of the self. Personal mail and correspondences will be actively inspected and the inmate's signature is needed for purposes of notification of such intrusion. Personal and private ties to the civilian world, by means of mail, are forfeited or infringed upon by the required signature. Moreover, in signing the 'hold harmless' agreement, the inmate limits his or her future actions (litigation), even beyond his or her stay at the institution.[3]


After providing personal, and at times, intimate information to staff members, the new inmate is escorted to an isolated room where he or she is required to submit to several sets of finger prints. Institutional retrieval of inmate histories, photographs, and fingerprints create an environment whereby the new inmate is shaped and coded into an object that can be fed into the administrative machinery of the establishment (Goffman, 1961p.16). Fingerprinting is one example of the coding process; by identifying an individual on the basis of technical characteristics, his or her self identification (name, social class, etc.) is limited or ignored.


During inmate fingerprinting, staff members don rubber gloves and physically manipulate the hands and fingers of the individual. According to staff, the use of gloves is generally due to the risk of exposure to the HIV virus. However, gloves symbolically communicate and demonstrate a barrier against filth, illness, and disease. Dramaturgically, the expressive/rhetorical use of gloves by staff can be interpreted as representing a barrier against the inmate's physical body and self.

Upon completion of fingerprinting, the inmate is again escorted to another area where he or she is secured, alone, in a small cell containing only a shower fixture on the wall; the shower area has no partitions for privacy. Staff members enter the adjacent cell where they can communicate with the inmate through a glass, "bank teller"-like window. The jail staff member (still wearing rubber gloves) commands the inmate to disrobe to nakedness and to push his or her clothing through the teller window. Staff will usually place a plastic garbage bag over the window opening, into which the personal clothing is discarded.[4] The new inmate is left standing alone and naked before a staff member. His or her personal belongings (pants, shirts, socks, underwear, and shoes) have been disposed of in a plastic bag normally associated with, and used for, garbage/refuse. Relinquishing clothing reinforces the dispossession of property which is associated with immersion into an institutional domain. During one particular strip search, a senior guard was training a new staff member and while placing the plastic bag over the shower-room window opening, explained (in the inmate's presence) that such a procedure prevented the escape of offensive odors associated with inmate clothing. Verbal explanations/innuendo regarding body odor and the use of garbage bags for storage further degrades the inmate's civilian and personal self through expressive rhetoric and/or actions.


Perhaps the most obvious defacement and mortification occurs during the strip search and rectal examination of the inmate. Still naked in the shower cell, the new arrival is instructed by staff (observing through teller-like window) to pose his or her body in what may be considered humiliating positions. The inmate must perform before the guard by presenting intimate areas of the body for visual inspection. The primary objective of strip-searching is to prevent importation of contraband such as illegal drugs and/or currency that may be secreted in or on the inmate's body. Although institutional safety appears to be the primary reason for physical exams, such activities also act in creating extreme defilement and degradation of the unaccustomed inmate. The guard instructs the naked individual to raise both arms exposing the armpits, to bend the ears forward, to spread the fingers and toes, and in the case of male prisoners, to manipulate the penis in such a way as to expose hidden, prohibited, materials.[5] The inmate is then instructed to turn away from the guard, exposing his or her backside. The prisoner must bend over and spread the buttocks so as to reveal any materials hidden in the rectum. Additionally, staff members command the inmate to cough while bent over in the hope of dislodging or ejecting secreted objects in the anus. Female prisoners, in addition to a rectal examination, must submit to visual inspection of the vaginal area. For both male and female inmates, the visual scrutiny of the body and its intimate areas may be said to create the most dramatic debasement of self. Such revealing performances, while providing an institutional requirement for safety, produce actions that aid in the mortification of the civilian self.


Upon completion of the strip search, the inmate is handed a small bar of soap and is instructed to shower, usually in plain view of staff members. When finished, he or she is handed an aerosol can of delousing spray and is instructed to apply the material to pubic areas. Again, activities that are usually considered private and personal are made public before staff resulting in an interpersonal contamination (p.28).


Admission procedures involving extended periods of nakedness and visual examination are, as Goffman explained, the "leaving off and taking on" process of the institutional "welcome." The midpoint between "leaving off" and "taking on" is marked by physical nakedness. Dispossession of belongings and clothing, and eventual nakedness, exemplifies the leaving or stripping off of the civilian self (pp.18-19). "Taking on" the inmate self occurs after nakedness, when the prisoner is assigned institutional clothing and toiletries.


After his or her visual inspection and shower, the inmate is given clothing provided by the institution: two sets of nondescript, blue colored uniforms which hold no distinguishing features which could identify "self." Underwear is also given to the inmate, however these items are not new and are soiled with numerous stains from previous wearers.[6] The inmate, faced with having to wear undergarments which may have been worn by countless others, is contaminated, physically, by stained and pre-worn clothing (p.28).


Cloth and rubber shoes are also distributed to new arrivals. Institutional shoes were observed to be somewhat threadbare -- some with broken seams and worn rubber soles. In one instance the inmate was given a pair of shoes which lacked a normal, padded insole. The prisoner was left to walk on the rough rubber sole inside his worn shoe.


Staff members would often determine clothing sizes for the new inmate rather that ask for his or her proper size. Rough estimations were made and the inmate was often left with ill fitting clothes and shoes. Although most staff members were accommodating so as to properly fit an inmate with clothes, others would hand out clothing with little interest in whether they fit.


After having received their allotted uniforms, each inmate is provided with one pillow, one blanket, and one mattress cover. The inmate is then escorted from the shower facility and secured in a large holding cell (with other nondescript, similarly dressed others) where he or she awaits transfer to a final residence cell or pod.[7]


The use of similar inmate clothing and uniforms for both male and female prisoners diminish personal identification equipment usually associated with civilian or "outside" costumes or apparel. Regimented uniforms prevent the individual from presenting his or her civilian image to others (p.21).


Verbal and non-verbal interaction within a total institution no doubt produces mortification of a prisoner's self. Regardless of the events which brought about an inmate's term in jail, an incarceration institution may be considered coercive by means of rigorous security measures which debase and degrade an individual's self. Verbally, staff may mortify incoming inmates through insults, threats, and jokes. For example, on one occasion an inmate approached an officer and requested information regarding potential release. The booking officer, who was already agitated with the day's business, barked "Don't worry about it!" and commanded the individual to return to his seat. An inmate is thus faced with verbal rhetoric suggesting a lack of concern on behalf of staff as well as an atmosphere where inmate concerns are unworthy of response.


Furthermore, joking among the staff members can create a humiliating environment for the newly arrived "self." For instance, during one particular strip search of a male inmate, two staff members conducting the visual exam began to joke with one another. As one officer commanded the prisoner to bend over for a rectal inspection, the other guard sarcastically stated "Hey, [guard name], we haven't had to do one of those searches for a couple years now" -- thereby amusingly chastising the inspecting guard as a sadist and for manipulating the inmate for homosexual ends. While strip searches are a necessary process of security, joking (by staff) about the event or inmate can magnify an already dramatic degradation. As in the above case, while one guard is poking fun at the situation, the inmate, who is naked and participating in the ordeal, becomes an unsuspecting and reluctant prop in the given joke.




Total institutions are characterized by some degree of isolation from the outside or civilian world. Goffman notes that total institutions, such as jails, are "symbolized by the barrier of social intercourse with the outside and to departure that is often built right into the physical plant, such as locked doors, high walls, barbed wire, . . ." (1961,p.4). In addition to such external obstruction, institutions also provide destructive effects on individual inmates within the institutional confines. Within this paper an attempt has been made to identify some of the operational features of a county jail, more specifically, booking and admission procedures and their relationship to mortification of the self. Humiliating and debasing performances associated with the "welcoming" phase of an institution systematically deprives new inmates of the symbols of past identity and status. In these ways, the institution works to destroy the inmate's conception of him or herself as an autonomous subject worthy of approval and self-respect.


Booking procedures and the events associated with entrance to a jail leave little opportunity for input by the inmate. New arrivals have no choice as to what questions are asked nor do many have the liberty to suggest an adequate clothing size. Alienation, detachment, and the lack of control regarding institutional procedures, as well as limited or nonexistent personal choices, contribute to defilement and degradation of self.


Drawing upon Goffman's 1955-56 study, the intention of this paper was to observe and consider elementary and direct assaults upon the self; degradation processes successfully transpire when the symbolic meaning of events in the inmate's immediate presence dramatically fails to corroborate his or her prior conception of self (1961,p.35). Mortifying procedures such as jail booking and admissions can surely stand within the scope of degradation ceremonies and drama.




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[1] Shoelaces and belt(s) are removed, ostensibly to prevent inmates from committing suicide by hanging or by using said items as weapons.

[2] A small opening in the metal door (commonly referred to as a Judas window) exists for exchange of goods such as food, medicine, etc.

[3] Staff advised this observer that all "new arrivals" are required to sign these documents before proceeding to other stages of booking. Should an inmate refuse to sign a document or provide personal information, he or she is "locked down" until cooperative and accommodating.

[4] Segregation by sex occurs during more intimate procedures such as frisking, fingerprinting, and strip-searches. Female staff will facilitate searches of female inmates.

[5] As per jail policy, female strip-searches are conducted by female staff only -- observers (especially male) are prohibited. This 'protection' from exposure to opposite sex is ironic, given other aggressive degradation tactics associated with intake. One could argue, however, that this practice of modesty is designed to protect institutional staff from accusations of sexual harassment/misconduct, rather than protecting the female inmate from obtrusive, humiliating examinations.

[6] Undergarments have been laundered; however, they are impregnated with various stains.

[7] Male and female inmates are, of course, placed in respective holding cells or dorm-like pods.