Author:Steiner, Benjamin


The effective application of the law depends in part on how individuals view the officials with the legal authority to enforce it. (1) If legal officials are viewed as legitimate, then individuals are more likely to defer to those officials ahead of their self-interests. (2) In a prison setting, the formal rules of conduct govern and regulate behaviors, and correctional officers are the visible representation of those rules. (3) If inmates view correctional officers as "legitimate," then they may be more likely to comply with those officers and the rules they enforce. (4) Institutional safely and order are reflected in part by the degree of noncompliance (rule violations) within and across prisons, (5) and so correctional officer legitimacy could be relevant to promoting inmate well-being and the effectiveness of prisons as institutions of social control. (6) In a prison context, legitimacy is the belief that official rules, corrections officials, and the institution itself are proper and just. (7) Correctional officer legitimacy is the recognition by inmates that officers have the right to govern. (8) Correctional officer legitimacy is owed, in part, to the legal authority assigned to the position that officers hold in the prison bureaucracy, (9) but scholars have also hypothesized that officer legitimacy is conditional upon inmates' experiences and the treatment they receive from officers. (10) However, few studies have examined these and other inmate attributes that may influence their perceptions of correctional officer legitimacy.

Using survey data collected from over 5,500 inmates housed in forty-six prisons in Ohio and Kentucky, we examined individual level influences on correctional officer legitimacy. We focused on the potential relevance of inmates' background factors, routines in prison, and experiences during their encounters with correctional staff.


    Legitimacy refers to "the belief that authorities, institutions, and social arrangements are appropriate, proper and just." (11) Authorities are viewed as legitimate when their actions are considered acceptable based on the socially constructed norms and values of a society. (12) Scholars have argued that in democratic societies, legitimate authorities are those that are in a valid position to influence others, generally act fairly, demonstrate a capacity to achieve effective results, and can justify their actions to those affected by their decisions. (13)

    In studies of the legitimacy of legal authorities, researchers have often conceived of legitimacy as individuals' perceived obligation to obey the law or the directives of authorities, and/or individuals' affective orientation towards legal authorities such as their level of support for or confidence in those authorities. (14) Tankebe has convincingly argued, however, that individuals' expressions to obey the directives of legal authorities are distinct from individuals' perceptions of the legitimacy of authorities. (15) Tyler has also noted that legitimacy is "a quality possessed by an authority, a law, or an institution that leads others to feel obligated to obey its decisions and directives." (16) Tankebe and Tyler have both observed that individuals may feel a sense of obligation to obey authorities because they consider those authorities legitimate; however, individuals may also choose to obey those authorities for other reasons (e.g., fear, personal morality, influence of social group). (17) For instance, individuals may view legal authorities as illegitimate, but they still may feel obligated to obey those authorities out of fear, a sense of powerlessness, or pragmatic acquiescence. (18) Such scenarios seem particularly likely in a prison environment, (19) and these feelings should not be mistaken as legitimacy. (20) Given our focus on correctional officers (the legal authorities in prison), we conceive of correctional officer legitimacy as a multidimensional concept involving legal authority assigned by the state as well as inmates' general perceptions of officers' procedural fairness, distributive fairness, and effectiveness. (21)

    Scholars have argued that when individuals believe authorities are legitimate, they are more likely to accept and comply with the decisions of those authorities regardless of their self-interests. (22) This is because when individuals believe authorities are legitimate, they are more likely to "buy into" the decisions made by those authorities (23) and recognize that those authorities have the right to govern. (24) In contrast, if individuals view authorities as illegitimate, then they may be more likely to become defiant or disrespectful toward authority, which could be linked to noncompliance. (25)

    Evidence derived from studies of citizens' perceptions of the police and courts suggests that there is a relationship between legitimacy and compliance. (26) Ethnographic studies of correctional officers and prison environments have also underscored the link between correctional officer legitimacy and prison order. (27) Thus, an understanding of factors that shape correctional officer legitimacy is important because such an understanding could shed light on strategies for strengthening and/or cultivating inmates' beliefs in the legitimacy of correctional officers. Inmates with stronger views regarding the legitimacy of correctional officers may be more likely to comply with institutional rules and directives, (28) and so strengthening inmates' beliefs regarding correctional officer legitimacy could go a long way towards improving institutional safety and order, both of which are reflected by the degree of noncompliance within and across prisons. (29) An understanding of the sources of correctional officer legitimacy could also aid in improving the overall morality and justice of prison environments. (30) Prison environments that are more just have also been found to be more stable and less tense, (31) and inmates' perceptions regarding the stability and safety of prison environments have been linked to their psychological well-being. (32) Finally, uncovering the sources of correctional officer legitimacy might aid in promoting a less dehumanizing prison environment for inmates. Inmates who feel dehumanized and otherwise disrespected are less likely to develop conventional values and beliefs that could otherwise make them more likely to desist from offending after their release. (33)


    Individuals' beliefs regarding the legitimacy of legal authorities may be initially rooted in the legality associated with their position. In other words, they may believe that an authority has the right to govern because he or she holds a lawful position of power. (34) Weber, for instance, argued that authority is legitimate only insofar as it is permitted or prescribed by the state. (35) However, Weber also posited that authorities that seek to secure continued compliance will attempt to establish and develop individuals' beliefs in the legitimacy of their authority. (36) In other words, individuals' perceptions regarding the legitimacy of legal authorities can change, owing to the actions of those authorities. (37)

    Researchers have uncovered that individuals' perceptions of the legitimacy of legal authorities can be shaped by their experiences during their encounters with the authorities. (38) In a prison context, inmates encounter correctional officers for a number of reasons, but how rule violations are handled is particularly salient to their perceptions of those officers. (39) This is because correctional officers have considerable discretion over rule enforcement, and how officers enforce the rules often shapes the norms of a prison and defines the relationships between officers and inmates. (40)

    Scholars have underscored the potential relevance of instrumental concerns in works discussing individuals' experiences with legal authorities. These concerns include individuals' perceptions regarding the favorability of outcomes (e.g., ticket versus no ticket, arrest versus no arrest) of encounters with legal authorities and individuals' level of satisfaction with those outcomes. Normative considerations, such as individuals' perceptions of distributive and procedural justice, or the perceived fairness of the specific outcomes and treatment they received during encounters, have also been linked to perceptions of legitimacy. (41) It is important to note that individuals' specific experiences with legal authorities are distinct from their general perceptions of dimensions of the legitimacy of those authorities such as procedural and distributive fairness. Individuals' specific experiences during their encounters with legal authorities are expected to influence their general perceptions of the legitimacy of those authorities. (42)

    Elements of distributive justice in a prison setting include inmates' perceptions of outcome favorability relative to their past experiences, their expectations, the experiences of others, and so forth. Procedural justice involves inmates' perceptions of the specific procedures followed by correctional staff to arrive at those outcomes. In particular, it implicates the quality of the decisionmaking process and the quality of treatment experienced during encounters. (43) The quality of decisionmaking relates to inmates' desire to have a voice in the decisionmaking process. Inmates also expect authorities to be honest and remain impartial. The quality of treatment involves inmates' expectations that correctional staff treat them with dignity and respect. Individuals also want to believe that authorities are acting out of a...

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