The exercise of power in prison organizations and implications for legitimacy.

Author:Wooldredge, John

TABLE OF CONTENTS INTRODUCTION I. Power Bases as (Il)Legitimate Displays of Authority A. Power Bases Within Prison Organizations B. Shaping Legitimacy with Different Power Bases II. Officer and Prison Effects on the Exercise of Power III. Methods A. Samples and Data B. Measures C. Statistical Analysis IV. Findings and Discussion A. Officer Characteristics and the Exercise of Power B. The Influences of Officers' Experiences and Perceptions of Work C. Prison Level Effects on Officers' Exercise of Power D. Findings on the Interactive Character of Legitimacy E. A More Nuanced Understanding of Legitimacy in Prison F. Implications for Establishing Legitimate Authority in Prison CONCLUSIONS INTRODUCTION

In their call for social scientific analyses of legitimacy, Professors Bottoms and Tankebe integrated the ideas of several social and political philosophers in order to construct a theoretical framework for understanding whether government officials can claim "legitimate" authority whereby citizens recognize their right to rule. (1) An important element of this framework borrows from Professor Raz's argument that differences in how power is exercised will influence whether power-holders maintain legitimate authority. (2) That is, officials who rely more generally on coercive force can only be de facto authorities in that they have not "secured from their audience a recognition of their right to rule." (3) Officials who exercise authority in ways that preserve the dignity and respect of citizens, on the other hand, can make valid claims to legitimate authority. (4) We apply this framework to correctional officers' exercise of power and the correlates of different power bases that are relevant for the cultivation of legitimacy in a prison setting. (5)

Building legitimacy in prison organizations affects not only inmate compliance with prison rules but also post-release compliance with the law more generally. (6) Discussions of legitimacy in prison settings often focus on the importance of inmates' perceptions of prison authority as means of promoting safety and order. (7) Perceptions of organizational rules and the enforcers of those rules as proper and just, should reinforce the credibility of prison officials as individuals who deserve the right to govern. (8) In turn, stronger perceptions of legitimacy should promote order and safety in the inmate population by increasing levels of inmate compliance with the rules. (9) Consistent with this idea, prison ethnographers have observed a link between correctional officer legitimacy and prison order. (10) From this perspective, how officers exert their authority over inmates is critical for shaping inmates' perceptions of legitimacy." For example, officers who rely more on coercion in order to gain inmate compliance may weaken their legitimacy in the eyes of inmates whereas officers may strengthen their legitimacy who rely more on their expertise for problem solving (such as resolving conflict between two inmates by encouraging compromise) or the respect they have garnered from inmates over time. (12)

Bottoms and Tankebe argued that the "dialogic nature" of legitimacy demands an understanding of not just how subjects perceive power-holders but also how power-holders behave. (13) As such, the study focuses on correctional officers' perceptions of their power over inmates and the inmates' perceptions of officers in order to assess how the exercise of power potentially impacts officer authority. A focus on correctional officers responds to Bottoms and Tankebe's call for research on power-holders, and more specifically the "junior power-holders" who have the most contact with subjects. (14)

By definition, prisons are, to some degree, coercive organizations. However, Bottoms and Tankebe observed that most prison authorities prefer to refrain from the use of force. (15) The famous sociologist Max Weber described how states have a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, (16) but force is generally not encouraged by officials because, when it is used, "consensual authority has failed." (17) Recognizing that consent and the cultivation of legitimacy involve ongoing relationships between authorities and their subjects, and that force will be used on occasion even by legitimate governments, it is important to assess how officers exercise their authority in general as opposed to in particular instances. This is because "actions expressive of consent serve to reproduce and reinforce the legitimacy of a given set of social arrangements," which underscores the need to reflect the ongoing nature of these relationships. (18)

In light of the paucity of empirical studies of this subject, and consistent with Bottoms and Tankebe's call for related research, we examined both individual and prison-level influences on correctional officers' reliance on different forms of power in Ohio and Kentucky state prisons. Given the dialogic nature of legitimacy, we also examined whether more or less reliance on different power bases at the facility level impact prisoners' general perceptions of officer legitimacy. Specifically, we examine officers' fairness, equity, and competency, all of which are important contributors to an officer establishing legitimate authority. Identifying key influences on the exercise of different forms of power and whether broader use of specific forms correspond with inmates' perceptions of officers will contribute to both theoretical and practical discussions of the feasibility of establishing legitimate authority in a prison setting.


    Correctional officers' claims to legitimate authority can only be valid when the organizational rules and the enforcers of those rules are proper and just--not just in particular instances, but consistently and over time. (19) The continuity of interactions between officers and inmates that involve respectful treatment and preserve the dignity of inmates is necessary for establishing prison officials as individuals who deserve the right to govern. (20)

    Borrowing from Raz, Bottoms, and Tankebe's discussion of how legal authorities actually exert their power is critical for determining whether these officials have rightful claims to legitimate authority. (21) Other prison scholars have also discussed the implications of how officers exert their authority over inmates for shaping inmates' perceptions of legitimacy, (22) although Bottoms and Tankebe seem less concerned with assessing subjects' perceptions of particular instances since the behaviors themselves applied broadly and consistently define legitimate authority. (23)

    This discussion begs the question of what constitutes "legitimate" versus "illegitimate" displays of authority, and it is in this context we describe the importance of recognizing different power bases used by correctional officers for making this distinction. For example, officers who rely more on coercion in order to gain inmate compliance weaken their claims to legitimate authority because inmates are not willing to follow directives. Alternatively, officers who rely more on their expertise for problem solving or the respect they have garnered from inmates over time, can make rightful claims to possessing legitimate authority. (24) This example integrates (a) Raz's distinction between groups claiming legitimate authority although the claim is not deserved versus groups possessing a valid claim to legitimate authority, (25) with (b) Professor Tyler's emphasis on the impact of how authority is exercised on subjects' recognition of any claim to legitimate authority. (26) In other words, groups who rely on raw power to enforce rules may do so precisely because their subjects do not recognize their right to rule. On the other hand, groups that display respect for citizens and exercise authority in ways that preserve power recipients' dignity are more likely to have secured recipients' belief in their legitimate authority.


      The exercise of power involves one person's ability to influence the behavior of another. (27) Organizational scholars have argued that employee perceptions of how their supervisors exercise power over them can positively or negatively impact job performance and satisfaction. (28) A parallel might be drawn to the use of power by officers over prisoners in terms of how different power bases (types of power) are linked to inmates' perceptions of authority. However, unlike the empirical literature focusing on employee satisfaction, (29) we do not claim that causality necessarily moves from officers' behaviors to inmates' perceptions. That is, officers may use coercion to enforce rules because inmates do not acknowledge their authority, whereas officers who refrain from force might act as such because they feel that inmates acknowledge their right to enforce prison rules. For our purpose, and consistent with Bottoms and Tankebe's discussion of the "dual and interactive character of legitimacy, which necessarily involves both power-holders and audiences," (30) we believe that officers react to the inmate culture in a particular prison.

      Professor Hepburn focused specifically on the exercise of power by correctional officers and adopted Professors French and Raven's five social bases of power for his investigation: legitimate (based on the officer's position in the organization), expert (cooperation based on a belief that the officer knows what is best for inmates due to their training and skills), referent (an inmate's respect for an officer leads to compliance), coercive (physical force or threat of force used in order to gain compliance from inmates), and reward power (implicit or explicit promises of certain benefits in exchange for compliance). (31)

      Based on the terminology, legitimate power is most closely tied to the earlier discussion of correctional officer legitimacy. However, considering the broader...

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