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Research Report: Taking justice into custody: summary report, Justice issues paper 2
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Taking justice into custody: summary report, Justice issues paper 2  ( 2008 )  Cite this report

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Prison culture

Our analysis also indicated that prison culture is a factor in shaping the degree to which inmates access justice and obtain assistance with their legal issues. The prison culture not only informs inmates’ behaviour but also that of legal service providers and those who assist prisoners in obtaining access to service providers. Our interviewees observed this occurring in a number of ways.

Firstly, inmates were defined and define themselves as being in opposition to correctional officers and/or even the justice system itself. For example, an inmate may not report an assault perpetrated by another prisoner because it betrays a code of behaviour that pits inmates against prison authorities. Consequences, such as stigmatisation, harassment or even violence, reinforce these notions. Consequently, although there were processes available that provided legal redress for inmates who are assaulted, they are not pursued because the prison subculture makes it unattractive or at least problematic.

It’s us versus the friggin’ officers and if you want to go and put another inmate in, well you’re going to cop the retribution from the rest of the inmates.
— Male parolee

Secondly, violence committed against inmates is conceived as unremarkable in the prison environment. An assault may not be reported by an inmate because physical violence is part of the experience of prison or because such incidents can be resolved by responding with further violence. This normalisation and naturalisation of violence enhances informal resolution of issues and undermines the formal systems that aim to deliver justice to inmates.

Thirdly, common notions that ‘criminals’ do not ‘deserve’ justice may lead to prisoners not challenging circumstances where they do not feel they have been treated justly because they perceive that they are thought of as unworthy of assistance. Such perceptions persist even though the ‘lived’ experience of many inmates and the attitudes of those who help them are to the contrary. A number of examples were given in our interviews where unfair treatment was explained by the inmates to themselves as ‘criminals break the law therefore they deserve whatever treatment they get’.

Finally, a tendency to compliance, which is reinforced by prison culture, seemed to discourage inmates from being proactive about meeting their legal needs. Inmates may be less inclined to challenge perceived injustices, as non-compliance may attract disciplinary action or result in help being withdrawn. This passivity is a barrier in post-release life where the ex-inmate must be far more active in pursuing assistance.


Grunseit, A, Forell, S & McCarron, E 2008, Taking justice into custody: the legal needs of prisoners - summary report, Justice issues paper 2, Law and Justice Foundation of NSW, Sydney