Scientifically Exploring Prison Culture

By Veronica Gonzalez/

Meghan Mitchell, a 5th year Criminal Justice and Criminology Ph.D. student at Sam Houston State University, recently presented her dissertation, “The convict code revisited: An examination of prison culture and its association with violent misconduct and victimization,” to colleagues and dissertation committee.

The research, funded by The Bureau of Justice Statistics-Graduate Research Fellowship for Criminal Justice Statistics and The Charles Koch Foundation, aims to scientifically evaluate prison culture and the effect it has within the criminal justice system.

Data from the LoneStar Project, a study funded by the National Institute of Justice, helped create measurable variables of the convict code. Mitchell served as its project manager and helped coordinate a comprehensive examination of the convict code through face-to-face interview-based surveys.

“Texas inmates were the source of the interview-based surveys,” Mitchell explained. “As the largest department of corrections in the nation with a longstanding history of prison culture, they are ideal for studying the convict code.”

Information on the convict code, violent misconduct and victimization, and a host of important correlates were collected from 802 randomly selected male inmates during the project. Interviews occurred within days prior to their release from prison in 2016.

Within her research, Mitchell asked questions in order to explore the convict code further.

“Is the convict code a multi-dimensional construct? Who is most likely to adhere to the convict code? Is the convict code associated with violent misconduct? And, is the convict code associated with violent victimization?” she explained.

Courses discussing convict code and prison culture inspired Mitchell to dig deeper into the subject and turn it into a defining project that has helped propel her career in academia.

“As a student, you learn in most classes about the convict code and prison culture. Much of this research is from the 1970/1980s,” she said. “I began to question if the convict code still existed today in prisons given mass incarceration substantially changed how many people were incarcerated and who those people were.”

She discovered that the convict code consists of multiple dimensions including social distance, masculinity, invisibility, and strategic survival. Adherence the convict code was consistently associated with the code of the street and some prison contextual factors, such as procedural justice, and exposure to violence, but race/ethnicity, total incarcerations, incarceration length, self-esteem, and gang membership also mattered.

“These results have direct implications for correctional policy and practice pertaining to the prison environment, procedural justice within the prison system, risk assessments, and treatment programming,” Mitchell said.

Moving forward, Mitchell hopes this dissertation sheds light on the importance of prison culture within academic and applied realms, and hopes that scholars begin to measure the convict code, using the findings validated through this research.

“Once the convict code is researched throughout a variety of samples and population,” Mitchell said, “Scholars and prison administrators will be able to explore the influence of prison culture on not only prison operations, but other realms of the criminal justice system, such as reentry planning, treatment selection, and community corrections.”

Mitchell also recently presented her findings to colleagues at the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

“They were very pleased with the presentation, interested in the research, and considering the utility of incorporating some convict code questions into their upcoming jail research,” she said.

Mitchell defended her dissertation in front of the committee in April and accepted an assistant professor position at the University of Central Florida (Orlando).

Her dissertation is published online at and intends to publish at least four other articles from her research. To discuss her findings further, contact Mitchell at

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