Almost 2,000 males who have been convicted of crimes covering the gamut of criminal activities are institutionalized in the state prison in Johnson County, Tennessee. These inmates, housed in the confines of a few concrete buildings, represent a society that is dissimilar from the free-world society.
The purpose of this phenomenological study was to determine the characteristics of an inmate leader. Research data were collected through interviews with 20 prisoners located in the Northeast Correctional Complex in Mountain City, Tennessee. Inmate leaders, selected for the study included gang leaders and non-gang leaders. Interviews were tape recorded and transcribed for the data analysis. To capture the essence of the interviews, interpretivism was used for the analysis. A holistic view allowed certain overlapping themes to be isolated. Findings were presented thematically as they answered specific research questions.
Past experiences of inmates and the prisonization process gave them a unique and different understanding of leadership. To serve in a leadership role, the inmates determined that the person had to be trustworthy, follow the code of silence, and show respect for fellow inmates in the carceral setting. Gang leaders had a greater focus on coercion and power in their roles as leaders. The controlled prison environment conditioned the inmates to a survival mode. Inmate Larry encapsulated life on the other side of the fence: Prison is what you make it.
Recommendations included researching the leadership traits of juveniles in the correctional system. These data could be useful in re-directing the leadership energies of these youths. A study of leadership traits identified by females in the correctional justice system would provide information on how the traits are shaped by gender, prisonization, or a life with little exposure to leadership role models.