A be a threat to society: jails,

A total institution is a place where a great number of people in similar situations lead a restricted and supervised life. The concept is mostly associated with the work of sociologist Erving Goffman.

  Every institution encompasses something of the interests and the activity of its members and replaces the reality they knew before joining with one forged by the total institution. More so, when a person joins a total institution, be it by will or forced, it will slowly but surely have it’s personality influenced and eventually changed by the new pattern of life imposed on them.   Erving Goffman has identified five categories of total institutions. Firstly there are the institutions for the people unable to take care of themselves and are harmless, such as the homes for the old, the homeless, the blind, the orphaned. Secondly there are those institutions that are considered to be unable to take care of themselves and a threat to society, but without intention. Under this group fall the following types of institutions: tuberculosis sanatoriums, mental hospitals, and leprosariums. The third type of institutions are to keep away individuals considered to be a threat to society: jails, penitentiaries, prisoners of war and concentration camps. In the fourth category we find the institutions whose objective is to teach individuals a technical task: army barracks, ships, boarding schools, work camps.

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In the fifth and final category of institutions, as Goffman identified them, we find those establishments meant to offer people a retreat from normal society as well as a place of religious pursuit: abbey’s, monasteries.   According to Goffman in his book “Asylums”, a fundamental element of modern society is that the individual tends to sleep, to relax and to work in different places and with different participants, under different authorities and without a general rational plan. What all total institutions seem to have in common is that they break down these three borders that normal society has. First of all, he says, all life’s aspects take place in the same place and under the same authority. Second of all, in his each and every moment of life, an individual is surrounded by a large number of other members, being treated identically and being asked to do the same thing together. The third aspect of life in a total institution is the fixed schedule and explicit rules that must be followed. Finally, the reason for all that is imposed on the members of the total institutions is that of achieving the institution’s objectives.   In total institutions there is a major and very important split between the people active within its walls.

The first and largest category consists of people that are living their life in those institutions, titled inmates. The second category is made of the people for which the institution represents a workplace, spending within its walls an average of 8 hours a day, called the staff.Each of those two categories has grown to fit certain stereotypes. The individuals personalities do not have to accurately fit these stereotypes but they are certainly trained or pushed to behave as such. This is done to maintain a glacial distance between the groups, but the effects do not stop there.

In the eyes of the staff the inmates will seem bitter, secretive and untrustworthy, which will, over time, become a reality. In the eyes of the inmates the staff will seem condescending and mean, which may very well be true when we consider that the staff tends to feel superior.


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