The Exercise of Power in Prison Organizations and Implications for Legitimacy

Wooldredge, John, Steiner, Benjamin | January 1, 2016

Extrapolating from Bottoms and Tankebe’s framework for a social scientific understanding of “legitimacy,” we argue that differences in how correctional officers exercise “power” over prisoners can potentially impact their rightful claims to legitimate authority. Given the implications of this argument for the “cultivation” of legitimacy (as discussed by Weber), the study described here focused on (a) individual and prison level effects on the degree to which officers generally rely on different power bases when exercising their authority, and (b) whether more or less reliance on different power bases at the facility level impacts prisoners’ general perceptions of officers as legitimate authority. Analyses of 1,740 officers from forty-five state prisons in Ohio and Kentucky revealed significant differences in the use of coercive, reward, expert, referent, and positional power based on officer demographics, job training, and experiences, and several characteristics of the prisons themselves. In turn, analyses of 5,616 inmates of these same facilities revealed that greater reliance on expert and positional power at the facility level coincided with inmate perceptions of officers as more fair, equitable, and competent, while greater reliance on coercive power corresponded with perceptions of officers as less fair, less equitable, and less competent. Related foci are important for enlightening discussions of the feasibility of maintaining legitimate authority in a prison setting. How officers might maintain legitimate authority is discussed in light of our specific findings.