Surveillance cameras have caught prison inmates teaching other inmates how to disarm a police officer. Apply Sutherland’s Differential Association theory to the prison subculture.

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Sutherland’s theory of differential association has to do with how people learn to commit crimes and why they decide to act on that learning.  Some of what he talks about in his theory can be seen explicitly on this surveillance footage while other aspects of the prison subculture must be inferred.

One of the things that Sutherland says is that people learn the nuts and bolts of committing crimes from other people.  He says that most of this learning is done in communication with people who are part of your intimate group.  On this surveillance footage, we can clearly see learning taking place.  One prisoner is instructing another on how to commit a crime.  Although we do not know this for certain, it is at least reasonable to assume that the two prisoners are both part of the same intimate group.  Prisoners tend to seek out groups such as gangs for protection and a feeling of belonging.  People who are in the same such group can be seen as intimates.

Another thing that Sutherland says is that people also learn attitudes towards crime and law-breaking from their interactions with others.  People who go on to commit crimes often do so because they learn motivations for and justifications of crime.  They come to internalize these attitudes until they are willing to actually commit the crimes.  This is a process that we cannot actually see happening on the video tape.  To know whether the process was actually occurring, we would need audio to hear if the two were talking about attitudes towards crime and we would need to be able to know how the learning inmate was responding to the attitudes he was hearing about.  Even without such evidence, however, we can infer that such learning is going on.  Since the prisoners are put together with their intimate peers for long stretches of time, we can assume that they end up sharing their attitudes.  We can assume that their attitudes are often very negative towards laws and law enforcement. 

On the video, we can clearly see one prisoner learning how to commit crimes.  We can assume that the prison subculture also teaches prisoners attitudes that make them more likely to commit crimes, but we cannot actually see this process happening.  This two types of learning that Sutherland discusses in his theory of differential association are both part of the prison subculture.

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