by Lanita Jacobs-Huey, Ph.D.,


This is a slightly modified version of an outline prepared by Lanita Jacobs-Huey, Ph.D. Anthropology Department, University of Southern California

“A place of residence and work where a large number of like-situated individuals, cut off from the wider society for an appreciable period of time together, lead an enclosed, formally administered round of life.” Four examples:

(1) those established to care for persons felt to be both incapable and harmless (e.g., elderly homes)

(2) those to care for persons felt to be incapable but unintended threats to the community (e.g., mental hospital);

(3) those established to protect the community against those who are intended threats to its welfare (e.g., jails, POW camps, concentration campus);

(4) those established to pursue some work like and instrumental task (e.g., army barracks, ships)

Totality can be symbolized by barrier to social interaction with outside; through physical disconnect with outside world (locked doors, high walls, barbed wire, forests, water, etc.


1.All aspects of life are conducted in same place and under same single authority

2.Carefully structured activities

3.Explicit formal rulings govern structured activities

4.Activities serve ultimate goal (economic profit; control over men/women)

5.Strict demarcation of roles; hierarchical

6.Social mobility between the two strata (inmate, “staff”) is grossly restricted

7.Even TALK across the boundaries may be conducted in special tone of voice such that inmates’ verbal behavior reflects their place in system of dominance

8.Just as talk across boundaries is restricted, so, too, is passage of information – especially about staff’s plans for inmates.

9.There is little room for choice in the total institution

10.In some institutions, there is a kind of slavery with inmates’ full time placed at convenience of staff; here inmates’ sense of self and sense of possession can become contaminated

11.Total Institutions are incompatible with family; and make it hard to maintain contact; constraints are placed on family formations.

Inmate World within Total Institution 1.It is typical for inmates to come with a “presenting culture” derived from a “home world”

2.Integration into total institution may entail a kind of “disculturation” – an “untraining” if you will – which makes it difficult for person to adjust to his old way of life

3.Can create tensions between total institution and home world; some losses are irrevocable

4.Admission to a total institutions entails “trimming” or “programming” – because new arrival is shaped and coded into an object that can be fed into administrative machinery of establishment. (Change in clothing, hair style, etc.)

5.May involve “obedience tests” at outset

6.Possessions are taken; and with that one’s sense of self

7.Stripped of “usual” appearance

8.One may suffer personal self defacement and be stripped of one’s “identity kit”

9.Certain movements, postures, and stances will convey lowly images of the individual

10.Physical stance – required to hold body in humiliating pose; perform verbal acts of deference (e.g., saying “sir”, begging, humbly asking for little things like permission to drink water)

Contaminative exposure: 1.Physical contamination: unclean food, soiled towels, messy quarters.

2.Interpersonal contamination: Forced social relationships. When inmate loses control over who observes him in his/her predicament, or who knows of his/her past, he is being contaminated by a forced relationship to these people for it is through such knowledge and perception that relations are expressed.

3.Inmate thus undergoes mortification of self by contaminative exposure of a physical and interpersonal kind.

4.More overt cases of interpersonal contamination; forced relationships (rape, molestation, when one’s possessions are pawed over by official, contact with undesirable fellow inmates)

Looping 1.The inmate finds that his protective response to an assault upon self is collapsed into the situation; he cannot defend himself in usual way by establishing distance between mortifying situation and himself.

2.Through looping, an inmate’s reaction to his own situation is collapse back into this situation itself; and he is not allowed to retain the usual segregation of these phases of action.

3.Agency further lost by virtue of regimentation and tyrannization.

4.Echelon authority: ANY member of staff class has certain rights to discipline ANY member of the inmate class.


  • A total institution strips a person of agency,of the belief that he has any command over his world – that he is a person with “adult” self-determination, autonomy, and freedom of action.
  • Inmates in total institutions must show internalization of the world view of the staff
  • The inmates’ use of speech also show their personal inefficacy
  • External mortification is complimented by self/internal mortification
  • AND mortification is officially rationalized on groups for sanitation and security; it’s for their own good.