Theoritical Framework


The Experiences of Inmates, Institutional Staff. and Tourists


Philip D. Holley

Southwestern Oklahoma State University

Department of Social Sciences

100 Campus Drive

Weatherford OK 73096

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Dennis Brewster

University of Oklahoma

Department of Sociology

Norman, OK


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Paper presented at the Annual Meetings of the

Southwester Sociological Association

Galveston, TX

March 18, 2000


The Experiences of Inmates, Institutional Staff. and Tourists


The paper involves a qualitative analysis of prison tours as experienced by all the actors directly or indirectly involved in prison tours: inmates, institutional staff, and tourists. We define prison tours as organized visits of citizens—adults or chlildren—to prisons in order to view and to experience some type of direct encounter with inmates, staff, or both. Each category of actors ascribes a particular meaning to the occasional event of a prison tour. Inmate experience of tours includes indifference, performance, a dating service, sexual harassment, and speak outs. The meanings of prison tours for institutional staff consists of public relations, recruitment, and crime prevention. Tourist meanings include education, social work, moralizing, and exhibitionism. For all types, the shared meaning is that of a visit to the zoo.


Prisons of all security levels are foreboding places for many citizens, despite the media depiction of prisons via fact and fiction. High walls, imposing towers, double fences with razor wire, and even the less secure facilities impose images of danger, deviance, and intrigue. Yet this mystique often provides the foundation for the interest which leads to tour requests.

This paper is about organized visits of citizens—adults and children—to prisons in order to view inmates in their natural environment, to see the physical features of the facility from the inside, and to have some type of direct encounter with inmates, staff, or both. Although visitors might include prison and governmental officials as well as all other citizens, we are most interested in the tours arranged for citizens.

It is fair to assume that the impetus for tours is set within the citizenry, even with the desire that corrections officials might have to show off their facilities. Clearly there are numerous motivations for groups of citizens requesting tours.

When tour groups are provided access to the prison by the administration, undoubtedly the administration has certain intentions and motivations as well. As burdensome as tours are to security and to the day to day operations of the facility—numerous tour requests, disruption of institutional routines, staff allocation for the tour, etc.—prison officials (including both governmental and private administrators) and agency administrators routinely, if sporadically in some instances, provide tourists access to the prison.

Clearly, inmates have no say in either requesting or approving tours. However, inmates are not irrelevant to the process. They may favor tours, oppose them, or be indifferent to them. Furthermore, they can either be of help or a hindrance while the tour is taking place. Inmates on display during and/or participating in the tour in some capacity experience numerous potential reactions. Thus, the meanings ascribed to the prison tour by the various actors appear to be both varied and significant.


Our 1999 paper examined a selective history of visitation in the early prisons in the US and in Oklahoma. We found that early prisons provided opportunities for official and non-official tours. Tours for citizens appear to have been formally planned and organized, with citizens taking advantage of these opportunities in significant numbers (see Johnston 1994; 1973; Teeters 1955; Teeters and Shearer 1957; Rothman 1995; Sandhu 1991). Thus, despite the intent of separating offenders from the outside world, visitors were and are granted access to this enclosed world.


The purpose of this paper is to examine the nature of the contemporary prison tour experience. We intend to describe the tour experiences of the various actors involved in prison tours: inmates, staff, and tourists. In particular, we are interested in the meanings attributed to the experience from these three vantage points.


Multiple data sources are used in this paper. First, we are making use of data gathered from our study of prison speak outs (Holley and Brewster 1996) carried out for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections as well as our experience of sponsoring tours for university students over many years. Observations of speak outs and interviews of inmates and correctional staff provided the information. Second, the first author has been taking university students on prison tours for 25 years. These experiences have provided opportunities to observe and listen to student reaction to tours. Reaction papers following each tour have provided valuable insights into the student tour experience. Third, the authors have sponsored inmate programs where we have been able to examine inmate attitudes toward tours and to gauge inmate reaction. Fourth, informal feedback has been acquired from prison staff through varied contact over many years.

Individuals who visit specific inmates as family members are dealt with by different policies as are officials (e.g., legislators) who visit as a part of their jobs (see Holley and Brewster 1999). Media people, working for newspapers and television, visit prisons as well. Also, inmate attorneys visit from time to time. This paper does not include reporters, attorneys, official visitors or those who visit specific inmates as family or friends. Furthermore, while tours of vacant prisons are interesting (e.g., Alcatraz, Eastern State Penitentiary), this paper deals with tours of occupied prisons. Thus, we will focus on citizens—juveniles, adults, and other interested citizens—as members of the tour group. These persons will be referred to as "touists."


We use social constructionism in order to examine the meanings attributed to the prison tour experience (Gunter and Holley 1998). Constructionism can be seen as the way in which social issues are presented both by claims makers and those responding to the claims. According to Gunter and Holley, "For the constructionists, then, conceptual categories are contingent, and linked to pragmatic purposes" (p.1). Prison tours are pragmatic experiences and serve many purposes for both the prison system and the tourist.

Constructionism first developed out of the work of Malcolm Spector and John Kitsuse (Kitsuse and Spector 1973; Spector and Kitsuse 1974) in their exploration of social problems. The constructionist view of how social problems have been developed and exposed has gained strength in explaining the phenomenon of social problems. How problems are portrayed to the public and how the claims makers make their point is the basis of the development of a social problem. Social constructionism has been applied to media presentations, lesbianism, and various forms of deviance as well as social problems.

Case studies and case histories have been used by constructionists in order to develop a fuller view of the problem. According to Scott (1993), AConstructionists, of course, are not alone in their preference for "thick" description in sociology" (p.234). For the purpose of this study, we also engage in description of the tours, focusing on the reaction of the prison administration, prison staff, and prison inmates. This triangulation of the prison tour event provides evidence of how the prison tour is "constructed."

Scott (1993) notes that within the constructionist camp there are: (1) Contextual constructionists—those who believe that they should pass judgement on the claims made by the claims makers, and (2) the strict constructionist—those who do not make any judgement of the claims, only report the claims made by others. The work herein follows the path of the second designation, that of the strict constructionist.

One of the interesting developments in the dynamics of claims making is the use of "frames." According to Turner (1998), "Human experience is organized by frames, which provide the interpretive "framework" or "frame of reference" for designating events or "strips of activity" (p. 407). Frames are ways in which groups present their argument or their "claim" to others (Goffman 1959; Turner 1998). Prison tours are presented for a number of reasons and to varying groups of interested people. With each different group, a different message is presented to best "frame" the moment for the claims makers, in this case the prison officials or the "tour guide." According to Goffman (1959) who developed the idea of frames, "In those interactions where the individual presents a product to others, he will tend to show them only the end product, and they will be led into judging him on the basis of something that has been finished, polished, and packaged" (p. 44).

For example, there are tours for official visitors, who have a need to know different information about the prison system, than do a group of religious leaders. The difference in how these visits are handled by both the prison administration, prison staff, and inmates can make tremendous difference in how prisons are perceived. Our examination of the prison system looks at the different frames that are used and how those frames organize how the tour of the facility is presented to the tourist.

For constructionists it is the frame that designates the prison tour event. The event is framed in such a way as to expose only those parts of the prison system that the tourist needs or want to see. How what is "seen" by the tourist is framed leaves the desired impression on the tourist.


Non-official tours refer to organized visits of citizens—adults and children—to prisons in order to view inmates in their natural environment, to see the physical features of the facility from the inside, and to experience some type of direct encounter with inmates, staff, or both. Despite the widespread depiction of prisons in the media, clearly with considerable myth, individuals want to see what is behind the wall and fences. Individuals want that opportunity, as well as sponsors of groups (e.g., school administrators) who request tours. The purpose is to discover what prison is "really like."

Tours vary substantially by (1) the time allotted, (2) experience, interest, and knowledge of the tour guide, (3) departmental and institutional policies, (4) institutional activities and routines taking place at the time of the tour, (5) the particular type of tour group, and (6) special requests from the tour group. Over time, this variability means that tours may range from excellent to boring, with most tours providing a positive educational experience (i.e., better than average) for the tourists. This is certainly the case for the novice tourist but is also true for the more experienced tourist. In fact, it is our view that tours are difficult to "mess up." About the only way that a tour can be botched is some situation that prevents the tour from taking place.

No two tours are identical, even of the same facility. Various conditions intervene so that different portions of the prison are visited. Tour guides invariably discuss points in one tour but not another. While the content of tours may vary from one to the next, the "frame" of the tour seldom changes. Visitors are shown what the correctional facility wants them to see. For example, a college tour group will be presented a frame that indicates the day-to-day workings of the prison, while a group of troubled or delinquent juveniles is presented with a frame showing the "harshness" of the prison system. While each group may not see the same presentation on each visit, each will receive the appropriate message presented in a frame.

One frame that is consistent with all prison tours is the entry frame. Upon entry to the facility and prior to beginning the tour, the tour group members are given a "visitor’s" badge in exchange for a photo id, searched, and taken to a conference or meeting room for initial comments by the tour guide and an orientation. This frame indicates to all tourists that the prison system is concerned with security issues and that the system is well prepared to handle differing types of groups as they enter the prison. While different groups may be handled in differing fashion, each still must go through the same steps.

Depending upon the particular nuances of the staff and facility, the tour group may be divided up into smaller units with their own tour guide. Tours consist of visits to one and sometimes more housing units, especially if there are different designs or types included in the prison. Visitors may even view the disciplinary unit. Visitors are exposed to program areas, including education, vocational-technical training, recreation, religious, the library, and the law library. Other areas to be visited include the laundry, the cafeteria and kitchen, maintenance, medical, and the reception area. If it exists, the industrial operation is toured. Usually the tour concludes with a time for questions and answers as well as concluding remarks by the tour guide at the conference or meeting room, or immediately prior to departure.

Depending upon the nature of the tour group, visits are sometimes made to the administrative area. On occasion the tour includes eating a meal in the cafeteria. Unique aspects of prisons (i.e., Oklahoma State Penitentiary’s old, dilapidated, and unoccupied cellhouses) are specifically displayed. The prison facility may itself be used as a frame for prison tours. For example, Oklahoma’s two oldest prison facilities provide a very formidable impression as the tourist arrives and enters the facilities. The old Auburn style prison front is striking. Both facilities use the barred, "sally-port entry," with sliding doors, again providing an excellent frame for the tourist.

Various security precautions are utilized in the admission of a tour group as well as invoked during the tour. Quite often security will depend upon the nature of the tour group as well as reliance on previous contact between institutional staff and the tour group organization and sponsor. If there has been previous positive contact with a tour group, security procedures are typically less complex. On the other hand, if the contact prior has consisted of problems, the security may be heavy. College classes and religious groups are routinely treated differently than adjudicated juveniles from some juvenile treatment program.

The individual selected to serve as tour guide varies from one facility to another. Public information officers routinely conduct tours in most facilities. In other facilities, uniform and non-uniformed staff conducts the tours. It is not uncommon for the tour guide to be assisted on the tour by one or more additional staff members. Remarkably, in some institutions, selected inmates are a part of the tour entourage and help with it.

The prison tour frame depends on the message that is desired by the facility, prison administration, or tour group organizer. Having inmates as tour guides provides the "frame" that inmates, while convicted of serious crimes, are still human beings with valuable assets to be utilized. For example, leaders of the "Lifers Club" at the Oklahoma State Reformatory in Granite, OK have guided tours. Framing themselves as responsible adults, albeit convicted felons, they provide tourists with a human sense of prison. According to one inmate, "By us guiding the tour, we can show that we are just like them—people who have just made a mistake."

Some tours may include an hour or so for a "speak out," wherein a few inmates formally speak to (and answer questions from) visitors about their crime, prison life, choices, etc. (Holley and Brewster 1996). The speak out is designed to complement and enhance the physical tour of the facility. Speak outs are also a chance for the institution and inmates to frame the human experience of prison. It is seen as a chance to help others. One female inmate relates, "[Participating in speak outs involves] taking a bad, bad experience and sharing it in a positive way" (Holley and Brewster 1996 p. 34).

Some prisons provide tours to outsiders, while others do not. Some agencies appear more open to tours than others. Seemingly, some seek out opportunities to have their facilities on display, not unlike the motivations for tours by officials. Although prisons do not typically advertise their tours, most prison officials are open to requests. Tours happen at an intermediate and variable frequency levels.

We will discuss the meanings attributed to tours by inmates, institutional staff, and the tourists. Table 1 (p. 13) presents the various tour meanings for each actor.


Inmates display multiple interpretations of and assign multiple meanings to prison tours. While not exhaustive, we have identified five frames from an inmate perspective: indifference, a performance, a dating service, sexual harassment, and speak outs. Each tour presents the inmate population with an opportunity to present a "frame" to the tour group as it passes.


Inmates may experience profound indifference to the presence of tourists on the prison yard, in the units, or in program areas. This is true for inmates who directly come in contact with the tourists as well as those who have no contact at all with the tourists. Tourists may disturb inmates routines and activities. They may have restricted movement, be required to lower the sound of their televisions, or instructed to ignore the presence of the tourists. In all of these situations, tourists represent a nuisance that is temporary and will soon depart. To the extent that tours happen frequently in certain prisons, inmates may think there is "just another tour" coming though.


Tourists may be perceived as a potential "audience," available for a spontaneous performance of just about any sort. Such acting out may simply consist of loud talk that demands attention, even if the only significant reaction is a direction from the tour director or other staff to "be quiet." Otherwise, the performance may consist of varying forms of interaction with other inmates constructed for the benefit of the tourists living units, programming areas, or on the yard. Sexual innuendo, comedy, and other dramatic representations may be included in the performance.

The displays may also be of a positive nature. Inmates may display their arts and crafts items (ceramics, paintings, leatherwork, glasswork, etc.) as the tourists view the arts and crafts program area while they work. Spontaneous athletic performances may be displayed on the handball court, weight pile, or basketball court. A few inmates may display their creative work in the form of showing copies of the prison newspaper as the tour moves through their domain. Items made in the prison factory or in a vocational-technical program may be presented for viewing by inmates as the tourists pass through.


Both male and female inmates may experience the tour as an opportunity to find a "date." By "date" we are referring to a person in the tour group who would be willing to initiate contact with an inmate via letter and subsequently be interested in getting to know them. This contact may certainly benefit the inmates by relieving boredom, providing legitimate contact with the free world, increasing access to illegal drugs, and creating opportunities for improving the inmates financial situation with monetary "gifts" from the outside persons (i.e., tricks). This person may typically be a member of the opposite sex, although it might as well be a person of the same sex.

While the exchange of notes with phone numbers, names, or other information is a violation of institutional policy, inmates have attempted from time to time to pass along such information to a person selected from the group to be the recipient, and they have occasionally succeeded. Despite the diligent efforts of staff to prevent such exchanges of information though advance instructions to the tourists not to taking anything from inmates, tourists are usually not searched for such items as they leave the prison.

The attempt to secure a "date" may be more important for the inmate than actually getting a "date." Success is a long shot, but the attempt involves psychologically rewarding dimensions of risk, intrigue, uncertainty, and at least the imaginary elements of romance and seduction.


Incarcerated males may take the opportunity to sexually harass members of the tour group as they pass their area. Comments of a sexual nature may be spoken quietly or may be proclaimed in a very loud voice. References to the physical features of tour members may be expressions of wishes that the inmates have for certain of the tourists. Those who makes these comments may be significant distances from the tourists, yelling out the windows of cell houses. Others may be nearby as the tour moves along their route.

Some females make similar comments to both males and females. On a recent tour of a woman’s unit, one of the women inmates commented to a certain female tourist about her "nice ass."


Many inmates demonstrate a genuine interest in the welfare of those who tour the prison, especially children. Many of these inmates were troubled during their own childhood, abused, state raised, and/or committing crimes. They wish to help these children avoid problems that would lead them to prison. If possible, they take the opportunity to speak to the group about the unpleasantness of prison when a tour group comes through. If permitted by the tour director, the inmate will speak at some length. Numerous prisons formalize this activity with a "scared straight" presentation, "straight talk," or "speak out," wherein inmates talk to the tourists about their criminal past, the experiences and effects of incarceration, and the importance of making appropriate life choices (Holley and Brewster 1996).

Where possible, these inmates accompany the tourists on their tour of the prison. In essence, the tour serves as an extension of the speak out.


It is our view that the administration of the Department of Corrections, along with the institutional staff, view the prison tour as an opportunity to further the goals of public relations, and to recruit future employees. Also, the prison staff at the facilities that offer tours is typically interested in crime prevention as well. Each of these concerns is "framed" in order to present the proper message. If the frame is not carefully carried out, the facility—or prison system—can suffer. Public support for prisons may be withdrawn or valuable human resources, in the form of potential employees, may be lost.


Correctional officers, members of the unit management team, other upper management persons, and as well public information officers experience the tour as a means of presenting a positive image of the prison to those unfamiliar with prison operations (although they often make (unreasonable) demands of the Department of Corrections.) Despite the frequent differences that correctional line staff have with prison administrators, this is one of those times and places where both parties work together in the best interests of the facility.

Increasingly for governmental prison agencies and private prisons, public relations requires more and more time and resources. Increasing budgets must be justified, overcrowding must be demonstrated to be real, and management and other problems must be dealt with. As more media and public attention is focused on the conditions of confinement, prison officials seek to show that: (1) they are working with problematic conditions not of their own making (e.g., old and outdated facilities); yet (2) they are making the best of a very difficult situation (e.g., with dedicated and hard-working, albeit underpaid, staff); (3) which ultimately requires amelioration (e.g., more funds). Thus, tours invariably show dilapidated buildings, committed staff, and programs that are purported to work if adequately funded. New facilities are displayed as a good investment for citizens by providing means of locking up offenders. Furthermore, providing tours of the facility builds positive relationships with community groups. The appearance of the warden during the tour also benefits public relations by showing his/her interest and accessibility.

Similar benefits accrue to the "private" prison corporations. In addition to desiring to be seen as a legitimate member of the business community, they desire to demonstrate the good value of private prisons for taxpayers, the benefits of the prison to the local economy, and that the safety of nearby citizens is a paramount concern.

Recent public concerns have pertained to inmate recreational programs, including weight piles, and other leisure time activities. Prison officials are willing and quick to point out that (1) inmates purchase their own televisions (i.e., in Oklahoma prisons), (2) cable television is purchased by proceeds from the canteen rather than tax dollars, and (3) weight piles are management tools primarily benefiting staff more so than inmates. This strategy has a dual purpose of debunking popular political thinking as well as asserting the primacy of management tools as safety concerns for correctional officers and other institutional staff.


Tours consisting of college students, in particular, afford the opportunity for the prison staff to recruit potential agency employees. This point is applicable for both governmental agencies as well as ‘private" prisons. Tour guides are able to talk about the appealing features of employment as well as show off facilities and programs.

Recruitment is made difficult if the tour guide or other staff discuss low salaries, although mention is usually made about other employment rewards (i.e., retirement, health insurance, etc.). The presentation usually includes a reference to corrections as a "growth area." Furthermore, specific references are made to current prison construction and the job opportunities that follow the opening of these facilities. Applications are typically offered to interested tourists and they are encouraged to contact human resources departments with their questions.


Institutional staff believe that tours can help prevent crime and assist troubled youth in avoiding prison. Here is a clear parallel with offender meanings associated with the tour. For the tour director, crime prevention is aided by the tour as well as the "speak outs." Viewing living conditions in prison, while perhaps on the surface not detestable, unbearable, or cruel or unusual, is believed to have a deterrent effect on adults as well as juveniles. The tourists are directly exposed to the "realities" of prison life, rather than media fiction.

The description, explanations, elaboration, answers to questions, etc. make more "real" the pain of prison life. When coupled with presentations by staff and inmates, crime prevention is considered a legitimate and worthwhile effort. Thus, all tours consist of (1) visual presentation, (2) oral presentation by the tour guide(s), while for others (3) the formal speak out by inmates is included.


Those who tour prisons attribute various meanings to the experience. For some it is a matter of social work, for others an education. For some it is an opportunity for exhibition of physical assets to the inmates. For some others it is an opportunity to moralize about convicted felons. The tourist thus receives the framed performance of the tour in the context of what they bring to the tour. The reaction—or how well the frame process worked—to the tour may be positive or negative. If the proper frame has been constructed, the prison tour will have the desired effect on the tourist.


Above all, the prison tour is intended to be an educational experience for the tourists. They see themselves as being either ignorant or only minimally knowledgeable about prisons, requiring direct observation of prisons and the experts (i.e., inmates and staff) to make sense of the nature of prison. The tour involves the opportunity for the tourists to learn directly from those involved rather than from books or professors, teachers, or treatment specialists whose understanding may be suspect. At the least, the prison tour is incorporated into the larger learning experience of the university, the school, or the juvenile treatment program.

Tourists understand that media images of crime, criminals, drugs, gangs, violence, and prisons are often inaccurate. Otherwise, the sponsors of tours (e.g., college professors, school administrators, treatment staff in juvenile institutions) believe their charges need the learning experience of the tour. While certain juveniles (and some adults) may believe that they are immune to crime, and thus do not require the kind of instruction that is provided on the tour, there is a widespread belief among tour sponsors that (1) tours do not damage the tourists, (2) some may in fact be helped, and (3) if only one person avoids or ceases criminal involvement the tour is worth the effort.

This inquisitiveness may not translate into questions for the tour guide(s) for all members of the tour. For some, the learning experience is so overwhelming that questions are not forthcoming until the tour group has departed and no one is around from which to seek answers to their questions.


The tourist experience the "framed" pain and suffering of prison as well as the pathologies of inmates. By "social work" we mean the deliberate, albeit sometimes mystical or miraculous, efforts to help offenders, borne out of sympathy, pity, and benevolence. Real opportunities to do social work on prison tours are essentially nonexistent. However, some tourists act as though the tour provides a means of carrying out such a task. Time does not permit, nor would staff allow, prolonged contact between inmates and tourists. However, these tourists make attempts to speak to individual inmates in an effort to comfort, support, and encourage them. The contact is most often brief. If contact is not possible, eye contact is designed to communicate the care felt by the tourists. Unless the tour serves as an impetus later on for the tourist to initiate volunteer service to the prison, the tourist takes away only a failed attempt at social work.


The prison tour affords those who wish to condemn and vilify "criminals" the opportunity to do so and disregard the "frame" presented by the tour guide. Most likely carried out symbolically, either to oneself or spoken to follow tourists, they may also be spoken to the tour guides as surrogates for offenders. Articulated expressions include condemnation along with the assignment of blame of criminals despite the reality that being in prison means that (1) they have been formally condemned by the court, (2) the victim has been vindicated, and (3) they are contemporaneously "paying their debt to society."

Prison officials, however, do not permit visitors the direct opportunity to speak to inmates for this purpose (although formal mediation can bring the victim in contact with their perpetrator). And, the tour is far from an ideal occasion for denouncing the evil doings of incarcerates. Encounters would be brief, at best, and highly constrained. Those to whom the tourist would speak would likely not be the individual serving as the source for the feelings. If these emotions are the result of victimization, for security and other reasons prison officials are not interested in providing the opportunity for a spontaneous encounter between the perpetrator of a crime and the victim.

Success may not be achieved by the tourists in any respect regarding moralizations. Satisfaction is not likely to happen in the face of prison conditions observed on the tour, especially if the tourists conclude that prison conditions are "too easy," despite the objective evidence that prison involves considerable psychological pain. Furthermore, any confession of guilt or assumption of responsibility of criminal acts by incarcerates would essentially challenge this moralization motivation. Frustration will likely be carried out of the prison.


While clearly a violation of institutional policies, on rare occasions certain female visitors (typically not related to any of the inmates who might be witnesses) to male institutions partially expose themselves to the inmates as they have the opportunity. For example, breasts may be exposed. While exhibition is acceptable in various contexts in the culture, for which there is a fee, these acts are free.

Although this activity is rather uncommon, it has happened. The behavior of these women is mystifying to staff as well as inmates. Inmates who are witness to these actions are concerned that such behavior will get them "in trouble." Such actions apparently denote a desire on the part of these women to "help" the men incarcerated in an all-male facility and deprived of normal heterosexual contact with woman.


Of all the meanings attributed to the prison tour, inmates, institutional staff, and tourists seem to agree on the "zoo" imagery. Tourists routinely describe their experience as that of visiting a "human" zoo. They peer into inmate "houses," view work and play activities, interrupt routines, and generally invade the privacy of the inmates. While tourists feel no ambivalence in visiting the animal zoo, they are confronted by feelings of intrusion in the lives of inmates at the same time experiencing intense interest in the prison environment.

Even though some tourists attempt to avoid eye contact with the inmates, they cannot. Furthermore, there is no moat, fence, or barrier between the tourists and the inmates in many prisons. Even those prisons which have inmates in their cells 23 hours a day sometimes provide for tourists getting quite close to inmates, during which many of the inmates peer out of the windows in their cell doors, or view the tourists with mirrors extended out the bars on the cell front.

It is not uncommon for tour guides to talk to the tourists about the need to protect the "privacy" of the inmates during the tour. A few facilities avoid taking tour groups to housing units ostensibly in order to protect the "privacy" of the inmates. Most tours, however, consist of a visit to a housing unit, at which time one or two residents are asked if they would open their cells so that the tourists can get a close-up view. This usually allows the tourists to enter the cell, a few at a time, for closer inspection. While instructions include a gentle reminder not to touch anything, the tourists are fundamentally intruding in the ‘house" of the inmates.

The image of the zoo is not lost on inmates and staff. In the former case, it is an inevitability that is taken in stride, while in the latter case it is somewhat bothersome but useful for other purposes. Staff "frame" the tour so that the "zoo" effects are minimized.


It is apparent that inmates, institutional staff, and tourists experience significantly different meanings associated with prison tours. While most of these meanings are in conflict, some are shared among all actors (See Table 1). The zoo image is shared by all, as is the crime prevention ("speak outs" for inmates and "education" for tourists) meaning. Meanings which are highly questionable as to propriety and appropriateness are found on the part of inmates (i.e., dating service, sexual harassment) and tourists (i.e., exhibitionism, moralizing). Other meanings ("indifference" and "performance" for the inmates and "social work" for the tourists) are at least minimally questionable. Interestingly, it is difficult to raise any legitimacy questions with regard to the meanings assigned to tours by institutional staff.

Prison tours are socially constructed. For the most part, the tour is constructed by the prison administration, the prison staff, and the prison inmates. Some prison tours may be construction by those requesting a tour based on their clientele and what they request. For example, the director of a juvenile delinquency program may specifically ask for a harsh prison tour, so their clientele will "see where they are headed."

As each tour is constructed, care is taken to inflect the proper meaning and response. On the prison tour of the state penitentiary for college students, the tour guide makes the students stand in complete silence in the "death chamber" for an extended period of time. According to the guide, "I want them to feel the gravity of what happens in that room." Such framing of the tour can produce very dramatic responses from the tour group. This same frame would not likely work—or gain the same response--from other groups, such as victims rights advocates.

We found that how well the experience is framed has a good deal to do with how well the message is received. Prison tours, as mentioned above, may be conducted by any number of staff members or correctional officers. But, a more powerful message is framed when a tour is conducted by a drill sergeant at a boot-camp facility. For example, juveniles have been made to wear prison jump suits and drilled by sergeants at the request of some tour group leaders. The image of being treated as an inmate is a powerful message for the young tourist.

Prison tours are a valuable tool for the correctional system to provide its message to those who choose to visit. Properly constructed prison tours can provide the "truth" about prison and how prisons work. One of the key tools used by prison officials to construct the proper tour is framing. The proper frame can project the needed message, although the messages are not always consistent with the interests of inmates and tourists.

Table 1. Prison actors and the meanings they assign to prison tours



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