The state of the job: An embedded work role perspective on prison officer attitudes

Amy E. Lerman, Joshua Page

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

31 Scopus citations


Although the United States has grown increasingly punitive in the last three decades, there is considerable variation across states. On a variety of indicators, California is much more punitive than Minnesota. Using data from two original, large-N surveys, we analyze whether these differences in the orientations of state correctional systems are reflected in the attitudes of workers who are tasked with the day-to-day oversight of state prisons. With respect to the purpose of imprisonment, we find that California prison officers are significantly more punitive than those in Minnesota. In contrast, officers in each state express similar levels of support for basic rehabilitation programs. Based on these findings, we propose an embedded work role perspective, which posits that officers across states reflect a shared position within the prison organization, but that the prisons in which they work are embedded in broader penal and political environments that predict differences in attitudes across state contexts. This conceptualization of prison officer orientations has implications for policymakers, prison administrators, and scholars concerned with the politics and practice of work and incarceration.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)503-529
Number of pages27
JournalPunishment and Society
Issue number5
StatePublished - Dec 2012

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Thanks are due to the following organizations for their financial support: the Survey Research Center, Institute of Governmental Studies, IGERT Program, Goldman School of Public Policy, and Graduate Division at the University of California, Berkeley; the Center for Evidence-Based Corrections at the University of California, Irvine; the Fox Leadership Center at the University of Pennsylvania; the National Science Foundation; and the Life Course Center and College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota. For their assistance in administering the CCOS, we are indebted to the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, particularly Mike Jimenez and Chuck Alexander; Jody Lewen of the Prison University Project; and Professor Henry Brady, Bob Lee, and the staff of the Survey Research Center at the University of California at Berkeley. For help administering the MNCOS, we are grateful to AFSCME Council 5. Thanks are also due to Jeannette Hussseman, Jennifer Onofrio, Lisa Steacy, and Natalie Torres for research assistance, and to Letta Page for editing. Finally, we are very much indebted to the prison officers of the CDCR and the Minnesota DOC for participating in this study.

Copyright 2012 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • imprisonment
  • prison officer
  • punitiveness
  • rehabilitation
  • work role


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