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Sykes Deprivation Model

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Sykes Deprivation Model

One of the core themes of prison life is the aggression and violence that surrounds it. Despite the reality, prison is portrayed as a place to be feared and where aggression and violence are rife. The media only contributes to this. Many TV TV shows and films perpetuate the idea of gang life and criminal behaviour in the prison environment, but this is contrary to the goals of the prison system.

However, we must ask ourselves why aggression is associated with prison in the first place. Is it because of the prisoners themselves? Or do prison grounds breed this behaviour due to the nature of the punishment? Sykes’ deprivation model addresses this question. The situational approach sees the problem in the situation, i.e., in prison.

In psychology, we distinguish importation and deprivation models of imprisonment and an interactions model, which we will dissect in this article.

Sykes Deprivation Model Prisoner in jail Pains of imprisonment meaning StudySmarterPrisoner in jail, Flaticon

What is the deprivation model?

The deprivation model explains aggression in prisons. Gresham Sykes developed it in his 1958 book ‘The Society of Captives’.

Sykes’ model assumes that aggression is situational; it arises from external circumstances rather than internal factors. The model proposes five pains of imprisonment, i.e., types of deprivations that produce aggressive feelings and behaviours in prison inmates.

Five types of deprivation meaning

Sykes model proposes that aggression in prison inmates occurs due to multiple environmental factors. The five types of deprivation that Sykes describes are as follows:

  • Deprivation of liberty.
    • The deprivation of liberty describes how inmates lose many personal freedoms when imprisoned, such as choosing when to eat, bathe, sleep and wake up.
  • Deprivation of autonomy
    • The deprivation of autonomy describes how prisoners are given scarce choices in their day-to-day life. Prison staff almost entirely control their lives, leading to feelings of helplessness.
  • Deprivation of goods/services.
    • The deprivation of goods and services describes how inmates cannot access many of the goods and services they would enjoy in the outside world, such as their favourite food or smoking.
  • Deprivation of heterosexual intimacy.

    • The deprivation of heterosexual intimacy describes how heterosexual inmates are mostly cannot continue or begin relationships or experience intimacy with their preferred gendered partner, leading to feelings of low self-worth, especially in male inmates.

  • Deprivation of security.

    • The deprivation of security describes how inmates may feel unsafe or that their safety is threatened whilst in prison.

These are the ‘pains of imprisonment’.

Sykes states these deprivations lead to many negative feelings such as helplessness and low-self worth, leading to aggression.

Sykes Deprivation Model Prison deprivation StudySmarterPrison deprivation, Pixabay

Deprivation model examples

The deprivation model shows how these situational factors can affect the likelihood of exhibiting aggression. Here are some deprivation model examples of how you can see this:

An inmate who is usually independent on the outside has difficulty adjusting to the structure of his days in prison, causing him to feel frustrated and more likely to act aggressively.

On her first day in prison, an inmate sees a fight and shares a cell with the fight’s instigator, who physically intimidates her. She feels unsafe and may show aggression so that her new cellmate will not so easily attack her.

Evidence for the deprivation model

What evidence can we find for the Sykes deprivation model in psychological research?

Steiner (2009)

A 2009 study by Benjamin Steiner investigated the deprivation model. In the study, he found that inmate-on-inmate aggression increased when there were more female staff on shift and when there was overcrowding, supporting the idea that situational factors increase aggression.

Mergargee (1976)

For three years, researchers observed young offenders in American prisons. They found that the more living space the inmates had, the less aggressive they became. This finding supports the deprivation model, as small living spaces can contribute to the deprivation of autonomy and security. This finding also supports the idea that situational factors cause aggression.

Strengths of the deprivation model

There are a few strengths to this theory.

Lots of research evidence

Studies like Steiner’s and Mergargee’s help show how effective this model is at explaining aggression and the role of situational factors in aggression. Another study by Mark Cunningham (2010) also found similar results to Steiner, further supporting the theory. Their findings suggest this model is a reliable explanation for aggression in prison inmates.

Useful applications

Another strength of this is that it is easy to use to implement strategies to lower aggression and violence in prisons.

For example, allowing prisoners more personal freedoms such as choosing what time they’d like to have breakfast out of a few options may help reduce their feelings of deprivation of autonomy and, therefore, reduce their likelihood of behaving aggressively.

This example indicates that this research has practical, real-life applications that benefit inmates and broader society.

Weaknesses of the deprivation model

Similarly, the theory also has its weaknesses.

Contradictory research

Despite a lot of supporting evidence, research also challenges the deprivation model. For example, a study by Hensley et al. (2002) found that when prisoners were allowed conjugal visits to still have intimacy with their partners, it did not affect levels of aggression.

Ignores biological factors

Another weakness of this model is that it ignores any biological factors and their influence on aggression, such as testosterone levels (which have been found to increase aggression, Batrinos, 2012). It also ignores mental health conditions (Alcorn et al., 2013), such as antisocial personality disorder, which has also been shown to increase aggressive behaviour in some individuals. The importation model (Irwin and Cressey, 1962) explores these dispositional factors of aggression that challenge the deprivation model.

Deprivation model vs importation model

In a sense, the import model is the opposite of the deprivation model. Irwin and Cressey (1962) argued that the internal characteristics of the prisoners in question are brought into prison with them because they come from a violent/criminal background, as opposed to arguing that the confinement of prison produces violent/criminal behaviour through deprivation.

  • According to Irwin and Cressey (1962), the deprivation model places far too much emphasis on the deprivation of pleasures and the sole influence of confinement.
  • The importation model also emphasises the narrow view of the deprivation model and asserts that the deprivation model does not correctly explain the factors outside the prison situation that contribute to violent behaviour. It also highlights the problems with the model’s failure to account for past experiences or future experiences when the individual’s situation has changed.

  • As we may know, prisoners often have contacts inside and outside their environment, contributing to their behaviour and access to specific situations or opportunities.

Thus, the importation model builds on the deprivation model by acknowledging the factors the deprivation model does not mention and expanding on the factors that influence behaviour in a prison setting.

The interactionist model

The interactionist model combines the approaches of both the deprivation model and importation model, rather than viewing them as competing ideas. This model suggests that a combination of dispositional (personality) and situational factors contribute to whether someone acts aggressively.

This model takes a more holistic approach as it considers multiple factors contributing to aggression. Humans are complex beings, so it is reductionist to explain behaviour by only viewing one explanation for inmates’ aggression.

Jiang and Fisher-Giorlando (2002) suggest that both factors affect different types of aggression. They suggested that dispositional factors better explain aggression amongst inmates, while situational factors better explain inmates’ aggression toward prison staff, such as guards.

Dobbs and Waid (2004) suggest an alternative interactionist perspective. They argue that all inmates will experience some form of deprivation when they enter prison, and whether or not these situational factors cause them to become aggressive is based on already present dispositional factors.


Sykes Deprivation Model - Key takeaways

  • The deprivation model explains aggression within prisons, developed by Gresham Sykes in his 1958 book ‘The Society of Captives.’
  • Sykes suggests that aggression is situational; it occurs due to external circumstances rather than internal factors.
  • The five types of deprivation Sykes describes are deprivation of autonomy, liberty, goods/services, heterosexual intimacy, and security.
  • Sykes states these deprivations lead to many negative feelings, such as helplessness and low-self worth, which can, in turn, lead to aggression. They are known as the pains of imprisonment.
  • Steiner (2009) investigated the deprivation model. The study found that inmate-on-inmate aggression increased when more female staff were on shift and overcrowding, supporting the idea that situational factors increase aggression.
  • A weakness of this model is that it ignores any biological factors and their influence on aggression, such as testosterone levels (which have been found to increase aggression).

Frequently Asked Questions about Sykes Deprivation Model

The deprivation model explains aggression within prisons, developed by Gresham Sykes in his 1958 book ‘The Society of Captives’. Sykes suggests that aggression is situational; it occurs due to external circumstances rather than internal factors.

The deprivation model explains aggression within prisons, developed by Gresham Sykes in his 1958 book  ‘The Society of Captives’. Sykes suggests that aggression is situational; it occurs due to external circumstances rather than internal factors.

The five types of deprivation that Sykes describes are as follows:


  1. Deprivation of liberty.
  2. Deprivation of autonomy.
  3. Deprivation of goods/services.
  4. Deprivation of heterosexual intimacy.
  5. Deprivation of security.

The model suggests five pains of imprisonment, which are types of deprivation that cause aggressive feelings and behaviour in prison inmates.

Final Sykes Deprivation Model Quiz

Question

What does the deprivation method aim to explain?

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Answer

Aggression within prisons.

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Question

Who developed the deprivation model?

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Answer

Gresham Sykes.

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Question

What type of factors does Sykes suggest explains aggression?

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Answer

Situational.

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Question

How many ‘pains of imprisonment’ does Sykes mention?

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Answer

Five.

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Question

What are the five deprivations/pains of imprisonment?

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Answer

Autonomy, liberty, heterosexual intimacy, goods/services and security.

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Question

What is an example of deprivation causing aggression?

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Answer

An inmate who usually is independent on the outside has difficulty adjusting to the structure of his days in prison, causing him to feel frustrated and making him more likely to act aggressively.

Show question

Question

What is an example of a study supporting the deprivation model?

Show answer

Answer

A 2009 study by Benjamin Steiner investigated the deprivation model. The study found that inmate-on-inmate aggression increased when there were more female staff on shift and overcrowding, supporting the idea that situational factors increase aggression.

Show question

Question

What is an example of a study refuting the deprivation model?

Show answer

Answer

A study by Hensley et al. in 2002 found that when prisoners were allowed conjugal visits to still have intimacy with their partners, this did not affect levels of aggression.

Show question

Question

What is the interactionist model?

Show answer

Answer

The interactionist model combines the approaches of both the deprivation model and importation model, rather than viewing them as competing ideas. This model suggests that a combination of dispositional (personality) and situational factors contribute to whether someone acts aggressively.

Show question

Question

What is deprivation of liberty?

Show answer

Answer

It refers to how inmates lose many personal freedoms when imprisoned, such as choosing when to eat, bathe, sleep, and wake up.

Show question

Question

What is deprivation of autonomy?

Show answer

Answer

It refers to how prisoners are given scarce choices in their day-to-day life and are controlled almost completely by prison staff, leading to feelings of helplessness.

Show question

Question

What is deprivation of goods and services?

Show answer

Answer

It refers to how inmates cannot access many of the goods and services they would enjoy in the outside world, such as their favourite food or smoking.

Show question

Question

What is deprivation of heterosexual intimacy?

Show answer

Answer

It refers to how heterosexual inmates mostly cannot continue or begin relationships or experience intimacy with their preferred gendered partner, leading to feelings of low self-worth, especially in male inmates.

Show question

Question

What is deprivation of security?

Show answer

Answer

It refers to how inmates may feel unsafe or that their safety is threatened whilst in prison.

Show question

Question

How do deprivations affect aggression?

Show answer

Answer

Sykes states these deprivations lead to many negative feelings, such as helplessness and low-self worth, which can, in turn, lead to aggression.

Show question

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