Remember the scene in the movie Office Space, when software workers Michael Bolton and Samir discuss the possibility of going to prison for stealing from their soulless employer? "We get caught laundering money, we're not going to white-collar resort prison. No, no, no. We're going to federal pound-me-in-the-[expletive] prison," Michael says. "I don't want to go to ANY prison!" a panicked Samir replies.
Part of the reason that scene was funny was because it reflects a common perception in American culture that white collar criminals can't handle life behind bars. Criminologists call it the "special sensitivity hypothesis." Defense attorneys often cite it as a mitigating circumstance when asking for lighter sentences for white collar clients.
But according to researchers at the University of Cincinnati and the University of Missouri, "special sensitivity" may not actually exist. In the forthcoming December 2013 issue of Justice Quarterly, UC's Michael Benson and his co-researchers argue that white collar offenders adapt to prison just as well as other types of offenders, and in some categories, do even better. They based their study on surveys conducted at the medium security federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, and the adjoining minimum security work camp.
"We’re not arguing with this paper that white collar offenders aren’t affected by the prison experience," Benson told me over the phone. "What our main point is is that they’re not affected any more negatively than anybody else. They have roughly the same number of problems and the same issues, and in some categories do fare better."
You can see in the below chart how white collar offenders compare to the other types of offenders also housed in Terre Haute:
There are a few caveats here: The data Benson et al. are using was collected between 1986-1988. Since then, the U.S. prison population has exploded, leading to overcrowding. Parole at the federal level has been revoked, meaning federal prisoners now serve most of their sentences. And new mandatory minimum sentences have been created for a number of offenses, including white collar ones.
Yet Benson doubts the data is out of date. "In order to say things would be different now, either that the nature of offenders would have to have changed, or the federal prison system has to have gotten a whole lot worse," Benson told me. "We don’t think white collar offenders themselves have changed in the intervening twenty years. It is true that the federal prison system has gotten larger, but we don’t know that they’ve gotten any worse."
"We’re not saying you could take Bernie Madoff and put him in a place you see on TV and he’d survive," Benson adds, noting that his study relies on surveys conducted at a prison where violent/sex offenders made up only 6.6 percent of the population.
There's also a theory as to why white collar offenders are better at making friends and why they have fewer conflicts with cell mates.
"Prisons are bureaucracies that have rules and regulations," Benson says. "People from middle class and white collar backgrounds understand rules and bureaucracies. I did an interview for my dissertations where I talked to a small number of white collar offenders. Before they went they were scared to death. They imagined all these bad things happening. Once they get there, after the initial shock passed, they realized it’s just a big organization. Follow the rules, be polite to people, don’t go outside your space, and you’ll be fine."
Recognizing that things may have changed in the federal prison system, and changed drastically, Benson says he and his colleagues hope to conduct a more contemporary study.
"We’d like to do a study where we actually go in to federal prison and interview people as they enter the system, then go back six months later or a year later and interview them again. You want to talk to people after they’ve been there a while."