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Ruling by Favors: Prison Guards' Informal Exercise of Institutional Control


Alexander Z. Ibsen is currently pursuing a PhD in sociology at the University of Arizona. The author is indebted to Jane Zavisca for her help with writing an application with sufficient persuasion to convince the naturally suspicious prison management of the merits of the project and to gain approval for the project from the Institutional Review Board at the University of Arizona (Project No. 07-0919-02). The article has benefited greatly from the comments of Jeffrey Sallaz, Elin Gustavsen, and Gary Adler, as well as from the helpful suggestions of four anonymous reviewers. The author's gratitude goes out to them for giving him their time and to the Norwegian guards and inmates for giving theirs. Please address all correspondence to


This ethnographic research addresses the control strategies employed by Norwegian guards in everyday interactions with inmates under institutional conditions in which the use of official negative sanctions is restricted. The article explains how a complicated informal system of favors develops that forms a new basis for punishment through the withdrawal of rewards. By distributing favors liberally, giving an inmate only what he is entitled to serves as a substitute for negative sanctions. Inmates are not opposing the informal system, and its effect on ensuring institutional control does not challenge the intentions of formal prison rules. Still, the informal system must be monitored and protected against overuse by inmates and must also be kept hidden from the officials making up the prison administration who oppose all departures from the official rules.