Behind bars, behind labels: Experiences of offenders labeled mentally retarded in a prison's special treatment program

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Cultural Foundations of Education


Steven J. Taylor


Offenders, Mentally retarded, Prison, Special treatment program, Mentally ill

Subject Categories

Criminology | Education | Social and Behavioral Sciences | Sociology | Special Education and Teaching


An ongoing controversy exists regarding the sentencing of offenders with the label of mental retardation. One position represents the view that offenders considered mentally retarded should not be incarcerated. On the other hand, a contrasting position uses the principle of normalization to frame the argument that persons with the label of mental retardation should not be given different treatment once competency and culpability have been established. This study takes an in-depth look at a special treatment program for offenders labeled mentally retarded or mentally ill that operates within a medium security prison in the Southeastern region of the United States. To learn more about this specialized sentencing option, in-depth interviews, participant observation, and document reviews were conducted with the program staff, six inmates who served as informants, and prison officers.

Data was collected to address three broad questions: (1) how do prison personnel construct the meaning of mental retardation and subsequently identify some inmates as mentally retarded; (2) how does the special treatment, as defined and operationalized by staff, compare to the perspectives of the inmates in the program, and; (3) how do staff, inmates, and officers experience this sentencing option?

The screening and assessment process that labels some inmates as mentally retarded culminates in a new label, "program guy." Inmates so labeled are viewed as needing extra protection from the general prison population. Protection translates into increasing levels of segregation and, eventually, placement in a newer, more restrictive institution within the prison.


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