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Disciplines > Sociology > Articles > Institutionalization

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Institutionalization is an often-deliberate process whereby a person entering the institution is reprogrammed to accept and conform to strict controls that enables the institution to manage a large number of people with a minimum of necessary staff.

Depersonalize from the beginning

The process of denying the person their old identity starts when the inmate enters the door, including weighing, photographing, fingerprinting, searching, bathing, disinfecting, removal of personal possessions and dressing in undifferentiated clothing.

Force a break with the outer world

Separate the person from the external world. Deny them visitors. Force them to face into the institution rather than hanker after external contact. Allow visitors only as a reward for acceptance of institutional rules. After a visit, watch how they behave carefully and only allow subsequent visits if they show no signs of rejecting the institution.

Force obedience

Unquestioning obedience is forced by harsh punishment, both psychological and physical. The person may be required to 'willingly' engage in humiliating acts. There may be deliberate 'will-breaking' activities, typically as a part of the 'welcoming' initiation rites.

Destroy the self

Forcing obedience acts to destroy self-determination. This may be continued to the point where the inmate does not even know who he or she is. Attacking them with verbal abuse continues to erode their sense of an integrated self. Giving them menial tasks show them as inferior.

A simple and powerful method is to deny them even their name, reducing them to a number. Everything that they possess, even bedding, may be regularly changed, so they cannot even form attachments to inanimate objects.

Physically assault them

Physical handling, defacing them with tattoos, shock therapy and more teaches them that not even their bodies are sacred and are under the control of the institution.

Control every aspect of their lives

Controlling every element of their lives takes away their ability to decide. When they speak, how they eat, how and when they use the toilet, may all be controlled. What they do, including the repetition of futile and useless work is dictated to them.


Many institutions, from prisons to monasteries to asylums, deliberately want to control and manage their inmates such that they conform and do not cause problems. Even in less harsh environments, many of the institutionalization methods may be found, albeit in more moderated form (although the psychological effect can be equally devastating).

The model of outer and inner worlds mirrors the individual's outer and inner world. The institution needs to create inner models where the institution is introjected as accepted normality and the outside the institution is projected as a bad object.

The process of institutionalization is complete when the inmate fears and rejects the outside world, feeling at home only within the institution. Of course this brings another problem when the inmate leaves, but this may not be the concern of the institution, although it may have a period before release in which it seeks to de-institutionalize the inmate.

See also

Conversion techniques, Interrogation

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