Date of Award

December 2012

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

J. Patrick Gray

Committee Members

Alan Aycock, Thomas Malaby, Fred Anapol, Marcus Britton


African American Men, Culture, Honor, Identity, Narrative, Prisoners


Prior research on offender narratives has not examined culture as a factor in how prisoners explain their crimes. This qualitative ethnographic research project explores the self-constructions of African American male prisoners using both participant observation with active gang members on the street and discourse analysis of over 300 letters written by incarcerated men. Focusing primarily on six prisoner consultants, this study investigates the claims that offenders make about themselves in reference to their identity. These convicted felons justify their crimes as rational under the circumstances prevalent in segregated inner cities. In reference to economic crimes such as drug dealing and armed robbery, they claim that acquired illegal money makes them feel like independent adults who can take care of themselves, as well as support their friends and family members. The money increases their respect from other men and their popularity with women. In addition, the men claim that they are following the principles of their unique subcultural moral codes which focus on masculine constructions of respect and honor. As well as their public presentations of powerful masculine selves, the offenders also claim to acquire significant aspects of their identity through (attempted) close relationships with female partners, although these bonds are frequently fragile and confusing. The men also struggle to maintain cherished bonds with their natal families and their own young children during their incarcerations. On the street and while imprisoned, the men suffer from substantial emotional losses which include both the breakdown of trust and alienation in relationships with women, as well as frequent elimination of close relationships with male friends and family members due to their violent deaths. African American male offenders exhibit complex multiple selves which are inconsistent and context-dependent, but which are also significantly interdependent with those around them.