The internalization of and defiance against rules within prison: The role of correctional officers’ autonomy-supportive and controlling communication style as perceived by prisoners

  • Jolene van der Kaap-DeederEmail author
  • Elien Audenaert
  • Stijn Van Petegem
  • Stijn Vandevelde
  • Sarah Van Mastrigt
  • Nathalie Aelterman
  • Maarten Vansteenkiste
Original Paper


While incarcerated, prisoners are subject to a vast number of rules. Drawing upon self-determination theory, the present study examined whether prisoners’ perceptions of the degree to which prison officers communicate rules in an autonomy-supportive or controlling way related to prisoners’ internalization of and defiance against rules, and whether this, in turn, related to their (mal)adaptive functioning in prison. Participants were 156 Belgian prisoners (Mage = 38.60; SD = 11.68, 88.5% male) who filled out questionnaires concerning the study variables. Associations were tested using structural equation modeling. Results showed that, whereas a higher level of perceived autonomy-supportive communication style related via greater internalization of rules to prisoners’ higher quality of life, a perceived controlling style was positively related to aggression and irritation vis-à-vis prison officers. Additional analyses suggested that an alternative model, where prisoners’ maladaptive functioning is predictive of higher levels of perceived controlling communication, is equally valid.


Rules Autonomy support Control Internalization Prisoners 



We would like to thank the prison staff, both national and local directors, prison guards and social services, who assisted us in the recruitment of participants and the data collection. We are also thankful to the prisoners who participated in this study.


Preparation of this paper was supported by Grant 12X5818N of the Research Foundation – Flanders.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. This article does not contain any studies with animals performed by any of the authors.

Informed consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Psychology, Department of Developmental, Social, and Personality PsychologyGhent UniversityGhentBelgium
  2. 2.Psychosocial Service UnitPrison of AntwerpAntwerpBelgium
  3. 3.Family and Development Research Centre, Institute of PsychologyUniversity of LausanneLausanneSwitzerland
  4. 4.Department of Special Needs EducationGhent UniversityGhentBelgium
  5. 5.Department of Psychology and Behavioural SciencesAarhus UniversityAarhusDenmark

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