For prisoners, marketplace ingenuity a matter of self-worth

Ronald Paul HIll, of Villanova University, speaks to members of the Fordham University marketing faculty.

Ronald Paul Hill of Villanova University speaks to members of the Fordham University marketing faculty about his prison-based research.

By Bailey Link

In maximum-security prisons, a highly constrained marketplace develops that is very different from the one that we are accustomed to in outside world.

Visiting researcher Ronald Paul Hill, who presented his work at the Gabelli School’s Marketing Area Distinguished Speaker Series, experienced this alternative marketplace firsthand when he conducted a research project that entailed visiting a maximum-security prison one day a week for 18 months.

His talk at Fordham was titled, “Dehumanization and Restriction Inside a Maximum Security Prison: Novel Insights about Consumer Acquisition and Ownership.”

Through his study, Hill discovered the degree of resource limitations that prison inmates confront. He also assessed the dehumanizing effects that result when a person is stripped of all possessions, including his or her own name. The prisoners either became increasingly angry about their situation — or looked for entrepreneurial ways to make the most of it.

Hill said many of the men were very intelligent and resourceful. He offered an example: A prisoner offered that if Hill wanted a Twinkie delivered to him during a prison visit, he could make that happen. He presented Hill with one the very next week.

For those men who find clever ways to “make it” despite their restricted circumstances, the prison marketplace represents far more than its pipeline of goods and services. According to Hill, it is a form of “restoration of the self, and returning to a state of personally fulfilling the self.”

That is why Hill’s group from Villanova University taught marketing courses to the inmates. The professor witnessed just how capable most of the men actually were. Despite their low social status, they have far more self-worth and are beginning to become more aware of it.

Hill is the Richard J. and Barbara Naclerio Endowed Chair at Villanova School of Business and former senior associate dean of intellectual strategy. He has authored nearly 200 journal articles, books, and papers on topics such as restricted consumer behavior, marketing ethics, corporate social responsibility, and public policy.

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