How to run an institution with strict discipline

Gym team in an English Borstal, 1930s.

Seamen on a ship. Soldiers in a barracks. Detainees in a prison. Juvenile offenders in a boot camp. Monks in a cloister. Students in a boarding school. Domestic servants in a home. (Employees in a company, Dogbert might add.)

Suppose you were in charge of an institution that strives for maximum discipline and obedience. Here is a list of concepts that have proven to work well.


Edwardian era residential house.
  • Let your subordinates wear uniforms. It is okay if the uniforms look somewhat ridiculous, as long as they also express strength and ability - this is important. They should be practical, comfortable, and made of good materials (strong fabrics) and if possible, higher overall quality than civilian's clothing. When deciding on uniforms, consider different weather and temperatures, different activities, indoor and outdoor requirements.
  • Let the staff wear uniforms too, or at least clothing that looks formal, dignified and emphasizes their authority.
  • Give your institution a good cause - a cause the subordinates, as well as outsiders, will tend to find worthy and agreeable. For example, education, training, self-improvement, spiritual advancement, health, security, environment protection, production of goods, etc.
  • Have a common enemy. No community can be stable without a common goal and a common enemy. The enemy can be something abstract, such as ignorance, impiety, unhealthiness, or something concrete such as the neighbor institution, a political enemy, a group of people you fear, or don't like, or the outside world.
  • Create the impression that there is a lurking danger of some kind which puts you in a state of emergency. This explains the need for stricter discipline than normal and justifies harsher punishments for wrongdoers. The danger can be anything - terrorists, criminals, pollution.
  • Have your building(s) and land as secluded as possible and surrounded by a high wall or fence. Have gates that are guarded and locked at certain times. Strangers should not be allowed to enter your institution without special permission. If you're on a ship, perfect; if you're on land, try to make it as much like a ship as possible.
  • Let your building(s) look big, impressive and clean. Architecture and appearance of a building has a great influence on the respect paid to the people within.
  • Have dormitories or cells equipped with all necessary items. Allow limited expressions of individuality.
  • Care for sufficient fresh water, light, and good food. Subordinates will accept humiliation and punishment, if they have to, much better if they are well fed.
  • Have color codes and symbols such as logos and banners.
  • Have a special greeting ritual.
  • Have slogans.
  • Teach your subordinates songs and let them sing routinely, ideally every day. It improves morale and the sense of community.
  • Have fancy words for things internal to your institution, such as ranks, buildings, rooms, items of uniform, activities, etc. This creates a sort of insider language that novices need to learn and that will promote the feeling of belonging to an elite community.
  • If after 1900, refer to force and punishment related things with nice sounding words and phrases (e.g. speak of "correction", or even better, "therapy", "help", etc.). This is particularly important whenever it is visible to the outside world. To see an example, have a look at the bright and sunny website of this modern Juvenile Detention Center. If before 1900, call a spade a spade: a punishment is a punishment, a flogging is a flogging.
  • Use formal and polite, never primitive, language. Subordinates should be given ranks and titles that sound respectable, such as "Master". Consider addressing subordinates by family names only (even if they are children). Or give them new names (as in monastic tradition) - but choose, or let them choose, respectable names.

Rules, orders and punishmentsEdit

  • Control your subordinates' time. Give them daily schedules. Have bedtimes, wake-up-times, mealtimes, training times, etc. Individual activities should be 30 to 120 minutes. Anything longer should be broken up in parts separated by short breaks and/or other activities.
  • Subordinates should be supervised at all times. Ideally, any of their activities, when completed, should be checked and inspected. This humiliates them and also ensures they will give their best. It also gives you (or your staff) a chance to punish them for poor performance.
  • There should be 3-4 hours of explicit and scheduled leisure time every day during which the subordinates are allowed to relax, play, read, have fun, etc. within certain defined limits (as to permitted places and activities). Give special permissions for these time periods.
  • Have clear and simple rules. The rules should be in writing so all subordinates and staff can refer to them and there will be no disagreement or confusion. Important: the rules should be agreeable for everyone and not overly strict.
  • The "list of punishable offenses" should include both real crimes as well as minor discipline infractions. For example, stealing, vandalism, lying, disobedience, disrespect. This blurs the line between major and minor offenses and allows you to punish the latter with the same justification.
  • Make cleanliness a main duty. This inludes personal hygiene, cleanness of items of uniform, and of the sleeping, washing, training, and working facilities. Schedule times for cleaning every day and have inspections afterwards.
  • Control your subordinates physically by letting them stand, sit, walk, etc. in prescribed poses. Define "wrong" ways of sitting, standing, etc. Teach them there is strength in discipline. Let them mistake discipline for self-discipline.
  • Give orders routinely, including things that are matters of cause and activities that are pleasant. For example, on a rainy day, give the order to put on boots and raincoats. On returning after heavy exercise, give the order to shower. 95 percent of every day's orders should be matters of course - predictable and agreeable.
  • Give a lot of explicit permissions. This balances the strictness of your institution, and at the same time the fact that there is an explicit permission makes clear that these things are not rights but privileges, and not to be taken for granted.
  • Turn rights into privileges. Almost anything can be called and defined a "privilege", and temporarily revoked for punishment.
  • Let your subordinates' only responsibility be obedience. Free them them from the burdens and responsibilities that come with decision-making. Train them to be like machines or dogs, praise and reward them for being ready to jump at your command.
  • Teach your subordinates to always report anything that is wrong to their superiors. Emphasize the fact that reporting can free them from being blamed and punished for it. Reporting moves responsibility to the higher rank.
  • From the first day, establish punishments for breaking rules. However, novices should be initially punished very mildly: almost ridiculously light, but with the formality of a serious punishment. This makes the fact that there are punishments acceptable for novices, and creates the impression that the institution is strict, but this is not as bad as feared. Increase the punishments very gradually over the next weeks, not too fast.

Personal orders and controlEdit

  • You and your staff should be verbally superior to your subordinates. Use complicated grammatical structures and unusual vocabulary (correctly!) as much as possible. Don't hesitate to use words and phrases your subordinates will have difficulty understanding. This humbles them and gives them a feeling of inferiority.
  • When giving orders, try stringing two or three instructions together whenever possible. For example, "Take off your shoes and put them next to the door, then come back here and return to your position, hands on your back." The subordinate has to concentrate on remembering two or three things to do, which usually results in better obedience and less hesitation.
  • There are two grammatical ways to verbalize an order. a) Imperative. Example: "Put your hands on your head. Turn around and place your legs apart." b) Future tense. Example: "You will report to my study downstairs at precisely half past six." The second choice, "you will", is good for orders that extend into the future. It comes with higher authority than imperative.
  • Always think and plan one step ahead. Don't give away your plans; keep the subordinate(s) in uncertainty what will precisely happen. Knowledge is power.
  • Punishment will require extra time, place and resources, so plan and prepare for it, and communicate schedule changes to all staff who has to know about it.

The point of this articleEdit

This article is not intended for real life institutions (although many of them, in fact, employ these and similar concepts). Use it for any purpose you like. For example,