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Prisoner Misbehavior: Ramifications for Corrections

By Paul Eyke M.S.

Psychologist

 

 

These are the opinions of Paul Eyke and not necessarily those of the Michigan Department of Corrections.  The department is not responsible for the content or accuracy of the following.

 

 

 

Correctional systems since their inception have been tasked with the responsibility of “rehabilitating” inmates who were in their charge. There have been periods of enlightened correctional thinking in which inmates were provided with educational and vocational training in order to better prepare them for life after they left prison. The thinking at the time was that the reason that inmates engaged in criminal behavior in the first place was due to some disadvantage that they had experienced and if they were only better educated or had more vocational skills they would gladly give up their life of crime. Still others believed that criminals must have been abused as children and if they were provided with appropriate psychological counseling, then their neurosis would be ameliorated and they once again would gladly give up their criminal ways.  Unfortunately, recidivism rates still were high with supposedly rehabilitated inmates and there came a shift in attitude around the 1970’s in which many correctional systems threw up their hands and said that nothing works. Indeed, it became a difficult position to defend to say that inmates should be able to obtain a college education at state expense while the law abiding public still had to pay for theirs.  Correctional systems are now routinely criticized for “warehousing” prisoners and doing little to help inmates make the transition back to life in the world.

 

It is true that there has been a considerable shift in emphasis for many state governments tasked with incarcerating convicted felons. Prison populations exploded during the 1980’s and 1990’s due to considerable political pressure to get tough on crime as the crack cocaine epidemic spread through out the nation’s cities and street wars erupted to control the lucrative trade. In addition, liberal parole policies often times ended up coming back to haunt correctional systems due to highly publicized criminal acts perpetrated by paroled felons. States such as Michigan passed, via referendum, laws that limited “good time” credits that allowed inmates to shave years off of their sentences despite having committed violent offenses. California in a similar manner passed the “Three Strikes” law that mandated a life sentence for anyone convicted of their third felony. The end result of this was bloated prison populations that came with massive budgets that states were forced to pay due to laws mandating that they would. Running correctional systems also became more expensive due to court mandates regarding conditions under which inmates could be confined and due to spiraling wage costs associated with the strengthening of unions that represented correctional staff.

 

With the recent economic downturn, state revenues have fallen significantly and states are being forced to downsize their correctional systems unless they wish to pare the budgets of other interested groups such as social services or education. This can be politically untenable as politicians run the risk of being criticized for spending more on corrections then education or helping to feed the poor. An argument always ensues over how to best spend dwindling resources and what the responsibilities of government should be. As a point of fact, state and federal governmental entities are the only ones vested with the authority to enact laws, provide due process for those accused of breaking them and then to exact a punishment such as incarceration. 

 

It is important to understand why governments and the tax payers who provide them with monies to support their activities have to bear this burden. A reasonable question would be “why incarcerate anyone at all?” With the amount of money that could be saved many other programs could be more adequately funded improving the conditions of all interested parties. However, given the tendency of some to engage in behavior that is a significant detriment to the society at large, it remains almost imperative that a mechanism be in place that would allow them to be removed from our presence in a manner that would not involve ending their life. Indeed, it is the sanctity of life and our societal value for preservation of life that makes it necessary to find some other way to deal with individuals who engage in behavior that either offends the conscience (things that are wrong in of themselves) or violates laws that forbid the practice (wrong because they are prohibited). Murder, rape, pillaging, looting and robbing are all things that are wrong in of themselves and most well socialized people would never even consider engaging in this type of activity. We are also prohibited from engaging in other activities such as selling drugs or failing to pay our taxes. In order to deter people from engaging in the activity, there has to be some form of a consequence for choosing to do it. As a matter of fact, it has been said that fear of consequences is the foundation of all morality. Hellfire and brimstone have been preached from the pulpit for time immemorial as a way of convincing the faithful that they should live a righteous life.

 

And so it is with the rearing of children. Children have to be provided with “good” role models and loving but firm parents who set rules, expectations, obligations and the like in order for children to become well socialized. As a matter of fact, there are critical periods in a child’s development where certain developmental milestones must be achieved otherwise the window of development closes and the child has considerable difficulty being able to achieve those milestones later in life. When we are born, our brain is not fully developed and there is considerable brain development during the first five to ten years of life. Neuronal pathways must be laid down and the development of these pathways are dependent upon a variety of factors such as adequate nutrition and experiences that teach us skills that we need to know in order to survive. A good example of how this works is the example provided by cataracts that developed in utero. There was a time when medical science had not learned how to remove cataracts but when this skill was developed, it was thought that by simply removing the cataracts from the eyes of individuals who had been born with them, they would be able to see. Unfortunately, these individuals remained blind. The reason being was that the occipital cortex which is responsible for the processing of visual stimuli, had never been stimulated during the critical developmental phase and the window closed leaving the individual blind. The plasticity of the brain, which is fluid and dynamic during childhood becomes less so as we age and therefore the ability to develop certain skills such as the acquisition of language, the ability to see, read, walk and to develop gross motor coordination becomes impaired. Another good example would be the starting of children as young as five in the sport of gymnastics. Teach them at this age and by the time they are teenagers they are engaging in gymnastic feats that leave the rest of us breathless. An untrained adult would likely injure themselves if they tried to perform a tumbling run that most Olympic gymnasts could do in their sleep.

 

Another, equally important developmental phase is the acquisition of social skills or social intelligence. Being well socialized requires that certain experiences have happened in the individual’s life that help shape the conscience and teach the person what they need to know in order to be able to get along with other socialized creatures. Most people can remember incidents in which they were scolded or punished by their parents for engaging in some transgression as a child. These experiences are key in the development of a well socialized individual. In fact, socialization cannot occur if there is no fear of consequences. As we mature, we develop internalized rules of conduct that can be referred to as morals and ethics and the threat of external sanction becomes less important in controlling our actions. Once again, if these skills or rules of conduct are not internalized or developed by a certain age, then that developmental window closes and the individual has considerable difficulty learning them later in life.

 

Genetics also play an important part in the development of an individual. Not everyone has the genetic capacity to develop the intellect of an Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton or Stephen Hawking. There is something inherent in these individuals that allow them to pose questions regarding the nature of the universe and then be able to answer those questions. In the same fashion, not everyone has the ability to be as selfless as Mother Theresa, insightful as Mahatma Ghandi or socially courageous as Martin Luther King. In some instances the ability to be socialized at all is lacking in the genetic makeup of an individual. These individuals are commonly referred to as psychopaths and they can cut a large swath through society with their criminal behavior. 

 

Given this information, it is therefore necessary for governmental agencies to continue to incarcerate those who warrant it. Allowing individuals to escape with no consequence for their criminal actions would ultimately lead to chaos and a significant deterioration in the standard of living for everyone in society. Needless to say, criminals tend to be difficult to manage even in a correctional setting. Custody and security are the benchmarks by which correctional systems are judged these days and prison disturbances caught on tape make for entertaining television. However, most Americans do not know what goes on inside their state’s prisons and the reasons that many policies and procedures governing how the prison shall be run are in place. The reason is most often times based upon past experience that can be earned at a high cost to the governmental agency tasked with running the prison and the staff who work there. Many corrections staff and inmates have been killed or seriously injured by inmates over the years and the reason most often times can be traced back to flaws in security procedures or lapses in the same by the staff that work there. Then there are also the situations that cannot be controlled and this is the result of confining people who have little regard for others and are willing to do things that most normal well socialized people would never consider.

 

As a result, correctional systems have had to develop methods to control dangerous felons who pose a risk to institutional security and the well being of others. Not only must the staff be protected from these individuals but also other inmates who the correctional system has an obligation to protect from harm. Not all inmates are classified the same and those that are compliant with rules and pose no risk to the security of the facility or the safety of others are classified to lower security levels that typically have fewer staff,  more relaxed security procedures and more freedom of movement for the inmates. Higher security level facilities will have more staff per inmate and much more significant and elaborate security measures in order to maintain the security of the institution in the face of more dangerous inmates. Considerable attention has been paid lately to the use of segregation to control inmate behavior. Segregation involves in effect doing what the word says and that is to segregate the inmate from others. This typically means housing the inmate in a secure cell by themselves and not allowing them out of their cell unless restrained. Modern segregation is not what has been portrayed in many Hollywood movies such as the “Shawshank Redemption” in which the inmate is placed in an isolation cell with no light and only fed bread and water. Also, correctional systems have learned from past experience such as the lesson learned by the State of Pennsylvania with the system employed by Eastern State Penitentiary where inmates were deliberately isolated. The idea here is that by doing so, inmates could reflect on themselves and get closer to God. The unfortunate outcome was that this type of isolation is psychologically damaging and some inmates became insane. Correctional systems then set up institutions where dangerous inmates could be confined and controlled but did not employ the isolation that had been found to have such an adverse effect on the inmate. In this day and age, segregation prisoners have windows on to the cell block and windows to the outside and are rounded on routinely by custody staff as well as medical and mental health staff. They are provided with the opportunity to earn a TV or radio in their cell through appropriate behavior as well as library privileges and yard time in secure modules outside the housing unit. They also have access to outside publications if they have the resources to be able to subscribe to them.  They are also provided with necessary medical and mental health services at their request or upon the referral of other staff. Considerable effort and expense is expended to ensure the well being of the inmate in segregation.

 

Maximum security correctional facilities can be considered “end of the road joints” in that they are the facilities and staff who deal with the most problematic of offenders once they have wore out their welcome everywhere else. They deal with the acting out behavior of these inmates and manage them to the best of their ability. There are policies and procedures in place that dictates how disruptive inmates are to be managed and this can run the gamut from writing misconducts to restraining the inmate for a period of time. Considerable care is given to inmates who are restrained to ensure that no harm comes to them. However, there have been instances where inmates have actually died while in restraints and this can be attributable to the tendency of criminal personalities to have a reckless disregard for their own safety or well being. Inmates can develop considerable animosity towards custody staff who they may view as the enemy and their absolute unwillingness to submit to authority can lead to tragic outcomes. The most dangerous manner in which they may show disregard for their own well being is through the absolute refusal to cooperate in any manner with staff who have the well being of the inmate as their responsibility. This may include refusing to consume food or liquids or engaging in self injurious behavior. Inmates are fully aware of the potential legal ramifications that a correctional facility may be subjected to if any harm comes to them and this in essence becomes their last weapon in a struggle that they see themselves as having little chance of winning. They will make decisions that can lead to harm coming to them in the hope that they may be avenged by the same legal system that placed them in prison for their actions. Correctional staff would be wise to be mindful of this tendency on the part of the inmates that they have in their custody because in the end the inmate will be avenged by the legal system if it can be proved that staff did not take the necessary steps to ensure the well being of the inmate. Custody staff have a tendency to view inmates as being manipulative which is certainly not far from the truth and are resistant to the idea that the inmate may be able to get over on them in some way. In other words the inmate won if he is moved to another cell, another unit or to a different facility if the inmate states that as a desire and offers a possible response if he is not. This can include such things as being disruptive, destructive or in some manner self injurious. In most instances it is wise to be firm in the face of this obvious attempt at manipulation however there are instances where it is also wise to simply give the inmate what they desire in order to avoid an unfortunate outcome. In some cases the inmate may prefer death to remaining in a situation that they find intolerable and this can include simply agreeing to go along with the expectations that the facility has for them in terms of their behavior, especially if the inmate is angry over being held accountable for their behavior which is not unusual. It may be also advisable to give an inmate a break from other inmates or staff who they have developed animosity towards and to give those inmates and staff a break from that inmate.       

 

Inmates can spend a significant portion of their sentence in segregation depending upon their actions. In some instances, some inmates actually prefer the solitude of segregation to the hustle and bustle of general population settings with other inmates. There is also the issue of diminished expectations that some inmates prefer to having to be on their best behavior in general population. And then there is also the truly dangerous inmate who will often times make no bones about their intentions if they are ever released to a general population setting or continue to be disruptive and assaultive even while in segregation. There have been instances where custody staff have been stabbed through a food slot while providing meals or “dressed out” with urine and feces. Any time that one of these inmates is removed from their cell is a time of heightened alert in the unit as they can be disruptive and assaultive even while restrained and escorted by several staff.

 

The type of misconduct that segregation prisoners can engage in run the gamut from verbal abuse and threats to destroying property and being loud and disruptive to exposing themselves to staff and finding inventive ways to assault other inmates or staff. Some inmates have developed the ability to defecate on command and will throw excrement at other inmates or staff while they are out in the yard modules. Correctional facilities have developed the ability to safely remove inmates from locations that they refuse to vacate such as their cell or a yard module with teams of staff who are protected with special gear and have at their disposal the use of chemical agents that are designed to gain the compliance of the inmate. If the inmate still refuses to leave his cell, then the door is cracked and the staff rush the inmate behind a Plexiglas shield, subdue the inmate and then restrain them and remove them from the cell. The inmate is then examined by a nurse and provided with whatever is necessary to neutralize the chemical agent that had been applied before being transported to wherever it is that the staff need him to be.

 

Correctional systems have come under considerable criticism for their use of segregation which their detractors refer to as “solitary confinement”. Interested outside parties such as prisoner advocacy groups, lawyers and federal courts will attempt to modify how inmates are confined based upon their own preconceived notions about inmates and the deleterious effects of incarceration. In addition they routinely take the word of inmates with their tendency to refuse to accept accountability for their actions as being more proof that correctional systems are making monsters out of those who are incarcerated. It is important to remember that just about every correctional system in the United States has some form of higher security institution that employs segregation. As mentioned earlier this procedure has been put in place due to experience with this population that has been earned at considerable cost. Prison disturbances are nothing more than inmates testing the limits of the system that confines them and staff are routinely injured during these. If the staff lose control of the facility, then the inmates will turn their wrath on other inmates who have been deemed to be “rats” or those that are too weak to defend themselves. In 1980, over 30 inmates were killed during an uprising at the New Mexico State Penitentiary near Sante Fe. These were inmates who were in protective custody for good reason and the correctional system failed to keep them safe. The manner in which many of these inmates died could be considered to be nothing but horrific.

 

But not all of the inmates who were at the NMSP that day participated in the carnage. These were the actions of a minority of the inmates who the system was then obligated to manage lest they harm other inmates or staff or create further disturbances in the system. This is not unique to one correctional system and all are required to confine and manage the inmates in their charge. In fact, correctional systems can be held liable if they do not manage the behavior of the inmates and other inmates, staff or the public are harmed and it can be determined that the system failed to enact procedures to prevent such occurrences and had a reasonable understanding of the likelihood of it happening.

 

There have been studies that have been critical of segregation, claiming that inmates who are released to the public from segregation have a higher incidence of recidivism. This really should come as no surprise but the inference is that segregation itself is what increases the likelihood of recidivism and therefore correctional systems are somehow responsible for the behavior of the inmate once they are released. Inmates have claimed that they experience increased paranoia due to the time that they have spent in segregation and have difficulty adjusting to society where they are surrounded by so many people. They tend to feel that others are staring at them and true to form will strike out in response to this perception. Typically this is the result of anti-social projection or projecting their own anti-social impulses on to others. They believe that others think much in the same way that they do and therefore will ascribe anti-social intent where none is even thought of much less intended. They lash out due to their well rehearsed plans for dealing with others who they perceive as a threat. Additionally inmates often times will claim that they are being poisoned by the staff when they are fed their meals. Once again this is an anti-social projection in that they believe that staff must be poisoning them because that is what they would be doing to them given the opportunity. In fact, corrections staff have been poisoned by inmates who work preparing food in food services. While there may be a correlation between inmates who are released from prison directly from segregation and their increased tendency to engage in further criminal acts, anyone who has any experience with conducting research should know that correlation does not prove causation. This is an axiom that is taught to all graduate students who are in fields that routinely engage in research. Therefore it is ethically dishonest to make this claim, especially since there are alternative explanations for this. It should come as no surprise that inmates who through their actions have earned their way to segregation would recidivate at a higher rate than other inmates. The explanation is that the reason they are in segregation and their tendency to re offend are one and the same. It is due to their profound character disturbance that has made them difficult to manage in prison and likely led to their incarceration in the first place that increases their tendency to re offend. And if experience with this population has taught us nothing, it has taught us that society, correctional systems and the staff of those systems cannot care more than the inmate himself over the course that their life will take after they leave prison. Certainly, society has a vested interest in reducing recidivism and changing the life of the offender. After all, it is society that will bear the expense of the inmate’s future criminal acts through the victimization of it’s citizens and the cost of providing them with their due process and exacting some form of punishment.

 

There are many explanations for why some individuals refuse to change despite it being obvious to all concerned that they should and it would be in their best interest to do so. Quite frankly, an individual cannot take care of a problem that they do not acknowledge having. For some, there is an intuitive logic to criminal behavior. Why shouldn’t they take advantage of or prey on others for their own benefit? Asking them to not engage in criminal activity is tantamount to asking them to not do what they consider to be in their best interest. And their minds are consumed with thought patterns that are consistent with criminal behavior and inconsistent with law abiding behavior. In effect their thought patterns are habituated to thinking about criminal acts. Poorly socialized individuals have difficulty not giving in to these thought patterns and if they are sufficiently dis inhibited through the use of drugs or alcohol, then it is almost a given that they will choose to act out. When confronted about their actions and an attempt is made to hold them accountable, they will routinely refuse to accept responsibility. There are many factors that go into criminals acting on their desires and if they refuse to accept responsibility, then any hope of the individual modifying their behavior is lost. It takes a considerable amount of insight and effort to change habituated thought patterns and if there is no desire to do so, then it will not happen.

 

Inmates routinely have grievances against the correctional system that confines them. This is to be understood in situations where one individual has arbitrary and complete authority over another. Inmates can become angry and frustrated over having limits set on their behavior. Given the nature of their character, be it anti-social, narcissistic or some combination of the two, setting limits with inmates can be problematic. Some inmates routinely threaten or assault others despite the threat of immediate and significant consequences. The problem here rests with the desires of the inmates that can overwhelm any fear of consequences. If an inmate’s only reason for not re offending is that they do not want to return to prison, then they will likely be back. The reason being is that this implies that they still have the desire to engage in criminal activity but just do not want to get caught doing it. Normal, well socialized individuals have no desire to harm others or to rob and steal and therefore the threat of punishment is not what controls their behavior. It is the internal inhibitions towards that type of activity that will not allow them to engage in criminal behavior.

 

Needless to say that you give up a lot when you are incarcerated. Most of this involves the loss of freedom to do as you desire or go where you want. This can be incredibly frustrating for those who are used to being able to do as they please and go where ever they wish. For inmates who are given indeterminate sentences, or a minimum they must serve before they are eligible for parole and maximum that they potentially can serve, extricating themselves from prison can be incredibly problematic prior to their maximum discharge date if they have difficulty abiding with rules and the authority in place to enforce them. Many inmates who are serving on property offenses or drug offenses that would have been eligible for parole if they managed to avoid misconducts and keep their security level low end up maxing out on their sentences due to their difficulty making the adjustment to prison and their failure to recognize that this is not their world and that they are not allowed to do as they please. Still other inmates who are serving for sexual offenses or assaultive offenses are paroled on their earliest release date due to the fact that they have remained misconduct free and completed all the necessary programming that they were required to. This can include such things as obtaining their GED, completing therapy programs geared towards their type of offense or substance abuse programming. Inmates can also establish a work record through prison employment and learn to develop a work ethic that so many of them lack prior to coming to prison.

 

The anti social personality, those who have been misbehaving since before the age of 15 years, have a tendency to engage in behavior that would be grounds for arrest, are pathologically dishonest, have no regard for the safety of themselves or others, frequently get into fights and have little empathy towards others can be difficult to manage in a correctional setting. Given the laws in our country, which is a reflection of our values and beliefs, it is necessary to do so in a humane and as cost efficient manner as possible. The ramifications of failing to do so would have potentially serious consequences for our society.

 

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