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The mob mentality
By Tracy E. Barnhart
Published: 07/28/2008

Tracy Barnhart is a Marine combat veteran of Desert Storm / Desert Shield. In 2000, he joined the Ohio Department of Youth Services at the Marion Juvenile Corrections Facility, a maximum security male correctional facility housing more than 320 offenders. Barnhart works with 16 to 21-year-old, male offenders with violent criminal convictions and aggressive natures. In his monthly column, he discusses everyday issues affecting corrections professionals.

One doesn't have to look far to find the destructive side of the mob mentality. In fact, your head would have to be buried in the sand to miss it.

There have been Ku Klux Klan lynchings, soccer-stadium trampling, Woodstock II, and the L.A. riots. Clearly, mobs have great potential for doing harm, especially within our institutions.

This may be one of the best reasons for individuals to join a prison gang once they’re incarcerated. The first impression and vision of prison to most people is a scary mental picture establishing fear. Most people in a state of fear tend to congregate together for protection and security, hence the prison gang.

Imagine that you are the new stepping onto the yard for the first time. Where do you go? With whom do you align? Naturally, you would congregate and align with individuals whom you feel are like yourself.

Why do individuals join a prison gang in the first place? The bottom line is for the feeling of security and friendship.

Have you ever heard someone say, “These inmates act like animals?” Understanding how gangs establish a stronghold in our prisons you must first understand the inmate mindset and subculture.

We have to confess that we are more like our animal counterparts than we want to admit. Take wolves in particular.

They have developed this mentality for better survival by living, hunting, and traveling in packs. Packs are organized systems of usually familial communities in which each wolf has a specific role or rank. There are usually between 12 to 20 wolves in a pack. The hierarchy of the pack is known to all the wolves, and is reinforced by nips, fights, and favors.

Working with those who desire the violent criminal lifestyle, the wolf analogy is the most reasonable parable. Being a member of the pack helps wolves, and inmates, survive because pack hunting is more efficient than hunting as an individual; packs can kill a larger prey when they hunt together, and they can protect each other better

Wolves are extremely social creatures, so organizing into packs seems the natural thing to do. There are, however, wolves that leave the pack, and those that have never been in a pack.

They wander the outskirts of other packs' territories, and have to be very careful when entering another pack's domain.

These wolves may have chosen to live alone because of harassment from their former pack, from not being accepted, or just from lack of interest. They have no one under them and may be harassed to the point where they disperse, or leave the pack.

If the "lone wolf" is lucky and finds friends, it will usually start a pack of his own. Protection from a pack, however, may also serve as motivation to perform criminal assignments to prevent from being kicked out and left vulnerable and alone.

Within our prison systems the subcultures will constantly demonstrate to each other their rank much like a wolf pack. When two wolves in the pack encounter one another, the higher-ranking one will show confidence, aggression, and power by raising its tail, putting its ears facing forward and snarling, making itself look as big and threatening as possible.

Wolves will defend their pack's territory. The pack works as a team to harass larger animals and outsiders, ensuring that no harm can come to them.

There is little benefit to inmates to befriend or align themselves with officers as they are generally outnumbered. Any prison can be taken over by the inmates, but they all can be taken back. Inmates know this so generally their criminal activities revolve around manipulations and deception.

The term “mob mentality” refers to unique behavioral characteristics that emerge when people are in large groups. It is sometimes used disparagingly, as the term “mob” typically conjures up an image of a disorganized, aggressive, panicked group of people.

Social psychologists that study group behaviors tend to prefer terms like “herd behavior” or “crowd hysteria.” The study of mob mentality is quite fascinating, and it is used to analyze situations that range from evacuations gone awry to the moment when demonstrations turn violent.

Understanding the inmate subculture and knowing that it’s a mentality of “them against us” will keep you one step ahead of the inmate mob.

However, “mob mentality” is about more than just crowds that have gotten out of control. Psychology experts are very interested in how human behavior change in response to new social situations. People behave very differently in small groups compared to what they do in big crowds, and their behavior in crowds is affected by a wide variety of factors.

An inmate may talk to you openly and sociable when alone. Place him in the middle of his peers, though, and he turns into Doctor Jekyll. Inmates will be more aggressive and violent when the anonymity of the mob is in effect.

In prison settings, inmates want to remain anonymous in their criminal thinking and acts. Therefore, attacks and large-scale riots involving a large number of inmates will, in their minds, mask their actions through the anonymity of the “mob.”

Many inmates will be pressured or coerced, even threatened, to join to bolster the gang numbers. There is strength, security and power in numbers. When the number of your gang members far outnumbers your rival’s, attitudes tend to change and your propensity toward greater violence will be enhanced.

Within our institutions we see this type of pack mentality daily. They group up for a sense of security and stability far more secure than we as officers could ever provide.

Institutions with poorer security and stability will see a higher rate of gang infestation. If you do not provide inmates with a sense of safety, security and consistency they will create it on their own.

Think about it; are we really so much different from our animal counterparts? Most of our human macho posturing is seen in the animal world between the alpha male and a young male attempting to assert his dominance.

So, when you hear that comment about acting like animals say to yourself, “in a sense we are all are.”

Other articles by Barnhart:

Understanding, anticipating and controlling fear The makings of a warrior


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