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The Criminal Youth Inmate Subculture
By Tracy E. Barnhart
Published: 05/11/2009

Youth in rec yard 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.

When you first start working in a juvenile correctional environment, you get hit with a culture shock. You realize that the inmates are not always locked in their cells, and they get more than bread and water to eat. Your preconceived notions of what privileges inmates should and should not have are challenged. It's at this point many correctional staff asks themselves, "What have I gotten myself into?" Maybe you’ve asked yourself that today. In that case, a little understanding goes a long way in helping corrections officers keep their perspective and cool. Keeping your cool is particularly important with juvenile inmates, who, like most kids, are likely to test authority figures to the limits. Many of these kids come from extreme hardship and have seldom internalized boundaries or rules. So, in order to effectively communicate expectations in a juvenile correctional facility, we must first understand the reasons behind the aggression that is, what sets juvenile inmates off.

Youthful inmates with exposure to violence in the home or community are generally more aggressive and violent toward your institutional authority. Domestic violence in the home is really a strong risk factor that becomes the youth’s role model for problem solving. Violent role models in the home and in the streets are great indicators to how that youth will evolve and mature. Pay attention to whom the youthful inmate idolizes, such as other gang members, or has a fascination with violent behavior. Family history of criminal behavior such as their fathers, brothers, and cousins may predict future activity of the youth. If the youth grows up around criminal individuals who hate law enforcement or authority figures, they will take on that persona. Criminal parents are generally unable to teach their children right from wrong.

An incarcerated parent can be a risk factor if that parent is sending the message that criminal behavior is Okay. A lot of these violent youth have terminal thinking as they often see themselves not living beyond the age of 20. Therefore, in their mind, life is short and since they have nothing to live for, why not resort to violence to rectify their sense of societal injustice. Antisocial behavior can be generally characterized as an overall lack of adherence to the social norms and standards that allow members of a society to coexist peaceably. Individuals with antisocial behavior disorders are responsible for about half of all crimes committed, though they make up only about five percent of the population. However, within our institutions, undiagnosed mental illness is far greater than outside on the streets.

Antisocial behavior can start out in childhood, adolescence or adulthood. In children it is referred to as a “Juvenile Conduct Disorder”, in adults as “Antisocial Personality Disorder”. Conduct disorders developed early in life, prior to puberty, are more likely to continue into adulthood and also more likely to be violent and aggressive. Antisocial behavior, as seen in youth, is a growing concern within our prisons. Escalating violence in institutions is an outward manifestation of antisocial behavior. Conduct Disorders are often passed down within the family. There also seems to be other common factors that address the violent demeanors of youth in prisons. Youth with conduct disorders are often victims of abuse or have been exposed to aversive or punitive environments. Parenting was often inconsistent, swinging from excessive leniency to excessive punishment.

So how do you motivate and address this violent youth inmate, preventing aggression and attack? You assertively communicate respectfully and tactfully, that’s how. So what is respectfully and tactfully?
  • Respect and Tact is: Listening without interrupting. Aggressive youth will communicate with excessive volume, and their mental belief is that they know more than you do. Know this to be true; allow them to expel their verbal tirade and tactically read between the lines to what they truly want. Youth may not be good communicators due to their age, and past violent experiences, and may need your communication expertise to bring about their true intentions. Watch your facial expressions during the event. You may be listening, but a smirk, smile or lack of eye contact represents disrespect in the eyes of the youthful inmate.
  • Respect and Tact is: Taking juvenile feelings into consideration. Understanding the criminal, violent and incarcerated youth mindset is essential; look for: extreme egomania; selfishness and me-based orientation; poor impulse control with criminal manipulative behavior, and constant dramatic performances such as tantrums; aggression or intimidation that benefits them; inability to accurately “read” your emotions with little or no ability to delay their gratification; your true “value” is defined by what you can do for them. Youthful Inmates who have these high risk factors and show these behaviors should be handled carefully, cautiously and evaluated when these behaviors are exhibited. Never feel that you can control them alone.

"Corrections Officer William Hesson dies at Cuyahoga County
Juvenile Correctional Facility after incident with youth”

"May 01, 2009 07:31AM”

HIGHLAND HILLS: A 39-year-old corrections officer at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Correctional Facility in Highland Hills died Wednesday after an incident with a youth, according to the Ohio Department of Youth Services. The Ohio State Highway Patrol is investigating, and was interviewing staff and youths at the facility on Friday. Hesson, of North Canton, who had worked at the facility only a few months, was rushed to a hospital and died soon after he arrived.

  • Respect and Tact is: Keeping an open mind. Before you can excel at your profession, you must apply a clear understanding as to why the incarcerated become aggressive and non-compliant towards your authority. By understanding the cliental that you walk among you will anticipate and understand violent outbursts. Below are a few possibilities as to why inmates become aggressive, and once you understand their mentality you can anticipate it:
    1. a) Fatigue or a disruption in the sleeping pattern leading to sleep deprivation.
      b) Sensory overload – too much noise, activity or too many people in the environment.
      c) Being asked to respond to several questions or statements at once.
      d) A general response to a strict officer’s intolerance, stress or irritability.
      e) The inmate is being scolded, confronted or contradicted in a public setting.
      f) The officer’s instructions were unclear, too complicated, or the task was not broken down into easy manageable steps.
      g) Change of routine, schedule or the normal activities were canceled or eliminated.
      h) The orders of routines or activities were perceived as too childlike.
      i) Adverse side effect to a new medication, change in medication or the refusal to take medication.
      j) The officer failed to show respect, or the youth perceived disrespect from the officer.
      k) Inmate may feel victimized, threatened or coerced by other inmates.
      l) Temperatures in the environment may be too hot.
      m) Exposure to violence via television, music or other violent inmate rhetoric.
      n) Mental illness such as mood disorders.

  • Respect and Tact is: Giving each other enough space. Aggressions are results that are physical and tangible to the criminal youth. Aggression is something that is clearly understood and accepted behavior among the criminals as a result of a lifetime of anger, manipulation, crime and dysfunction. This behavior reduces ones senses to a basic animal instinct and allows the inmate to escape the mayhem of prison life. If you are standing too close, you may be unknowingly intimidating and aggravating the youth.

Ultimately, in communicating with an aggressive youth, you must recognize that all they may know is that aggression and violence is how to handle a problem. In discerning this you can anticipate their intentions, maintain a tactically ready posture, and remain professional during the aggressive encounter. By showing the inmate respect and taking the time to tactically communicate, you will avoid most attacks and bring about less violence. Tell the truth when de-escalating the situation and don’t lie as they will know what you can and can’t actually do for them. Stay safe and tactically sound during your encounter, some situations may not be verbally de-escalated. Knowing when to stop communicating, and take action, is an art in itself.

Working in a juvenile correctional facility labeled as super maximum close security you quickly learn the do’s and don’t of aggression. Think about that for a minute. Juvenile’s, male ages 16 to 21 locked down 23 hours out of the day and out for an hour of recreation in a cage. Their aggressiveness and past violence has shown that these youth are not amiable to any sort of treatment. These are youth that when they watch COPS on TV, they root and scream for the criminal to get away. They do not look at you as human, but just someone they can victimize. Respect is shown through fear and intimidation and your respect is difficult to earn. If you do not represent a greater power, you get no respect. But you have to wonder, “WHY” are they so violent toward authority? Why are the youth of today so resistant to authority and what makes my job so hard and violent working with these youth? “The moral compass can only point the direction to go; we must take the steps necessary to travel in that direction ourselves.”

Single-mother households are a leading factor because often no father figure is around to help guide children and provide balance and discipline. I have to ask, “Where the parents were,” when a 14-year-old was on the streets and armed with a handgun at 2 am attempting to gain his street credibility. One youth at my facility stated it best, “There is no conscious in the streets, if their not your friends; their enemy.” Where were the parents when 3,000 of Charleston County's 40,000 students didn't show up for school on the first day of class? "When children are truant from school, they often become engaged in poor behavior.” Left unchecked, this poor blatant behavior leads to criminal behavior and we have to ask ourselves, “Where are the Parents?”

Youth, especially teens, are influenced by numerous stress factors. Based on my experience of over 20 years work in the law enforcement and youth prisons, I have found that some of these stressors might include:
  1. Physical, psychological, and/or emotional abandonment by parents, adults, and significant others. Domestic violence, abuse, neglect, and/or other severe family stress or dysfunction.
  2. Lack of order, structure, and any sort of discipline.
  3. Peer pressure, need to protect a reputation, and related developmental issues. Gang, cult, or other deviant subculture attraction.
  4. Alcohol, drugs, and similar influences. Pressure to succeed academically.
  5. Fear of the unknown, fear of rejection, and fear of failure.
As I speak to the incarcerated youth in my facility the renowned consensus is that they were never told “NO” as they were growing up and had the ability to do as they wished, and had the ability to easily manipulate adults in their lives growing up, and practically raising themselves. They would say, “My mom is in prison, my dad was killed by the police, my brothers are in the County jail, it is like I am expected to follow their incarcerated footsteps.” My question to you is, are you afraid of your children? Do you have the ability to say no when your child throws a fit to get their way? We are breeding a lost generation of criminals, killers, predators as well as Inmates of the State, and it seems that we don’t even care or know how to stop them.

National self-report studies indicate that the age of highest risk for the initiation of serious violent behavior is age 15-16 and that the risk of initiating violence after age 20 is very low. If persons have not initiated serious violent behavior by age 20, it is unlikely that they will ever become serious violent offenders. The highest rates of participation in serious violence are at ages 16-17. At these ages, 20-25 percent of males and 4-10 percent of females report one or more serious violent acts. After age 17 however, participation rates drop dramatically. Approximately 80 percent of those who were violent during their adolescent years will terminate their violence by age 21.

While both offenders and victims are disproportionately male, black, urban, and from low income and single-parent families, this characterization of violent youth is misleading. Among children, the gender difference in victimization is small, whereas among adolescent victims and violent offenders, it is quite strong. Among violent offenders, race/ethnic and social class differences are small during adolescence; they become substantially greater during the adult years. For example, by age 18, the cumulative proportion of blacks involved in serious violent offending is only 18 percent greater than that of whites. There is little evidence from the national self-report studies of any difference in predisposition to violence by race, once social class is taken into account. Youth violence’s thus very widespread in our society. It is not just a problem for the poor, or minorities, or those in our large cities. It crosses all class, race, gender and residence boundaries. It is a problem for all Americans. Youth Violence: An Overview Dr. Delbert Elliott, Ph.D. Director, Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence March 1994

Whenever youth violence is in the news people ask “Why did this happen?” or “What can be done to keep it from happening again?” Research is providing a clearer understanding of the root causes of youth violence and practical knowledge about which prevention approaches work and why. As I speak to youth in prison I find that:
  • Violence is a learned experience and can be unlearned.
  • Violence is a complex problem that requires a comprehensive, multifaceted response.

Most violent behavior is “learned behavior.” Unfortunately, for too many youth, violence is either the only or the most effective way to achieve status, respect, and other basic social and personal needs. There is little pro-social modeling of alternative ways of dealing with conflict. Like money and knowledge, violence is a form of power, and for some youth, it is the only form of power available. “Thugging ain’t easy; but it is so very necessary!” When such limited alternatives are combined with a weak commitment to moral norms and little monitoring or supervision of their manipulative behavior, violent behavior becomes rational. The potential rewards are great, the perceived costs minimal. You are seen as what you can do for them and not as a human being deserving respect. “You become a barrier to doing what they want and it seems more and more that eliminating those barriers in whatever way possible is acceptable.” This is evident through their defiance toward any authority and they will resort to violence against you without fear of consequence or repercussion.

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has found that youth who do not have consistent, positive interaction with parents or other responsible adults are more likely to develop violent aggressive behavior. In addition, abuse or neglect and exposure to high levels of marital and family conflict make violent youth behavior more likely. Youth who have friends, siblings or other close relatives who are involved in violent behavior are also at higher risk. In contrast, youth are less likely to be involved in violent behavior:
  • If they have frequent, in-depth communication with all members of their family.
  • If their parents set and maintain clear cut boundaries for behavior or if their parents use reasonable, consistent discipline. These boundaries must remain unbroken and without debate.

So they want to be a T.H.U.G. so now I have to tell you what a thug is. “I didn’t create Thug Life, I diagnosed it.” Tupac Shakure. Thug Life actually stands for, (The Hate U Gave Lil’ Infants Fucks Everyone) Part of the actual code of the thug life are as follows.
  1. All new jacks to the game need to know; He’s going to get rich; He’s going to jail; and he’s going to die.
  2. Snitches are outta here, snitches get stitches.
  3. The boys in blue don’t run nothing; we do, control the hood and make it safe for squares.

There are actually 26 codes to the thug life and it is meant to bring about positive rules of engagement into the street gang warfare. But the youth of today are getting caught up in the glamour of what they see and hear in rap music and on BET and MTV that being a rebellious, criminal and remaining antisocial is the way to go.

Remember, when you were a child and watched “Leave it to Beaver,” “The Adams Family,” “The Walton’s,” Well today our youth watch “South Park,” “MTV Cribs” “Pimp My Ride,” and a host of others idolizing the THUG Life. Morals and real world values are no longer seen as “real good.” If you do not have a pocket full of cash and having sex with three or four girls then you are looked at as second class. There is no respect for authority or even respect for parents. Parents seem to be handcuffed by the legal system to discipline their children and children are taught in school to report parents who attempt to discipline them to police, or school officials. But a lot of the time the parents just allow their children to do as they wish and then chastise the system when they are caught up legally. “NO” is not a word they have heard a lot during their childhood. Parents allow the streets to teach their children about morals and livelihood.

We have seen a juvenile correctional officer killed this week at the hands of a set of violent aggressive incarcerated thug youth inmates. It is, in my opinion, because the juvenile system has bent over backwards to treat these criminal youth as if they are just misunderstood kids. They have allowed outside entities to tell them how to run their institutions, and have put officer safety at risk because of their lack-luster inadequate training and officer education. This cowardice management mentality by the administration of the Ohio Department of Youth Services has destroyed a family’s future and I wonder if they will ever get the picture?

“Somebody killed a Juvenile Correctional Officer today, and a part of America died... A piece of our country he swore to protect will be buried with him at his side. The beat that he walked was a battle field; too, just as if he had gone off to war; though the flag of our nation won't fly at half-mast to his name they will add a gold star. The suspects that beat him will stand up in court with counsel demanding their rights, while a young widowed mother must work for her kids and spend many long, lonely nights. Yes, somebody killed a Juvenile Correctional Officer today... Maybe in your town or mine, while we slept in comfort behind our locked doors an officer put his life on the line. Now his ghost walks the beat in a dark institutional street, and he stands at each new rookie's side; He answered the call... of himself gave his all, and a part of America died...”

~~Author Unknown~~

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