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The Power of “Virtue Signaling” Inside Jails or Prisons
By Carl ToersBijns, former deputy warden, ASPC Eyman, Florence AZ
Published: 03/26/2018

Riot police Social media and the mainstream media has created a very superficial means to address grievances, incidents of concern, fear, shock and even hatred by creating an emotional outburst or display of some value of morality or ethical grounds. What is really a lazy and easy way of creating a message to provoke empathy by others is a dangerous tool to be aware of inside prisons.in society, it is often abused to an extent that it causes conflict on the streets through protesters clashing with each other.

Prisoners are known to be master manipulators and giving them another tool to play against staff is very concerning. Look at what we are dealing with here. What we supervise, manage or control are great pretenders. People who learn quickly of the lessons learned by others and because they are a variety of educated, uneducated and immature individuals, they learn quickly how to use the tools of social media to apply them to their own reasons to protest, find things to be offensive or sometimes downright resist law and institutional order. In other words, its designed to change the mindset of others around them.

What has the term come to mean? A common term or purpose of this kind of behavior is to gain approval of something that they think has a “moral value.” However, the reality is that they are more of a hypocrite with their message because, inside themselves, it is not a reality. They don’t believe it, participate in it or just don’t bother to actually get involved in it. In other words, they are gestures, just mere gestures. Gestures without any commitment. Sounds familiar doesn’t it as you can put a name to the person who does this on your cellblock or unit. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule and find those individuals who are staunch and strong headed believers.

Don’t get me wrong – there are some who are sincere but few at the best. They may act in the name of religion, traditional charity causes, anti-violence towards women or even speak up for LGBT people. It may be in the name of charity to raise money for cancer or gun control or standing against domestic violence and now, it has grown into a deeper political arena of immigration, saving the Earth and many more. In other words, they pretend to be social warriors but inside our prisons the may become warriors of a different kind. It may benefit them to do this in front of others to make a social statement or position for power or influence but in reality, they are fake.

Virtue signaling is about getting people to come to your side for your own purpose. This is not new, but we never applied a politically correct term to the behaviors. We must recognize that its just another buzzword we need to consider meaningless but in a prison setting, it may not be harmless. It can cause tempers to flare, emotions to create chaos, and most of all unite former enemies together for a common cause. In no certain stretch of the imagination, should you consider it harmless?

It has caused riots in the past with what started as a food strike or protest, unfair discipline or many other grievances that were eventually found baseless in nature. In a matter of minutes, hours, or even days or weeks, a ‘social warrior’ stirred into an emotional stage can turn into a real warrior that wants to fight, destroy property, hold hostages or just run amuck tearing things up and assaulting staff. By no means, this is not just meaningless cliché but if taken lightly, a potentially menacing situation. Virtue signaling is more than making something or someone looks foolish – it has a significant reason to exist and although it may be hypocritical in nature, people who do this outwardly signal their intentions or purposes to incite other people into a cause.

All it does in most social circles is provoke some stares, even glares, which is what prisoners want to claim or accuse staff of disrespect. They want to stand out as the kind of person who defends truth and righteousness in a social climate that allegedly tries to suppress it. Can you see the relevance inside the joint yet? In all reality, it is a great recruitment tool for gangs, religious extremism or just unification of the environment – us versus them.

A good manipulator can project a feeling that they are right and show that others join his or her cause to let the administration or custodial staff they are formed as a group now and that they are “one of them.” In comparing these acts to so-called “virtue-signaling” gestures, it's like changing one’s avatar considering a hate-motivated tragedy, you can see more similarities than differences.

They’re outward displays of one’s [group or gang] moral or ethical values that obviously don’t lead to any substantial change. Their real function is to express that one belongs to the brave underdogs who speak up for what’s right. For some it is “what’s right” and entails care and empathy; in the eyes of others, it’s tradition and truth. They’re all virtues nonetheless and connected to the environment. It can upset the tranquility of a safe and secure prison if ignored. This message was written to build an awareness of its existence.

Young prisoners are rife with “vice signaling.” They have a game going on that is based on the morality of right and wrong. Consider this a tug of war between law and order as well as the institutional rules applied to them. The problem is that their right and wrong can differ immensely with those of others. Vice signaling is more than pranks – its sinful acts inclined to be filled with violence and total disregard to life and being exposed to these vices inside prisons, you can only imagine to what extent this problem exists.

“Virtue signaling” can be a positive tool but in the prisons, the mindset is survival and power and surrounded by the morality of strong versus the weak and cruelty and selfishness. The staff has a responsibility to recognize their simple words and deeds of righteousness and be able to determine whether they can truly be inspiring or destructive in nature - after all, words and deeds of wickedness sure can be.

So, in these times, it is most beneficial to examine motive and behaviors instead of calling someone a mere virtue signaler. As staff responsible for a safe and secure environment we ought to step back and examine what’s really going on. Are they trying to inspire others or motivate destructive or violent behaviors? Are they looking to comply or resist and are they trying to become socially accepted within a group that shares a strong belief or are they just sharing a social viewpoint that others agree with? Keep in mind the opportunity of extremism and radicalization as the root of such practices.

In any of these cases, beware of others taking advantage of new democratized platforms to share values – it has become a strong team building tool for various groups or causes. While token expressions might not directly change anything in this world, they can have an indelible impact on the minds of other prisoners and cause dissent or chaos – a designed process created by provocation and hate. If just one person is inspired, a threat could be building if the resolution is destructive or assaultive behaviors.

Corrections.com author, Carl ToersBijns, (retired), has worked in corrections for over 25 yrs He held positions of a Correctional Officer I, II, III [Captain] Chief of Security Mental Health Treatment Center – Program Director – Associate Warden - Deputy Warden of Administration & Operations. Carl’s prison philosophy is all about the safety of the public, staff and inmates, "I believe my strongest quality is that I create strategies that are practical, functional and cost effective."

Other articles by ToersBijns:


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