Inside the Criminal Mind

Understanding the dark side of human conduct

Do Prisons Really Make Offenders Worse?

Prison may be a turning point toward a responsible future.

Prison have long been described as "schools for crime" or "breeding grounds for crime." The central idea is that incarcerating offenders makes them worse because they learn new "tricks of the trade." There is an inevitability to the perception that if you land in prison, you will turn into an even more corrupt or violent person when you leave.

Among prison inmates, the main topics of conversations in prison generally concern crime, drugs, and gossip about who will do what and to whom.  Inmates boast about what they have done, and they hatch new schemes. Some commit crimes while incarcerated and plan new crimes that they will commit once they are released. Some engineer crimes that, upon their orders, others will commit outside the institution. They are termed "shot callers" or gang leaders whose influence reaches beyond prison walls.

I have interviewed numerous offenders in different institutions about whether prison truly makes a person worse. Their answers may be surprising! Inmates emphasize that choices are continually made about how time is served. Some aspire to be prison kingpins. Confinement is just one more arena in which to conduct criminal operations. Others, however, have an entirely different view and make choices in an entirely different decision. They adhere to the prison rules and policies while remaining out of the "action." Fed up with how they have lived, they desire to change or, at the very least, not risk incurring new charges which will extend their time in prison. They participate in programs and try to get along with other inmates and with institutional staff.

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Inmates who abstain from criminal activitiesin prison remain cordial, to other inmates. Not wanting to be tagged as "snitches" or informants, they participate in a variety of activities that do not violate the rules. And they have no interest in committing new crimes. Some develop disgust (that they do not express publicly) with their fellow inmates who are perpetually devising new schemes, con games, and manipulative maneuvers. They report that others leave them alone and do not try to pressure them into involvement in more violations and crimes. They have found that, usually, the other inmates respect them.

In short, just as he did in the free world, an inmate chooses the people with whom he develops close associations. He makes decisions about the type of person he wants to be. He decides what temptations he will resist. By no means is it inevitable that he will become a more hardened criminal or a more dangerous person because he is serving a sentence in a correctional institution. In fact, spending time in prison marks a turning point toward a positive direction.  A prison expression is to make time serve you not just you serving time.

Stanton Samenow, Ph.D.,is a clinical psychologist practicing in Alexandria, Virginia and author of Inside the Criminal Mind.

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