Although some people choose to be outcasts of society, others are forced. Beginning in our early years, most of us want to ‘fit in' with our peers and be a part of a group. In order to do so we look, think and behave in certain ways. This process continues and becomes even more complicated as we age. There are others, however, who have either no desire or capability of ever fitting in. Of these, some gather on the fringe of society. Others, too unusual or deviant, are virtual outcasts.

Inmates are the clearest example of society's outcasts. With behavior so deviant from mainstream expectations, they are banished to fenced-in buildings on the edges of what tend to be already unpopular towns. An inmate's identity as an outcast often begins to form long before his first incarceration. Some sadly relate a life history of peer rejection, while others coolly discount the importance of acceptance. Having a certain amount of awareness of their early failure to fit-in, a number of inmates inform me that, as children, they essentially chose to opt-out - opting instead, for gangs. It was in gangs that many finally found their first taste of acceptance and success.

Everyone seems to have a different opinion of gangs. Some see them as groups of hoodlums or even national terrorists while others believe that they act as pseudo-families. In reality, they are probably all of these things. Each gang seems to fulfill a somewhat different purpose and meaning to each and every member. But if I were to make one categorical statement regarding gangs in America today, I would say that they are an alternative society - they offer their members an alternative to mainstreamed norms.

Like most peer groups, gangs have standards that must be met for membership. Although these expectations vary by gang, most tend to value characteristics shunned by the general public - particularly a willingness to become engaged in violence and illegal activity. (For a detailed account of gangs in America see the FBI's electronic reading room.) In most gangs, members must ‘put in work' in order to advance themselves in their organization. ‘Work' entails those acts that higher-ranking members will not do because of the elevated risk for legal action or retaliation. It may include street level drug trade, intimidation of turf rivals or even murder, to name a few. In time, with good work, demonstrated loyalty and business skills, the worker or ‘soldier' may rise within his ranks.

Suddenly the gang member, a former social outcast, has recognized skills. His peers and colleagues praise his work and look to him for advice. He advances his social and economic status. Young children, teens and similarly situated adults in his neighborhood hope to emulate him.

For the first time in his life he is meeting the expectations of others. He has even earned their respect. Acknowledging this, he begins to believe that he is successful. His friends and neighbors agree.

Society concludes that they are misguided, delusional even. After all, an American success story does not depict the life of a gangster. But even a strict interpretation of word ‘successful' supports him. After all, the dictionary defines it as: 1. Having a favorable outcome, 2. Having obtained something desired or intended, and 3. Having achieved wealth or eminence.

As this just cannot be, we must re-examine his lifestyle by adding morals to our final judgment. We conclude that his and his gang's success should not come at the expense of society. So mistakenly believing that he still has a strong sense of duty to an unaccepting society, we beg of him to give it all up, ‘For the greater good,' we plead.

In response he ponders: Leave my gang, my livelihood, and my fame behind - for what? To reclaim my downtrodden past, my impoverished lifestyle? To return to a society that does not like or respect my accomplishments or acquired skills?

And very often, the answer is ‘No'.

About the Author

Marisa Mauro

Marisa Mauro, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

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