Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Criminal “toughness” and victimhood

In From Hard Time, Understanding and Reforming the Prison, Robert Johnson studies accounts of institutional life.

The “tough and menacing pose”, state-raised convict Jack Abbott argues, is the only way “to keep a hostile and rejecting world at bay”. He defends his malice and capacity for violence as the result of persecution by an “uncaring and impersonal” society. In fact, Abbott was the victim of physical and sexual abuse while in foster homes as a child. Yet he experienced a long line of “failures to adjust”: first by dropping out of the sixth grade, being committed to a training school for six years, leading later to alcohol abuse, fraudulent check printing, stabbing a fellow inmate during incarceration for his crime, throwing a water pitcher at his judge and attempting to choke a juror. After escaping prison during his 20 year sentence he robbed a bank, again “failing to adjust” to the institutional life he was confined to by an allegedly “hostile world”.

Abbott bemoans an institution that is “uncaring and impersonal”, that fails to show empathy and understanding for his lifetime of criminal actions. He may rail against the behavior of others, their lack of understanding or compassion, but he holds his own behavior to no such standard. Violence, he explains,

is what makes us effective, men whose judgment impinges on others, on the world…Here in prison the most respected and honored men among us are those who have killed other men…It is not merely fear, but respect.

An ex-inmate, Shroeder, went even further, claiming that

if you could convince inmates and guards that you had absolutely nothing to lose and that your countermeasures…would be totally unrestrained…then you were given respect and a wide berth, and people looked to you for leadership and advice. “He’s crazy,” they’d say admiringly, even longingly, when the name came up. “He’s just totally, completely insane”.

In civilized society, a person might demonstrate his independence by developing a special skill or knowledge to bring to the job market. Such a skill is then a commodity to trade with others. In convict culture, however, the only commodity is “respect”, developed by openly demonstrating ones capacity for wanton, indiscriminate violence and destruction. To the outside world, a convict may plead for understanding, may defend his behavior as self-protection; among his fellow convicts, however, violence is not regarded as something to be excused or defended, but is praised and encouraged as a sign of efficaciousness and strength.

Monday, January 17, 2011

"Making Good"

I am currently reading a fascinating book called Making Good: How Ex-Convicts Reform and Rebuild Their Lives, by Shadd Maruna. The book focuses on one element referred to as the “self-narrative”, defined as how individuals make sense of their lives. According to Maruna, “sustained desistance most likely requires a fundamental and intentional shift in a person’s sense of self.” His research set out to compare the self-narratives of those who persist in committing crimes, and those who have desisted from crime.

Some aspects of the author’s approach I find mistaken. For example, he does not attempt to understand or acknowledge that crime is the result of criminal thinking. In fact he shows open disdain at attempts to differentiate the psychology of criminals from the psychology of the law abiding, calling such views a belief in the “bogeyman” or “mark of Cain”. He argues that the “bogeyman” is a fascination of Americans, who prefer to think of criminals as irredeemably evil. They draw comfort from the fact that they have nothing in common with such monsters. Maruna, on the other hand, treats criminal activity as merely one form of addiction, a condition from which one can recover with work.

This emotional response to the study of criminal thinking seems to be based on a soft determinism. He describes reformed offenders as having an “exaggerated sense of control over the future and an inflated, almost missionary, sense of purpose in life.” Maruna refers to this as the “process of willful, cognitive distortion” or “making good”. The process is a distortion because the offender is rejecting the notion that he is doomed or fated to his situation, a fate Maruna himself calls “rational realism.” Persisting offenders
felt they had little chance of achieving success in the "straight" world’…[and] from what we know about the causes of criminal behavior, they might just be right.
Certainly if criminals are fated to be so because of their social circumstances, it is unfair to stigmatize them. Yet if the offender can change after shifting his “sense of self”, is this not proof that he is not fated and that the core of his condition is his thinking and not his environment? In fact while he presents a world that an ex offender cannot succeed in as “rational realism”, Maruna admits this view “probably does the individual a disservice”. If you can only succeed in life by rejecting your view of reality, you might want to rethink that view.

It is interesting, then, that an author with this outlook could offer such a promising idea as the “self-narrative”. And I agree with him that understanding how ex-convicts maintain their efforts to desist from crime would help greatly in rehabilitative efforts. It would also help to identify early the signs that a juvenile is headed down that path. I will write a follow-up post to review the results of his research.

Sociology and the criminal mind ignored

“A priori” dead ends

In the study “Dropout and Delinquency” (Sweeten, Bushway & Paternoster, 2009) on the relationship between school attendance and delinquency, the authors argued that the researcher’s role is “to generate meaningful a priori theoretical predictions”. Theories are not developed from observation, but essentially from imagination, projecting possible explanations to be measured. Survey results are then used to either lend weight to or disprove these theoretical predictions.

In their research, Sweeten, Bushway and Paternoster requested that respondents classify their reasons for dropping out using one of the following categories: school reasons, such as expulsion, suspension, poor performance or social difficulties; personal reasons, such as getting married or pregnant, or having conflicting responsibilities at home; economic reasons, such as being offered a job, entering the military, or having financial difficulties; or other unclassified reasons. This range of reasons was developed using popular sociological theories on the influence of stress and social control.

The challenge of taking an a priori approach is sometimes embarrassingly clear. Only “unclassified reasons” for leaving school appeared to have a criminogenic effect, suggesting that the researchers were unable to anticipate any valid causal explanations for the behavior of their subjects. They concluded that “concern about the event of dropout may be misplaced. Instead, attention must be focused on the process that leads to dropout and criminal involvement” – ignoring that this was precisely the subject of their own study.


Of course there is a challenge with all surveys in attempting to understand human behavior. Individuals may not themselves be fully aware of the reasons for what they do, or they may give dishonest reasons to prevent personal embarrassment. There is a great uncertainty, therefore, about what is really going on in the mind of the subjects.

Yet some theories do not regard this as a limitation. A juvenile delinquent may have developed unsuccessful approaches to dealing with stress or responding to authority, but these cannot be captured in a questionnaire. What can be captured is whether he is receiving failing grades. If you believe that individuals are programmed to behave as they do by their environment, then his thoughts and motivations are of marginal importance. We only need to study a person’s behavior and how it is affected by various stimuli, according to this perspective. It is the grades that then lead him to drop out of school, and the resulting poverty that leads him to crime. Even when the evidence fails to validate the theory, the underlying cues to a person’s behavior – his thoughts and beliefs – remain ignored.