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.

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