Prison - A Self-Perpetuating System of Recidivism


The roots of the word prison comes from prisune from before 1112, which means confinement. Prisune was influence by pris, which means taken or seized. From Latin prehenso--to lay hold of, clutch at. Prysner--one kept in prison: probably 1350-75.

Is prison a deterrent to crime? Judging by the recidivism rate, no. Many see recidivism as the result of a perversion of the formal aims of imprisonment. What are the formal aims of imprisonment? Foucault (1977) says that formal punishment started as revenge, then shifted to the defense of society (p. 90). We could easily say that it has shifted back to revenge when considering such statements as "lock him up and throw the key away," or "he got exactly what he deserved."

The roots of the word prison comes from prisune from before 1112, which means confinement. Prisune was influence by pris, which means taken or seized. From Latin prehenso--to lay hold of, clutch at. Prysner--one kept in prison: probably 1350-75.

Many People probably have a difficult time admitting that their idea of punishment is really revenge. However, the ones who opt for the defense-of-society approach to punishment, should probably consider what is going on behind the walls of our prisons, specifically in the federal prison system and the California Department of Corrections. Those who want revenge certainly would not want to continue to pay an astronomical amount of tax dollars to make sure the inhabitants of such a den of hedonists are so well taken care of, some might even say-- pampered--not to mention the money spent interminably building prisons. Smethers (1992) shares his prison experience by explaining that inmates are well provided for, having little, if no responsibility for themselves.

Our clothes and linen were cleaned for us every week-- all we had to do was drop it off and pick it up; they provided our meals for us--all we had to do was wait in line and eat; we had a big yard to play on--a weight pile where we could flex our muscles, show off, and be macho. We built reputations, status, and respect from our peers by controlling the drug and alcohol flow, managing moneymaking schemes, and having our subordinates do our dirty work. Drugs were plentiful on the yard, and pruno (homemade wine) was easily made. Every three months we could have money and material things (a package) sent to us from home. If we were married, we could even spend the weekend in a bungalow with our wives and relieve ourselves sexually. In medium security prisons that have rooms (cells), we could enjoy watching our own color television. (p. 3).

Walking onto a prison yard for the first time can often ease the tension of a first offender. He will see inmates playing handball, basketball, and some throwing Frisbees. Others are working out on a weight pile, and still others playing cards on picnic tables. On the other side of the yard a softball game might even be going on, with all the rahs and cheers characteristically heard in a baseball stadium. "Hey, this might not be too bad!"

Prior to emphasizing the benefits of a federal correctional institution in Pennsylvania, Worth (1995) explains that "with visitors, it's like a joke, to see how long before they compare this place to a college campus." Federal prisons have had the reputation as "resorts" or "country clubs" for a long time.

Besides being well cared for, their fellow inmates are educating them in ways that increase recidivism. There is not much doubt that prison conforms to the old-fashioned image of a "school of crime"; therefore, many commit crimes with impunity. Correctional institutions create, maintain, and reinforce criminal patterns of behavior by housing first-time offenders and veterans together, and mixing petty offenders with serious and dangerous ones. The only ones that are consistently segregated are the sex offenders--mostly pedophiles.

Smolowe (1994) shares that "Americans' impatience for quick- fix remedies resembles the frustration that drives inner-city youths to seize on illegal get-rich schemes: they want to cut corners, produce high yields and not pay a price. But grim experience indicates that, as with crime, hard time does not always pay the anticipated dividends. When money is poured into building another prison at the expense of rebuilding a prisoner's self-image, it is often just a prelude to more - and worse - crime. They start as drug offenders, they eventually become property-crime offenders, and then they commit crimes against people. They learn this trade as they go through the prison system."

There are multiple, repeat offenders that find prison life more appealing than life on the outside because prison reinforces their sense of irresponsibility: they do not have to pay rent or utility bills, they do not have to work (though most do in leu of being isolated), they do not have anything to worry about relating to real life responsibilities, except when their next visit is arriving, or who they are going to con to keep a steady influx of amenities.

The Latin term puer aeternus translates to eternal boy (or lad) in English. Marie-Louse von Franz (2000) describes the puer as one who "remains too long in adolescent psychology; that is, all those characteristics that are normal in a youth of seventeen or eighteen are continued into later life." (p. 7). Characteristic of the puer is a gross lack of responsibility. "The one thing," stresses von Franz, "he absolutely refuses his responsibility for anything, or to carry the weight of a situation." (p. 9).

Kiley (1983) offers another interpretation of the puer aeternus as the victim of the Peter Pan Syndrom. He shares that "they can't escape irresponsibility. This trap begins as innocent, typical rebellion, but mushrooms into an adult lifestyle." (p. 45). The prisons are full of people with rebellious lifestyles.

Many of these people have reputations as fabulists--card- carrying storytellers, also known in medical circles as confabulators. Most of them are jailhouse lawyers. They tell their loved ones that their excuses are reasons; they will break promises with impunity, then seriously wonder why people get angry with them for it. Most of them believe that everybody behaves as they do, and this behavior is characteristic of irresponsible, rebellious and self-serving lifestyles.

Most paroles will say that they do not want to return to prison; but unconsciously their behavior is saying, "catch me, so I can go back home with my friends where I will be taken care of and provided for." How is a person in prison prepared to live a law-abiding life on the outside? For the most part, they are not. Prison relieves him of responsibility. Glasser (1965) writes that "he broke the law not because he was angry or bored, but because he was irresponsible." (p. 15).

Once on the yard, even a first offender is going to seek out his own kind, and there are all kinds on the yard. They come from all walks of life, and they make friends easily, especially if they are repeat offenders--they are the "old home week" types that cope easily because their "people" are right there with them. Dealing with this is much more difficult because the more they return to prison, the more people they meet. Prison loses its deterrent impact once a person has been through it. They learn they can survive in or out and they do not fear going to prison anymore. So, restorative justice (if there is or was ever such a thing) is a one-shot deal, otherwise etiolation is likely.

For the institutionalized men in prison, women are viewed as potential conquests, sexual receptacles and suppliers of goods and services. That is why visiting day, for many prisoners, is often more of an obligation than a joy, except, of course, when the visit is conjugal. The visiting room on a Saturday looks like an Overeaters Anonymous meeting. Inmates often seek obese, less attractive women because they are more susceptible to the flowery words that flow from their correspondence. These women are more likely to be alone and lonely, to have low self-esteem, which is easily capitalized on by players in the joint. To the inmate, a woman is little more than a business proposition, of use only so long as she is profitable. Time spent on her is an investment that is expected to pay off and usually does.

In The Oxford History of the Prison, Morris (1995) offers One Day in the Life of #12345. "If you expect the usual prison tale of constant violence, brutal guards, gang rapes, daily escape efforts, turmoil, and fearsome adventures, you will be deeply disappointed. Prison life is really nothing like what the press, television, and movies suggest. It is not a daily round of threats, fights, plots, and 'shanks' (prison-made knives)." (p. 203).

Being released from prison can be frightening because being responsible and accountable for their existence is alien to them. Prison has either enervated them or rendered them lackadaisical. Here is an excerpt from the Chaplain's Report (1948) from Alcatraz: "Escape is the same dangerous phenomenon whether it takes place in the overt violence of a prison break or in the subtle escape of psychological irresponsibility."

For inmates approaching release, the fear of life outside the prison walls seem to counteract the frustrations and hardships they experienced inside. Many start remembering that freedom is not all fun. Soon they come to realize that they are living more comfortably inside than many are on the outside. Prison begins looking more like a refuge, like the archetypal mother who provides and protects. However, concerning mothers, Jung (1970) shares that "the mythological Great Mothers are usually a danger to their sons. Jeremias mentions a fish representation on an early Christian lamp, showing one fish devouring the other." (CW 9ii. Par 174). The penitentiary is obviously a danger to its sons, devouring them in such a way as to keep them continually coming back for more. In A Dictionary of Symbols by Cirlot (1971) it says "for Jung, the Magna Materrepresents the objective truth of Nature, masquerading, or incarnate, in the figure of a maternal woman, a sybil, a goddess or a priestess, but sometimes taking the form of a church, for instance, or a city or district." (p. 132). Or, in this case--a prison.

Those who are under the impression that prison is a lonely place, consider the fact that prisoners are never really alone. In minimum security prisons, they house inmates in dorms of various capacities. In the higher security institutions, they house the population in multiple-man cells and there are usually at least two people to a cell. Even on blocks with single cells there is someone in the cell next door, across the way, or down the tier. This is even true in the hole and in control units, where verbal and nonverbal communication flows no matter how hard the guards try to stop it. Since they rarely get to be alone while serving time, being alone after being released (which all too often happens), suddenly makes them dispirited, uncomfortable or even afraid.

Morris & Rothman (1995) describes a survey carried out by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency where the situation of American penal institutions was characterized: "Offenders in such institutions are not as likely to commit further crimes while serving their sentences, but the conditions in which they live are the poorest possible preparation for their successful reentry into society, and often merely reinforces in them a pattern of manipulation or destructiveness." (p. 173).

We all have comfort zones. Many alcoholics think of bars and taverns as their homes away from home. The comfort zone for a gambler is a casino or the race track. Returning to the old haunts feels comfortable. Familiarity is the hallmark of comfort zones. Leder (2000) quotes John as saying that "once we get out of that lifestyle we don't know what to do." (p. 191). Leader continues: "you were the Man--now you feel like a lost boy. And the day looms empty, without sensation or purpose. How can this inner void resist the gathering forces of the same old street, the same old dealers, the offer of a free blow?" (p. 191). Like the victory gained over the Romans at Heracles Asculum in 279 B.C. by Pyrrhus, the ones who succeed and prosper after serving long prison terms have achieved a pyrrhic victory over the odds against them.

There are many success stories of pyrrhic victories over obstacles of all kinds. It would be a pyrrhic victory, indeed, if we could really rehabilitate our country's prison population, or better yet, find a way to keep them from going there in the first place. I think Jung would agree that prison, like churches and cities, is playing the role of the great mother. We do not have a chance at combating recidivism until the populace realizes that the system we have been using for so long does not work. Part of society wants punishment and another part wants prison reform. Prison reform reinforces recidivism and so does punishment. Either way, it is a self-perpetuating system. I am reminded of how AA meetings end, with the joining of hands and the words spoken in unison: "Keep coming back, it works!" Prison guards should do the same thing.

written by John Smethers, Ph.D.

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