A Breeding Ground for Sociopaths?

One of the more interesting – and disturbing – correlations I’ve found in my seven years of incarceration is the relationship between the length of stay one endures in prison, and their tendency to display and employ sociopathic, harmfully-manipulative behavior. Naturally, one must ask: post hoc, ergo propter hoc – does one thing actually proceed from the other? Or is this merely bias-infected coincidence? To be fair to logic, I must preempt my argument with that caveat.

I tend to see prison as an incubator of anti-social behavior. This, in my experience, is one of the fundamental flaws of the “system.” One may enter this environment, after truly making a bad decision, as an otherwise upright, moral and ethical person, complete with the normal range of empathetic regard for other people. But after years and years of grinding it out in such a hostile, negative environment, rife with personalities who are and have always been truly predatory, these normal, good people can adopt antisocial, manipulative behavior pattern as means to survive. And, after years of stewing in this muck, the system chucks them back out into polite society, declaring them rehabilitated, when in reality, they are anything but. They now have a whole new set of skills, skills which are detrimental to society.

This is a systemic failure.

Prison resembles a bit of a command-type economy: resources are doled out by the administrators, and there are zero ownership rights to anything, even the property you buy; in an instant, anything you “own” can be seized by the state, under any pretext. This isn’t a conducive environment, on economic grounds, for social harmony, to say nothing of viewing it through the other human sciences.

There are many people in a housing unit, but limited phones, limited kiosks (an email-esque service), limited ways to stay connected to the outside world. Likewise, there is limited sustenance, as well as limited means to make a “living,” as if slave wages can be considered as such. From a Maslowian perspective, prisoners are kept far, far away from the pinnacle of the human experience: self-actualization. And if Maslow is even half right – which some would regard him to be – humans will do what they must to claw their way up his pyramid.

So people adapt. And after years of fighting for the most basic of necessities, they maladapt. Can anyone really blame them?

In my life, I’m exposed to two extremes of prisoner: very short timers and very long timers. By and far, it is the very long timers who exhibit the most dangerous, zero-sum, manipulative behavior. They are, as the colloquialism would have them, thoroughly institutionalized. And there are those too who straddle these extremes, men with practical life sentences, which they are now just beginning to serve. Interestingly, it is they who help bolster my argument, as, over time, their reality sets in, and they begin to display new, antisocial behaviors; they are the transition cases that supports my hypothesis.

And I have trouble finding fault with most of these men. Truly, even I, a person who consciously, obsessively attempts to jettison his innate, and overwhelmingly normal, ego- and sociocentric tendencies, with a rudimentary understanding of metacognition, has to diligently guard against falling for the allure of an easier life by manipulating those around me, because the temptation is there. How could it not be?

So I put myself in the shoes of other people, more than I did as a free man, knowing well the temptation not to. Sometimes that’s bewildering and painful. Even just yesterday, I had a difficult conversation with a man who has done a tremendous amount of time. Respecting his privacy, I’ll call him Charles.

Charles isn’t a horrible guy, despite making a horrible decision all those years ago. Yet after so many years, his ethical framework has morphed into something totally self-serving and delusional.

Like so many contentious interactions in prison, this one revolved around a phone. Apparently I had vexed this man in my attempt to use a phone earlier than I had intended, which I actually did to conform to his need to use it at a particular time. Intentionally seeking to avoid conflict, I was confronted with it anyway. And afterwords, I was gaslighted to be made to feel that, notwithstanding my attempt to avoid conflict, I’d caused it anyway. The whole episode was bewildering; but, during it all, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for this man. He was truly just trying to look out for his own self-interest, not only in using the scarce resource of a phone, but also in trying maintain the even scarcer resource of his dignity. He’s simply a product of his environment. And had literally no idea he was acting in an antisocial manner. Total solipsism, totally unintentional.

Paradoxically, the society thought he needed 30-plus years to rehabilitate himself. And it hasn’t turned out so well, which I have a hard time faulting him for. This environment reinforces behavior like Charles exhibits. And the extra time he’s served hasn’t helped in that regard. It seems to have hurt.

This is the fault of the system, because the system, despite its Orwellian insistence otherwise, does very little to actually rehabilitate. Structurally, it can’t. It is designed on the assumption of low taxpayer cost, resource-starved to its core, totally isolated from the democratic process. Modern prison is nothing more than a warehouse, full of men and women waiting to be pulled off the shelf, when their number pops up, and shuffled out the door, “rehabilitated.”

In the interim, the longer they are here, the higher the chance of maladaptive behavior patterns forming, the higher the chance of institutionalization. What good, precisely, does this do them. And more importantly, what good does it do society?

Correlation isn’t causation. This is all anecdotal. Yet I see a trend, nevertheless.

Christopher Read
Haynesville Correctional Center
Haynesville, VA