Jail Culture

I read a series in the SUN about how inmates use their rights to manipulate the system. It was the usual shallow journalism with quotes from righteous politicians like MP Randy White of Abbotsford. Things have gone too far was the implied message of the series although there were a few pallid defences by officials who were defending themselves as much as anything. Buried in all this was a statement of an SFU academic that prison is not a deterrent, and that some see it as home. There was nothing new in this, but being incarcerated myself I found the statement ironic. I was profoundly aware of how true it is for many of my fellow inmates. While this may be particularly true for camps like Ford Mountain I’m sure it also applies to heavy regimented maximum security facilities like FRCC. It’s not just the security, the bed, the adequate food and anything that various programs and activities offer, it’s the Culture. Jail culture provides identity and status. Recidivism has little to do with how comfortable or pleasant jails may be. It’s mainly the culture they provide, and that may be stronger in harsh institutions.

I began to notice after a while that jail is a world without ’Why?’. Explanations are unwelcome in jail culture, and I do have a tendency to explain things, to give reasons, especially if I’m refusing something, a request or offer. Here one does not ask why. In an authoritarian situation asking why may be seen as impertinent or subversive. It is questioning. I speculate that the children of experienced inmates, and others accustomed to such situations will be discouraged from asking why? But then it’s me, I have always asked why, and wanted explanations.

I may have mentioned it before but I can’t remember meeting so many people as I have in jail. When I think about it it’s probably true for many other inmates. My age and notoriety cut me off from many others. I also miss out on a lot, probably most of the gossip that circulates here. I don’t have good connections and not smoking and my hearing being so bad I miss out on a lot of conversation. For many, jail may provide most of their social contacts on the outside. It’s not that jail is a school for crime as often claimed but that it determines people’s associates, many of whom may be criminals. Jail forms communities. I know one former inmate of Ford Mountain who recalls it nostalgically and says he never had such a rich social life before or since.

There’s an assumption that criminals/inmates have a homogeneity, and this may be true of those convicted of traditional crimes against property and persons - the tradition criminal culture of thieves, robbers, car jackers, fraud artists and some vice entrepreneurs. But with druggies, drunken drivers, sex offenders and fine defaulters I doubt if there is a criminal culture, it’s their behaviour rather than crimes against others that is supposedly being dealt with. They may make up a substantial proportion of the population. In the 1970’s I remember reading where a prison official welcomed marijuana users because they diluted the prison population and had a calming influence. I wonder if sending jay walkers and parking violators to jail would have the same effect.

Inmates are very apolitical. They see things in personal terms, they don’t theorize about or hate the system but may blame their misfortunes on some cop, judge, or other official out to get them, or alcohol or drugs which jail programs encourage them to blame. No one questions the justice or wisdom of the law, or aspects of the political system. If you do the crime, you do the time. Sentences may however be criticized as disproportionate, but few seem to think they were treated harshly. Stories about crimes are the main news interest of inmates but I found it difficult to talk to them about the law or specific crimes reported in the media. It may be that jail reinforces their interest in crime; it’s one thing that most of them have in common. Many experienced inmates see themselves in the context of tough conservative law and order arguments. They claim they would be deterred by more severe penalties and rationalize their crimes with economic reasoning. Getting caught is bad luck, a result of stupidity or a risk to be accepted. It’s a rationalization to make them appear rational. Inmates fit into and accept the system, they generally believe they are guilty, and this is part of the bond among them. Maintaining one’s innocence or claiming to be not guilty can alienate you. The various shrinks and counselors, as well as the entire system, encourage a belief in one’s guilt. Some men later exonerated have pretended to be guilty in order to make things easier for themselves.

Playing along, and for many that means practicing hypocrisy, is what happens, and I would think, what is expected. What parole boards want to see is compliance, obedience, and acknowledgment of wrong doing and remorse. None of these have much bearing on re-offending or becoming a law abiding citizen. Despite their often fanciful caution I suspect that the board members representing the public are conned by charming applicants often enough to make things worse for honest pleaders. Parole caters to unprincipled inmates, those who will prostitute themselves however necessary to get out. Parole boards buy it. An inmate who takes an SAM program and goes to AA or NA is better situated than one without a substance abuse problem.


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