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Thursday, April 11, 2013

No one comes out of jail a liberal

The previous post, about the ethnic purity of gangs, brings to mind a parallel phenomenon: how a stint in prison affects peoples' attitudes towards race.

Prison life, like gang life, tends to be more as it was in the caveman days: raw and elemental. Danger lurks around every corner.

(There's a funny line in the Elmore Leonard book, Road Dogs, in which somebody describes the hero, Jack Foley, as being smart, but not like the other guys who are supposed to have high IQ's in prison. Someone asks, what happens to those guys? "Oh, they're the ones who have to give the other guys blow jobs.")

In prison, if some hulking, tattooed lifer calls you a sissy and demands a blow job, and you tell him no, he's not going to reply, "Yeah, okay, if you're not in the mood, that's fine. And I apologize for calling you a sissy."

In prison, it's all about who is the biggest and baddest, and who has the strongest allies. Fairness has nothing to do with it. So inmates turn wherever they can for protection.

Inmates seem to know that there's one group they can rely on for protection, and that is their kin. (Races are nothing but extended kinship groups.)

And this is true of every ethnic group there is.

After a stint in a medium security jail or worse, virtually everybody seems to come out feeling more closely attuned to their own ethnicity. Blacks come out as Black Muslims. Whites come out as members of the Aryan Brotherhood. Hispanics often join either the Mexican Mafia or Nuestra Familia.

And these feelings seem to stick. People get tattoos -- permanent markers -- signifying their ethnic/gang affiliation.

There is also the phenomenon of people reconnecting with their childhood religions in jail. Charles Colson becoming a born again Christian while in jail for his Watergate crimes. Ivan Boesky became a Talmudic scholar while in prison for insider trading. Taking up one's childhood religion is not quite the same as joining an ethnic gang, it's probably more of a there-are-no-atheists-in-foxholes type of phenomenon.

But reconnecting with one's roots -- whether ethnic, or religious, or both -- does seem to happen quite frequently in prison. Nobody ever comes out saying, we have to be nicer to that other ethnic group. They come out hardened and less naive.

Perhaps there's a lesson to be learned about human nature. When you're in a dangerous situation, where do you turn?


Wodgina said...

Could you not say the same about getting older?

As a teenager and young adult you are liberal.

Then slowly you start to see the cracks and lose your naivity. It is a bitter pill.

I know a few guys who have gone to prison (I'm not in the states) and they came out changed for the worse and these were short stints for white collar crimes. Total personality changes which is shocking to see someone so friendly and go lucky just loose all that so quickly.

John Craig said...

Wodgina --
True enough, people do tend to get more conservative as they get older.

Prison does tend to make people a lot harder. I was referring mostly to racial attitudes changing, something that wouldn't be as relevant in Australia.

Wod said...

Could you maybe do a blog post on female incarceration rates. We have seen huge increases in the last ten years here.

I know this has happened in the states.

John Craig said...

Wodgina --
Thanks for the suggestion, but I'm not sure what I'd say about it. Honestly, I try to only post if I have something halfway original to say (unless I'm just linking another essay which I like). I can't think of anything I'd add to that subject.

Gilbert Ratchet said...

Have you ever seen American History X? Edward Norton's character becomes MORE racially tolerant in prison, but only because his kin group turned on him.

John Craig said...

Gilbert --
Ha! I have seen it, but try not to get my idea of reality from Hollywood.

Anonymous said...

I once watched a documentary about a US prison where a white guy was detained for drug-related crimes. As he was skinny, nerdy and socially naive, the prison administrators decided to put him in isolation for his own safety, fearing he would be taken advantage of in "population" - although going there was, strangely, the nerd's wish. What happens to prisoners put in isolation, if they don't have the opportunity to bond with, say, the Aryan Brotherhood? Do they also leave "toughened up"?

John Craig said...

Anon --
I honestly don't know. My guess is, they leave a little crazy. Long term isolation tends to have that effect.