Right now, as I'm writing this, I'm standing at the door inside my cell, looking into the dayroom at the other offenders in my housing unit. At a table about twelve feet away from my cell, there's a group of guys yelling, laughing, and arguing over a card game they're playing. At the tables directly behind them are other guys playing games of Monopoly, Scrabble, and Dungeons-N-Dragons. Scattered about the dayroom in groups of different sizes are guys horseplaying, rapping, debating about tonight's NBA Finals game, and just hanging out on the tiers lollygagging. As I stand here, all I can think is, "These are all adults I'm observing, but none of this is adult behavior." Adults don't hang around, playing games and doing nothing all day. So why is this what I'm seeing in prison? Why does everyone I'm observing seem to have regressed to a child-like state of being, reminiscent of the Lost Boys of Neverland from the Peter Pan story? Is there something unique about the prison experience that is impeding our "normal" adult development?
Researchers estimate that 27 percent of offenders were 11 to 20 years old when they were incarcerated, and 34 percent were between the ages of 21 and 30. This means a large portion of us were still juveniles/adolescents and young adults at the time we left society and entered prison - a notoriously cutthroat environment with its own set of rules and standards of conduct. Adjusting to this environment is a double-edged sword: while it is vital to our survival, it is in a lot of ways the antithesis to normal adult maturation. It does not properly prepare a person to re-enter society; it makes them institutionalized (defined as the re-socializing of a person to a state where their habitual thoughts and behaviors are based on the needs, structure, and dictates of the institution they have become part of). None of the primary characteristics of institutionalization - laziness, submissiveness, and passiveness - reflect the behavior of mature adults in society who have responsibilities. Placing juveniles/adolescents and young adults in prison effectively stagnates the natural path toward growth and maturity they might have otherwise experienced in the free world.
There are several possible reasons for this. One is that in prison, we don't have any REAL adult responsibilities. Everything we need is given to us. The institution provides our food, clothing, and shelter at no charge to us. Those of us who have children are not required to pay child support. Even our court fines and fees and any debts we owe are deferred while we are incarcerated. Part of adulthood is learning to responsibly budget finances between needs and wants. We, on the other hand, are allowed to spend 100 percent of our money - the majority of which is given to us by our friends and families - on wants. This lack of responsibility is itself a major impediment to our maturation. After years, or in many instances, decades, of this type of living, laziness becomes a natural part of our character, even if we don't realize it. The same applies for passivity and submissiveness.
Another prison dynamic that likely contributes to our stagnation is the unique character value system here. A lot of the same immature thinking patterns and hyper-aggressive behaviors that lead to prison are not only deemed admirable behind bars; they can paradoxically be conducive to our safety and survival. Being knavish, quick tempered and prone to violence earn respect here, while being levelheaded, non-confrontational and "nice" can be seen as signs of weakness. How can an individual be expected to develop mature values in an environment where those values may be to their detriment?
According to the six dimensions of well-being used in Ryff's Scale, "the typical inmate is not being made into a pro-social or properly adjusted member of society; rather, the prison experience is doing exactly the opposite." According to Ryff, the six dimensions of well-being are Autonomy, Self-acceptance, Positive Relations with Others, Environmental Mastery, Purpose in Life, and Personal Growth. Observing the behaviors of these guys in my housing unit, it's clear that they are scoring low on almost every dimension of the Scale. Take Autonomy, for example: a person who scores high in Autonomy "is self-determining and independent [and] regulates behavior from within." Prison is not designed to allow offenders to have this sort of independence or independent mindset. Instead, we are conditioned to not think for ourselves, and to do only what we're told. Blind obedience is rewarded, while those who dare to be independent, think for themselves or question their orders may be punished for "disobeying a direct order," "failing to follow posted rules," or "insubordination," all of which carry punishments that further undermine our well-being, such as placement in solitary confinement and restrictions on phone usage, commissary, recreation, and visits. How ironic . . . attempting to exercise autonomy - an aspect of our well-being - is punishable by having restrictions placed on other aspects of our well-being. None of the dimensions of Ryff's Scale, as a barometer for social maturation, is able to flourish here.
In most environments, people typically only seek to rise to the level of maturity accepted as the status quo. The implications of this habit are amplified in prison, as the status quo here does not encourage us to develop into mature adults; rather, it encourages us to become "better inmates" - optimally adapted to institutional confinement, but perpetually suspended in a state of child-like dependency and immaturity. Therein lies a core dilemma of our criminal justice system. Confining offenders to this environment for extended periods then releasing them back into
society - institutionalized and maladapted to the responsibilities of adulthood - is akin to trying to reintegrate an animal that has been conditioned to a life of captivity back into its natural habitat. This may be another reason for the completely unacceptable "75 percent within three years" national recidivism rate.
If rehabilitation and increasing public safety are genuinely the goals of incarceration, then prisons should be designed to improve responsibility and decision making, and to foster a continuum of normal, adult maturation. But if we're here simply to be hidden from society, conditioned to be dependent and subservient, and distracted with board games, playing cards and TV while we serve our sentences, then I'd say prison is functioning perfectly.