Tuesday, September 13, 2011


"1234" was our code word for mentally ill or emotionally disturbed. Crazy. "I've got a twelve thirty-four..." We used to joke that their should be a "Two-four-six-eight" for the ones that were twice as crazy as usual.

Sometimes, teaching a Conflict Communications course, one of the students will be in a Mental Health field and will ask about dealing with the mentally ill, or a cop will ask about dealing with someone in extreme emotional crisis.  THat was my job for a long time.  There are techniques and stuff to know and ways to talk... but most of what I learned came from an attitude.

I admired these guys.  Understand that I was working with severely mentally ill people in a jail.  Mental illness is one thing.  Some (but not all) were also pure criminals.  Most, outside of the jail, were homeless.  How many people do you know, including yourself, that could handle being homeless?  Could figure out where to get food and shelter and clothes and the occasional shower?

Add to that that you can't even trust your own mind.  Not all of the things you see and hear are real.  You are sometimes compelled to do things you don't want to do or can't force yourself to do things you need to do...

"I know Sarge, I do better on meds and I'm happier when I'm on meds, but I can't make myself want to take them..."

And these guys (and gals) survived.  They didn't thrive, not by any stretch of the definition, but they survived.  Would I?  Dumpster diving and hustling would be hard enough, coming from my old-school pioneer stoic background (Stoics suck at panhandling) but not knowing if the person I was begging from was even real?

Every time I looked at the inmates in the Mental Health units, every time I was tempted to look down on them or feel superior, all I had to do was look at the other officers or counselors or nurses or myself and wonder if we would even have survived.

Same with criminals, and this is a weirder line to cross.  There are many, many violent criminals, some extremely depraved, that I got along well with.  To put it another way, there were a few that I would play chess with and listen to their problems and even counsel that I would shoot without hesitation if I saw them near my children.  As people, I got along with them. As predators, my job was to stop them cold.  It wasn't an either/or thing.  Both.  At all times.

Most, at least most of the ones I knew, were raised to be criminals.  Daddy a drug dealer and pimp, mommy a drug addict and whore.  Extended family and many friends and some of the neighborhood similar.  Sometimes you wanted to bang your head.  What was the rite of passage in your family/group to be a 'real man'?  First deer?  First time getting laid?

For one family I knew from jail, it was prison.  Not jail, jail didn't count. "Hard time" a violent felony and more than a year sentence were prerequisites to being a man.  They couldn't wait until they were eighteen and it became a possibility...

Raised in this environment, some profoundly antisocial things made sense.  Lying was constant, since giving up information in that environment was unsafe.  Trust is stupid.  Intimidation is fine but showing anger? When you felt anger you showed a smiley face and got a weapon.

Like a lot of officers, I don't believe in rehabilitation.  We simply haven't seen it work.  You raise a violent criminal's self-esteem he gets more, not less, violent.  I have enough background in psychology to be able to tell how individual studies were fudged.

But sometimes I think we made a difference.  When someone who had been raised to lie and con as the only effective ways, short of violence, to get what he wanted would start the long story and we'd say, "Eddy, you don't need to hustle me.  Tell me what you want and if it's within the rules, no problem.  You don't have to work so hard."

I don't know how many, if any, really changed.  But showing someone raised in the criminal subculture that there was sometimes a better way, that sometimes they could get what they want without lying, without pissing people off, that there was an effective solution that was safer...

They had never learned, growing up, that sometimes it was safe and effective just to ask.  That away from their family and friends and subculture people being out to screw you was the exception instead of the norm.

So, I don't think I ever rehabilitated anyone.  But teaching a few that there were less damaging ways that were safe and effective may have been small steps to habilitating a few.

"You can't rehabilitate someone who was never habilitated in the first place."-- Don't remember who said it, one of my instructors two decades ago.


ctkwingchun said...

Eye-opening post.

Anonymous said...

Gods, I love it when you whack us upside the head with a big hunk of TRUTH.

Anonymous said...

Love the post Rory and totally agree. Nicely put. Deirdre P.

Tiff said...

Great post, Rory. I appreciate the balance your perspective provides - most either condemn or excuse without bothering to understand. Thanks for putting such a rational viewpoint into words.

Scott said...

Thanks for the darkness.

Michael said...

Hmm, my comment got eaten. That sucks, but at least my second attempt will be more succinct (or not).

I think that, regardless of different views on crime, punishment, and culpability, harmful/criminal behaviour cannot be tolerated. We must do what is (minimally) necessary to protect good citizens from harm or loss. It doesn't matter if the guy bearing down on you has had a hard life... he needs to be stopped if he's going to harm you otherwise. (Obviously you've said as much before: don't ask why.)

As a practical point, I don't think there's much to argue with there. But it gets messy when we ask: "what are the appropriate attitudes for us to hold towards criminals?" Do we blame or hate them for what they've done? Or do we understand them as individuals who have gone the wrong way? Do we offer them another chance? To me, this is the heart of the debate.

1. there are a number of factors that seem to predispose people to criminal activity. They can include external factors (poverty, a history of abuse, criminal role models) and internal factors (poor impulse control, greater aggression, diminished empathy).

But not always.

Either way, it may be that criminals still have real choices about what they do... but choices take place in a framework, and I'm not so sure that we have a real choice over our framework.

2. what is a 'criminal' anyway? It's easy to ascribe essential characteristics to people, so that they are forever tarred with what they've done. Some people with criminal histories have been able to step away from 'the life' and start again. Some people have tried and failed. And some people haven't tried at all. What's going on there?

And then other people seem basically decent or normal for most of their lives, and then something goes awry. We had a middle-aged guy jailed for manslaughter a couple of years ago: some teenagers were tagging (spraypaint graffiti) his fence and he chased them with a knife. One of the taggers was stabbed and died. http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/3203809/Tagger-killer-Bruce-Emery-to-be-freed

3. is punishment a good in and of itself? Should we punish transgressors even though we know it won't make any other practical difference (won't act as a deterrent, won't induce repentence). If we are deeply wired to loathe and punish those who step sufficiently far out of line, philosophising over it is pointless anyway.

Rory--I was interested to read that you associate rehabilitation specifically with raising criminal self esteem, and also that you think rehabilitation studies have been fudged.

My understanding was that rehabilitation took a wider view than that, and included empathy training etc. too (things might be different over here, or I might have misunderstood you). Comments on this? Also, any sample studies you've read that you reckon are a bit fudgy?

Rory said...

This sounds like long talk over beer territory. To answer specifics, I am aware that there is more going on than self-esteem... but that is one that got a lot of press and support and very, very clearly backfired when actually tested, so it makes a nice thumbnail (or maybe a strawman?)
As for specific fudging, yes. There was a treatment program I was involved in that was publishing spectacular success, but since I knew the criminals and knew who the recidivists were, the numbers didn't support the reported findings. What the directors had done was state that part of the program was to go for two years without being arrested for another drug crime. Ergo, all of those arrested in two years had NOT COMPLETED the program and were not counted as failures.

Michael said...

Re: beer--

Yes please.

Re: self-esteem--

Interesting. Makes sense that it would be picked up and championed, because
(a) it's a simple concept,
(b) it fits a pre-existing stereotype: misbehaviour comes down to feeling bad about oneself,
(c) it fits another pre-existing stereotype: criminals are low-functioning and/or internally damaged/divided.

Rehabilitation doesn't get much media time here (and a lot of New Zealanders are a bit vindictive when it comes to criminals, in my experience), but empathy and respect for social structure (i.e. reducing alienation) seem to get discussed more here (IMO).
Re: "Ergo, all of those arrested in two years had NOT COMPLETED the program and were not counted as failures."--

lol. That's hilarious and depressing.

The current government is trialling "boot camp" type arrangements for youth offenders, and though it's early days there doesn't seem to be a lot of success so far.

In social work, I've heard that the key factor in successfully supporting at-risk families is the closeness of the support. So the more tightly and often a social worker can work with a family, the better the results.

If that's right, and the same is true for criminal rehabilitation, then the only real way out is going to be finding a sufficient quantity (and quality) of people to closely work with individuals over a long period of time. Even if that sort of programme does work, it'd be expensive and long-lasting: probably at least two generations of support needed to break the cycle.

Of course, it's all a bit pointless until we know what we really mean by 'criminal' (and what we want to change), before we can understand how those individuals arise and what we can potentially do about it.

One point I'd forgotten: it's also less fruitful to consider all this if it transpires that there will always be a few predators if there are potential prey: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychopathy#Evolutionary_explanations

Thanks for the response and explanations. Haven't thought about this stuff so much lately.

Anonymous said...

On self-esteem.

The word "criminal" is quite broad, so I don't know how relevant you will regard this, but with respect to the really bad ones, I remember a something in a book called "Further Along the Road Less Traveled" by the late M. Scott (Scotty) Peck that I read a long time ago. I just dug it out to have a look at it, and there is a chapter called "Self-Love versus Self-Esteem". (Vis-a-vis "self-love", I am reminded of Rory's admonishment not to use the term "rear entry" in one of his books. But this is Peck's terminology.)

Peck's point was that "bad" people may have very good self-esteem. Preserving that self-esteem can even be a motivation to violence. What they lack is what Peck calls Self-Love, which connotes self-discipline and honesty, among other things, including feeling bad about ourselves when we have been bad. Self-esteem, on the other hand, is just feeling good about yourself.

Anyway, thought that might be interesting.

Mike H. said...

Sorry for posting anonymously. Some kind of technical glitch. Will see if this works.
Mike H.