One of most challenging, confusing and perplexing experiences I’ve had in the past year has been learning how to cope with “prison anger.”
It comes from having friends who are either incarcerated now, or have been in the not-so-distant past. As someone who has never been arrested, I find that dealing with their ongoing bouts of prison anger is like tip-toeing through an emotional mine field. Some days it’s just too depressing to continue enduring. Listening to them, it’s like trying to understand someone who speaks in a foreign language.
When I say “prison anger,” I don’t mean an inmate gets sent to prison, something bad happens inside the walls of that correctional institution, and they become enraged. I’m sure that happens every day to inmates, and is a normal, almost routine part of being incarcerated. In their book “Behind Bars: Surviving Prison,“ criminologists Jeffrey Ian Ross and Stephen C. Richards write, “Hell is other people, as Sartre observed — an insight you will soon appreciate on a visceral level, should you be so unfortunate as to wind up doing time in prison. Having seen how rough the law can play, will it surprise you to learn that the prison population also plays a mean game of hardball?”
Prison, then, becomes a fast and furious learning experience on daily survival techniques, and the transformations your once-stable personality undergoes after enduring months or, sadly, years of this hostile environment. And when I say “prison anger,” I’m not talking about actual signs of a temper. It’s really about a mindset that can overtake the inmate — and stay with them, long term.
Two friends — one currently incarcerated in a Florida prison, the other having served in a federal prison in Florida, now released. One male, one female. One in his 20s, the other in her 40s. Two totally different people. And yet …. through my experience knowing them, I’ve come to understand a mindset that I’ve termed “prison anger.” And at times, it makes me wonder about the effectiveness of our entire penal system and its supposed notion of “rehabilitation.“
There are five characteristics to “prison anger” that I’ve experienced over and over again through both of my friends.
The first is an extreme distrust of authority figures. Considering that inmates have to follow the strict, no-nonsense rules set by correctional officers, this may be understandable … except that both of my friends showed contempt for authority figures before they got arrested.
This is not a view that I was raised to share, or can relate to today. From my perspective, authority figures are often exceptionally skillful at what they do, demonstrate talent in a leadership position, have show an ability to handle complex and difficult situations — and have earned respect for what they do. But to my friends, authority figures exist solely to mess things up for them, to hassle them and look for ways to get them in more trouble. They have a natural tendency to think they’re smarter than the folks in charge, and feel resentful that they’re not in that same position. They seek out ways to fool the authority figures, demonstrating their obvious superiority.
The second trait is a deep lack of trust in others. Everyone is on the take, everybody is a hustler, even the folks who smile in a friendly way at them, and offer to help, are really just trying to con them. Felons build walls around their emotions, never letting the folks asking for their trust get past it.
My friend who is currently serving time in a Florida prison met another inmate very early in his sentence, and they bonded quickly, and seemed to have become great friends. They briefly worked together, went to chapel together, and spent their free hours hanging out. They talked about visiting one another after they both got released from prison, and going hunting together.
Then my friend got hit with a double whammy. First, his prison buddy got transferred to another correctional facility. And it was only after he was gone that my friend realized his “buddy” had broken into his locker and stolen some of his belongings before the transfer.
That did it. The devastation of this betrayal was too much for him. My friend instantly put up that invisible barrier and shut down his emotions, determined not to get hurt again on an emotional level. He doesn’t really do “friendship” these days — not in the traditional sense, anyway. It’s a sad thing to observe, particularly when you’re someone like me who invests so heavily in long-term friendships. If there’s one thing prison does, it clearly stunts emotional growth.
The third characteristic is a pervasive sense of cynicism. If life is going to do anything, most likely it will stick it to you. People who are optimistic are idiots. They’re the ones who end up getting hurt or being made fools of. The cynics look out for themselves.
The fourth characteristic is a constant obsession that they’re being “disrespected” by others. They always tense up when they think someone might not be showing them the proper amount of respect — which they believe should be automatic, not earned.
The final characteristic of prison anger, oddly enough, is a fierce desire to be in charge. Both of my friends are very driven, and determined not to be told what to do by anyone else, or to follow someone’s else’s goals, but to establish their own and make sure they’re leading the way at all times.
That might actually sound like a good thing, that prison is giving inmates a tough exterior, and teaching them to be leaders, people who will get out of prison with the ability to gain fast control of their lives and, with their new-found coping skills, be successful.
But it doesn’t quite work that way.
The truth is, wanting to be in charge and having the good judgment to know how to use it are two separate things. There may in fact be some inmates who put these new skills to good use; Richards, the co-author of “Behind Bars,” spent 11 years in federal custody, including time in a maximum-security prison, and is now not only an author but an associate professor of sociology and criminology at Northern Kentucky University. There are success stories. My friend who did time in federal prison now has her own business, which she’s building up quite successfully.
The challenge for someone like myself in dealing with prison anger is figuring out how best to navigate around their cynicism and lack of trust in others — which I don’t share — combined with the need to keep others at arm’s length. They resent anyone who puts an idea on the table, which makes them feel like they’re no longer “in charge.” When you’re the polar opposite of the prison anger mindset, it’s hard to know how best to respond sometimes.
Last month, the Florida Department of Corrections launched a program called the Re-entry Resource Directory. By logging on to www.dc.state.fl.us/resourcedirectory, inmates can use the website to produce lists of community resources. Former inmates and offenders can use the site as an online one-stop-shop to help them connect with more than 2,000 community resources and programs that range from medical to career counseling, to housing and substance abuse treatment. It’s likely to be a major help to inmates. While Florida’s unemployment rate is at 10 percent, it’s been estimated that the jobless rate for convicted felons is between 40-60 percent.
But one thing the system may not be ready to deal with is the “prison anger” mentality: the anti-authority stance that’s going to make some convicted felons bad workers because they hate taking orders, and insist they’re smarter than their boss. Or they could get tripped up by their sky high levels of distrust about everyone who walks up to them offering to help — the suspicion that makes them wonder how they’re about to get conned.
In his book, “The Art of the Con: Avoiding Offender Manipulation,” Gary Cornelius writes that inmates appear to learn all the wrong lessons while developing coping skills to deal with fellow inmates, tough corrections officers, and the entire prison system. “Research indicates a central theme of narcissism or self-centeredness in criminals’ psychological makeup,” Cornelius writes, which includes wanting “recognition of superiority without achievement.”
For example, “Many offenders think that their problems come before anyone else’s,” Cornelius writes, or “lacks remorse and/or empathy. If an offender assaults another person over something petty, it may be because ‘he deserved it’ or ‘he had to learn a lesson.’ “
Those are probably good coping skills in prison, considering what the average inmate is dealing with. In the real world, though, people skills count for a lot in today’s competitive business environment. Standing up for No. 1 can backfire badly.
And whether I’m at the prison near Starke, visiting my incarcerated friend and listening to him talk about the misery he endures on a daily basis …. or having dinner at a nice restaurant with my friend who is no longer serving time, as she talks about how she doesn’t have time for folks who just want to exploit her, I get that constant reminder that I probably lack the proper coping skills needed to successfully navigate around the prison anger mindset. And I also remember just how deeply disturbing it is to listen to.
Michael Freeman in an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..