Prison Values Spill Into Society

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WHEN Jerry Miller reads about teenage shoving matches turning into urban shootouts, he shakes his head in dismay and understanding. The number of such big-city incidents, which have increased dramatically of late, will continue at even higher rates, he says.

Easy access to guns is only a symptom. A generation of young African-American men has come of age in jail or prison, says Mr. Miller, founder and president of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives. An often-quoted statistic from a 1990 report by The Sentencing Project in Washington notes that almost 1 in 4 black men (23 percent) in the United States age 20 to 29 is in prison, jail, on probation, or on parole on any given day.

"They are simply acting on the values they learned [in prison] now that they are out," says Miller, former head of the Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Illinois Juvenile Justice Departments.

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The major problem - truly a tragedy, says Miller - is that values learned in jail directly contradict those acceptable in broader society: "If prison or jail is your society, you learn the rules of this society and then you practice them when you are back in your community."

Among the most destructive prison values:

* "Fronting" is frequent and necessary, Miller says.

To "front" someone in prison means that when someone is challenged he immediately asserts his willingness to defend himself, his turf, or his gang. And if a prisoner fronts another prisoner, he must be prepared to act. If he can't deliver, he risks being made a "punk," jailhouse slang for someone who is abused, often sexually. Outside of prison, where guns are handy, fronting turns deadly.

* "Snitching" is seen as a serious infraction by prisoners; all the research on prison behavior confirms this, according to Miller.

Youths schooled in prison values believe that those who report misbehavior to the authorities should be punished, even killed. But a fact of life in the war on drugs is that district attorneys use the threat of a long, mandatory prison sentence to elicit a plea bargain.

An individual arrested on a drug charge, to obtain a lesser conviction, will testify against other drug users and pushers. When someone arrested on a drug charge is given a lesser sentence, it arouses suspicion on the street. Retribution often follows.

* Individuals who are not members of prison gangs have no one to trust.

Youths cite this fact as a prime reason for joining a gang. Membership in gangs outside prison, moreover, is the greatest single contributor to inner-city crime today, Miller says. Gang membership in prison spills into society.

* Prison demands that an individual defend what little personal space he has.

The code of behavior in prison sees simple trespass as a serious infraction. An inmate does not simply walk into another's cell - it is seen as an assault. Back on the streets, the passing of a gang member through another gang's neighborhood may be seen in the same way.

Going to jail "is a rite of passage," Miller says, "and the whole purpose of rites of passage is to confirm an identity."

The full implications of the acculturation of young black men in prison struck Miller while he was a court-appointed monitor overseeing the jail in Duval County, Fla. He discovered that 76 percent of the black men in the county between the ages of 18 and 30 had been arrested at one time or another. More than half had been arrested as juveniles. Miller checked further and found this pattern held true in 50 of the largest cities.

Obviously, Miller says, "if you have a majority of black males arrested by age 21, this comes with aftereffects for the society that does the arresting." It is one of the principal reasons why he closed down all juvenile detention centers when he headed the Massachusetts juvenile-justice department.

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