1. Dysfunctional families.
Most of the men and women with felony backgrounds come from severely dysfunctional families. Americans are loathe to "blame the parents" for the misbehavior of wayward offspring, but this connection is indisputable. We have little trouble seeing out-of-control children being the result of out-of-control family systems. But, when the youth hits "18", he/she is suddenly responsible for their own behaviors despite an often hellacious background. It's hard to compensate for 17 years of abuse/neglect in one year. While we don't want to generalize that all children from difficult childhoods do bad things, and all children from good childhoods do good things, the connection to family cannot be overstated.
2. Limited educational backgrounds.
Most men and women with felony backgrounds have limited education. Most have dropped out of high school and/or earned a G.E.D. A few have taken some college courses and fewer still have a college degree. Keeping kids in school and nurturing them to their full potential is directly related to observation #1. When society invests in educational opportunities, we reap the benefits in the form of decreased criminal activity, lower incarceration rates, and higher civic participation. Providing resources to troubled families, and ensuring all kids have access to a quality education should be our top priorities.
3. Unreasonable expectations of masculinity.
For most of these men, and some women, fortifying a hyper-masculine identity for the outside world is primary. "Turning the other cheek", "Walking away", or saying "No", is simply not an option. At some point, society will have to address the hyper-masculine complex that has enveloped the U.S. over the last several decades. Many of these men have buried their feelings so deep for so long, they know no other way of living. Worse, their social support systems often bully or ridicule any sign of tenderness or emotion, other than anger. Society needs to send the message to all men (regardless of sexual orientation) that feminine characteristics like gentleness, passivity, nurturance and compromise are traits all men can embrace, without fear of retribution.
4. High regard for moral right/wrong.
This may seem paradoxical. But, the men and women I have worked with over the years display a strong sense of morality. But, due to their lack of education and social and cultural capital, this morality is often cloaked in "black/white" thinking. In other words, there is a tendency to employ an "either/or" decision-making process when a gray, more nuanced, perspective might be more self-serving. For example, loyalty to friends and family above all else might not always be in our own personal interest. But, loyalty in a general sense is a good trait. Increased educational opportunities would afford those with criminal histories more exposure to critical thinking and more practice seeing the bigger picture. Breaking out of "either/or" thinking is key to changing previous maladaptive behavioral patterns.
5. Respect, loyalty and power.
These three traits serve as double-edged swords, and are the mainstays of prison culture. While they may be indispensable to surviving behind bars, they are often obstacles to getting ahead out of prison. The biggest issue here is the tendency to look externally to satisfy these needs. In reality, these needs should be satisfied within. We need to respect ourselves and recognize our own power over our own lives. This respect for self is separate from the need to control others and to ensure admiration from outside sources. Transitioning from the expectations established in prison to those of society in general is a tricky move, and one in which people coming out of prison are provided scarce resources and guidance.
With the largest incarcerated per capita population of any industrialized nation, we are limiting the potential of each man and woman with a felony background. By continuing to deny them opportunities via stigma, labeling and isolation, society seals an unnecessary fate of continued crime and punishment. We must do a better job of prevention by providing more opportunities to families and young children, especially to those stuck at the bottom of the economic ladder. We also need to focus more on rehabilitation for those who do deviate from societal rules, and who are trying to re-enter society . Marking them with a "Scarlet F" serves nobody's interest.
Be kind to each other and to yourself. © Copyright 2013 Douglas Layer, LMHC