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Characteristics of adolescent felons in a prison treatment program.

For close to two years I worked as Senior Clinical Psychologist in a California state prison treatment program for youthful male offenders. Duties included individual and group therapy and writing parole board reports. The inmates were all felony offenders, most of whom had been previously arrested many times. From this experience I learned a great deal about their personalities and backgrounds, which should be helpful to those who work with this population.

Since adult criminality often has its genesis in juvenile offending (Eisenman, 1991a), understanding young offenders may also provide insight into criminals in general. Recent studies of young offenders have provided important insights into this group (Armistead, Wierson, Forehand, & Frame, 1992; Blaske, Borduin, Henggeler, & Mann, 1989; Clark, 1992; Eisenman, 1991a, 1991b, 1992c; Henggeler, Hanson, Borduin, Watson, & Brunk, 1985; Males, 1992; Muster, 1992).


The prison treatment program contained 43 beds for male offenders. Ages ranged from 14-25 years, with a modal age of 16 years at the time of the study. About one-third were black, Hispanic, and white, respectively. To be in the treatment program, the youth had to be judged emotionally disturbed. Thus, few of the close to 8,000 prisoners in the entire state youth prison system received treatment because there were only three intensive treatment programs, each with about 43 inmates. My observations were based on information gained in individual and group therapy sessions, from case files, and from information provided by other therapists. To increase the probability of valid observations, all conclusions were (a) based on information verified by at least one other therapist, and (b) those observations were made for more than 50% of the population.


Anti-Social Orientation

The youth had all developed anti-social orientations. They saw crime as the right thing to do, and people were basically objects to be manipulated for their own purposes. Although they might have a friend or companion, most of them did not have the same regard for others which the more typical member of society might possess. They often lacked the usual reciprocity involved in friendship relationships, and would fulfill any obligations to the extent they felt it was necessary to get what they wanted. Those who fit this pattern less than others seemed able to establish friendly relationships without as much self-centeredness.

Authority figures, in particular, were sources of problems for the inmates. While many would establish good relationships in individual therapy, they tended to be hostile toward all authority. Attitudes toward their therapists would sometimes reflect this outlook, especially in group therapy, where the group and not the therapist became the salient reference point; the prisoner would be disobedient and hostile to impress his buddies. Other authority figures, such as guards, teachers, and the police were often seen as the enemy.

Not Knowing How to Be Anything Else

One of the tragedies of their lives was that most of them had no idea how to be anything else than full-time, hard-core criminals. Some of them may have wanted their lives to be different, but they lacked any sense of how they could change. Many of the obvious avenues available to "straight people" were more or less closed to them. For example, education is a way of making it in our society, but many of these youth were severely deficient in academic ability. School had been a constant source of failure for them. They were often hyperactive in grammar school and they learned little. School was seen as a place where they got bad grades and were punished by teachers. It would be useful to know if this hyperactivity is an inherent physiological disorder, or simply a result of boredom with normal routine. In either case, school was an imposition on many of them, lowering their self-esteem and reinforcing their belief that could not succeed in educational pursuits. Many of them were of low intelligence, the average IQ being about 85. Different tests were used to assess IQ, but as a group the inmates tended to score below the average IQ of 100. Thus, obtaining a high school degree would be a difficult achievement. Although a few were of average or above average intelligence, they nevertheless saw school as something they were not good at. In addition to their hyperactivity, whatever its roots, we do not know whether their inability to compete successfully with others academically results from an early anti-social orientation which makes them unwilling to be attentive in class. Whatever the cause, their limited academic achievement and distaste for education places them at a disadvantage in competing for decent jobs, and makes crime seem attractive as a way to make money. At the prison, we try to teach them how to make it in the world without resorting to crime. Thus, there was a therapy group called Life Planning, in which the inmates were shown how to apply for jobs, how to get to work on time, and the skills needed. Most of them had little idea of how to function in society, but the criminal lifestyle was easy and obvious for them. Even if they were interested in a conventional, noncriminal lifestyle, the way the prison system was structured, we did therapy and taught job application skills, but could not do actual training for skills. This was done at other state prisons known as training schools, but these lacked the therapy programs.

Family Background

One of the most revealing things about these criminals was their terrible family backgrounds. Almost all of them had been subjected to physical, psychological, or sexual abuse while growing up. Typically, the abuse was from one or both of parents, usually the father. Their original authority figures had failed miserably in the socialization process. Over half had been raised by the mother only, the father having abandoned them at an early age.

Another factor which predisposed many, although not all of them to crime, was that often the parents were either criminals themselves, or were less than totally law-abiding. For example, many of the youth came from parents who used cocaine, and in some cases encouraged their children to use drugs with them, or at least did not discourage drug use.

Gang Membership

Over half the black and Hispanic prisoners were members of street gangs. Blacks were members of the Crips or the Bloods, while Hispanics were members of various other gangs. These gangs were like the Mafia in that once you are in, there was no leaving. They were antisocial, criminal organizations. Some like the Crips financed themselves by controlling or attempting to control the drug trade, especially cocaine. Life was cheap to the gangs. A victim who failed to give up his wallet, or a rival gang member who tried to intrude on their territory, might be killed--without remorse.

Less than 50% of the white inmates were gang members, but those who were, tended to be either Skinheads or Stoners. Skinheads were racist, neo-Nazi, pro-violence groups that were extremely anti-black and anti-Jewish. They loved fighting and proclaiming the superiority of the white race. Stoners were pro-drugs, their name derived from the expression "getting stoned." Most were mainly into burglary to support their drug habits. They tended to be the least violent of the gangs in the prison.


The findings suggest that the youthful offenders are tragic victims of a society into which they do not fit. Typically of low intelligence, at least as measured by the standardized tests, being hyperactive in elementary school, and being abused by dysfunctional or criminal parents, they drift into a life of crime and find it satisfying and rewarding. Alternatives to a criminal lifestyle are not apparent to them. Thus, in some ways, they are victims and deserving of our sympathy. At the same time, as people who are anti-society and willing to hurt others with little signs of remorse, they are very dangerous.

Therapy may help them become productive members of society, but the task is very difficult, given their lack of motivation and low level of skills. In addition to helping them learn how to dress for an interview, how to talk to the boss, and how to get to work on time, a complete treatment program should include therapy for particular problems and skills training.


An understanding of the characteristics of adolescent felons provides some insight into what needs to be done. However, prisons are security oriented and treatment issues are often set aside. As a result, treatment personnel may be made to feel like second-class citizens (Eisenman, 1992a, 1992b). Staff burnout is common in prisons, both in treatment and nontreatment facilities.

A realistic look at these adolescent felons suggests the need for sympathy for the way they have been treated, but an awareness of their potential for dangerous behavior. Although many of the adolescents in the present study were conduct disordered and probably typical of the general prison population, the fact that they had to be deemed emotionally disturbed in order to get into the treatment program could mean that they are different, at least in some ways.


Armistead, L., Wierson, M., Forehand, R., & Frame, C. (1992). Psychopathology in incarcerated juvenile delinquents: Does it extend beyond externalizing problems? Adolescence, 27, 309-314.

Blaske, D. M., Borduin, C. M., Henggeler, S. W., & Mann, B. J. (1989). Individual, family, and peer characteristics of adolescent sex offenders and assaultive offenders. Developmental Psychology, 25, 846-855.

Clark, C. M. (1992). Deviant adolescent subcultures: Assessment strategies and clinical interventions. Adolescence, 27, 283-293.

Eisenman, R. (1991a). From crime to creativity: Psychological and social factors in deviance. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.

Eisenman, R. (1991b). Is justice equal: A look at restitution, probation or incarceration in six states. Louisiana Journal of Counseling and Development, 11(2), 47-50.

Eisenman, R. (1992a). Administrative control of prison therapists: Use of a variable-interval punishment schedule. Psychological Reports, 71, 146.

Eisenman, R. (1992b). Treatment of incarcerated offenders: Possibilities and problems. Acta Paedopsychiatrica, 55, 159-162.

Eisenman, R. (1992c). Living with a psychopathic personality: Case history of a successful anti-social personality. Acta Paedopsychiatrica, 55, 241-243.

Henggeler, S. W., Hanson, C. L., Borduin, C. M., Watson, S. M., & Brunk, M. A. (1985). Mother-son relationships of juvenile felons. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 53, 942-943.

Males, M. (1992). The code blue report: Call to action or unwanted "dirism?" Adolescence, 27, 273-282.

Muster, N. J. (1992). Treating the victim-turned-offender. Adolescence, 27, 441-450.
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Author:Eisenman, Russell
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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