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Understanding the criminal subculture.

Everyone who works in corrections quickly discovers there is a criminal subculture among offenders that goes deeper than the cliche about "honor among thieves." Regardless of your specific job or your philosophical approach, if you do not recognize and understand this subculture, you cannot be effective.

It is not enough for us to look at an offender's crimes. We also must see the values, ethics and social systems that preceded them. Let me give two examples that illustrate this point.

When I was working as an officer at a jail, I often talked with one young inmate. He was bright, self-educated and dangerous. He had escaped from institutions in several states. One day we got into a discussion on ethics. He explained his perspective like this:

Hey, you're a correctional officer. That's what you do. You went to school. You trained for it. I think you're good at it.

I rob people. That's what I do. I could be better at it or I wouldn't be in here. But I'll get out of here. Just because you walk out of here at the end of your shift doesn't make you any better than me.

I'm a very moral guy. I wouldn't go out and just blow people away. Now, if I am robbing a place and someone tries to stop me, that is on them. They should know better than to try to stop me. I got to protect myself.

The second example took place after I became a probation officer. In this job, I have to instruct offenders on court orders, one of which involves the requirement to work. An offender put his lifestyle in perspective for me like this:

Man, get real. I can't read. I dropped out of school in the ninth grade. I sell crack. I work three days a week and make three times your income. I bought a house for my mama. I am buying a house for my brother. I am fixing to buy a house for my uncle.

So I get caught. I get a little down time. If I was a Navy officer I'd be away from my family more than that. And I make more money now than I would there. You want me to give that up and get a job at McDonald's? I don't think so.

Neither the inmate nor the probationer thought of themselves as criminals. They were survivors, doing what they knew to do to get by.

The social system that comprises the criminal subculture has many of the same elements as the rest of society. However, its values, ethics and orientation are not the same.

Most people orient their value system toward something outside their circle of friends, such as religion, pride in a job or a material goal. In the criminal subculture, peer or gang cohesiveness is more important than these outside influences. An individual's standing within the group is the most important thing. Everything apart from the group is considered "outside" and has low significance.

Much, if not all, of behavior within criminal subculture is learned. Like everyone else, offenders learn from those they respect. Offenders get positive strokes within their culture. They benefit from their behavior through an increase in status.

Two simple truths--that an individual emulates the group he or she identifies with and that the group supports and reinforces its members as they act out the group's values--are more profound than they might appear.

It has been said that the purpose of social science is to prove scientifically what the rest of the world already knows by common sense. Nevertheless, by studying and more fully appreciating basic principles, we can discover ways to deal with subcultures and individuals more effectively.

Applying what we learn can get us out of trouble and help us avoid creating it. For example, how often do correctional staff explain requirements in terms of outside influence on an offender's group? We say, "these are the rules" or "this is what you have to do."

Wouldn't it be more effective to say, "Those in here with you know that things will go smoother for you if you do things this way." It's only a small change in words, and it may not seem important, but to an offender who dislikes outside influences, it can be quite effective.

Another example is peer orientation. No one likes to be criticized in public, and if your major source of identification is group standing, this feeling is amplified.

If you publicly criticize inmates, you are doing far more than embarrassing them. You are threatening their power base. You may be reducing their standing within the group, and in some cases, you may even be harming their ability to survive.

In other situations, inmates may solicit your criticism to enhance their status. You are being played as a pawn.

The challenge is to understand the subtle aspects of the subculture we work with. Then, we can adjust our behavior to increase our effectiveness.

How can we use our understanding of the criminal subculture to discourage offenders from committing more crimes? I think we need to accept that offenders will never alter their behavior until they come to see their offense as wrong, admit it was their own fault and take the responsibility to change it.

Attempts at using guilt to shame offenders into changing are destined to fail. Guilt creates a dependent relationship between the offender and society. Society becomes responsible for the negative behavior. It's really no different than the spouse abuser who says, after a beating, "You made me do that! Don't make me do that again!" This sort of twisted logic often is used to rationalize criminal behavior in the criminal subculture.

We need to support policies that consider offenders' points of view. I believe understanding the criminal subculture can help prevent fights and make our jobs less stressful. For example, understanding inmates' value systems will reduce the number of problems we take home to our own families. We do not want to relate to our children the same way some inmates relate to each other.

The subject of cultural diversity is covered in many books, videos and courses. There are even consultants who specialize in this area. Not everyone agrees there is a criminal subculture, but even those who don't think in those terms believe we must come to a larger understanding of the interacting cultures in our society. I encourage you to use any resource that will lead to a better appreciation of the perspectives of those around you.

One simple way to increase your understanding of other groups' cultures is to think of a pie broken into pieces labeled family, society, law, religion, truth, love, honor and money. Each piece represents something that may motivate a person's behavior.

Ask other people, "What do you believe about honor?" or "What are your experiences with religion?" You don't need to debate. Just ask, listen and thank them for sharing. Getting to know other perspectives is always a delight and sometimes a surprise. With a few of the people we deal with, it can be downright scary. But it is better to be surprised in a discussion than during an incident for which you were unprepared.

Joseph K. O'Lear is a probation officer in Panama City, Fla.
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Correctional Association, Inc.
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Title Annotation:A View from the Line
Author:O'Lear, Joseph K.
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Apr 1, 1993
Previous Article:ACA audit unites facility staff.
Next Article:Defining the role of community corrections.

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