In the MDOC there were nearly 1500 assaults in 2015 including over 100 resulting in serious injury or death. This is down from the previous year and breaks a trend of increasing violence. This is roughly 3.5% of the prison population, and certainly many assaults were not reported. I myself was assaulted twice in 2014 at the hands of gang members carrying out ‘hits’ at the direction of their leaders for things I didn’t even have a part in, just collateral damage due to paranoid delusions.
Much of this violence is the result of perceived disrespect. In prison, respect and the demands to receive it from the others around them is a major focus for some. I observed this mainly from those who grew up on the streets under the influence of gangs rather than in homes under the influence of parents, especially fathers; or from those in broken homes who spent time in the foster care system.
The main difference I believe is that in a properly functioning family the parents teach their children morals, as opposed to the gang subculture that focuses on respect only. Morals are defined as rules and habits of conduct. In addition to the family, moral education is also carried out by schools and churches. There are four main aspects to Moral Education according to the World Book Encyclopedia: Inculcation, Values clarification, Moral development and Values analysis. The goal of moral education is to develop values -the standards by which people judge what is important, worthwhile and good. Moral values include hard work, honesty, fairness, cooperation, tolerance and respect.
For those that have grown up on the streets having dropped out of school and never attended church their education was a distorted, unbalanced interpretation of those values held by a civil society. Hard work is to be avoided, easy money is the game. They dream of getting rich so that they can live the lifestyle, however they don’t see hard work or education as the means to achieve that goal.
To survive on the streets honesty and fairness have been replaced with lying, cheating and stealing. Every transaction is an attempt to get over on someone else. A good hustler always makes a little something on every deal. They will say anything to anyone to get what they want. They will take what is not theirs without hesitation in order to either have it for themselves or to turn it into quick money.
Cooperation only goes so far. Gangs use a strict hierarchy of rank and authority that is achieved and maintained by ruthless violence and manipulation. Disputes are often settled with a gun. Gangs are at war with each other for territory and economic control of things like drug distribution. There is no tolerance for anyone outside of the gang. People of other ethnicities, cultures or socio-economic classes are denigrated, derided and targeted for violence and/or exploitation.
Respect is the most highly esteemed value. In an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ subculture respect is demanded and any perceived slight can result in violence against the individual that “disrespected” them. Respect is based on how strong, brutal, vicious, cunning, and ruthless you are; in other words, how ‘bad’ you are. For those in the gang subculture this is what they look up to.
How different this is from the form of respect that the greater society relies on. Respect means having regard for, to avoid violation, to have concern for an individual. It is this basis for a civil society as opposed to the gang mentality which harkens back to the Wild West where life was cheap and people were regularly gunned down in cold blood. They believe the myth that an armed society is a civil society, however guns don’t make peace only war.
In prison what was formerly called a knife, shive, or shank is now called a banger. And to ‘bang’ someone out is to cut them up. There is evidence in every prison bathroom I’ve ever used of knife sharpening in the showers between the tiles or in the toilet stalls between the bricks. To ‘buck fifty’ someone is to cut their cheek, usually in an attempt to brand them a snitch, so that everyone else that encounters that person in prison will know what they are.
In eight years in prison I have never witnessed a knife fight. Knives are used to sneak up on somebody and severely injure or kill them. You seek to catch your victim unaware and attack before they can defend themselves. Often the tactic involves a group of 2-4 ganging up on a lone individual in an isolated location in a hit and run attack. There is no intention of giving someone a “fair” fight.
Prison is full of people who committed a violent crime or came from a violent subculture and are predisposed to violence as the primary method of addressing their problems. The Parole Board may require classes such as Thinking for A Change or VPP (Violence Prevention Programming) which are cognitive behavioral therapy groups where students are asked to work through a book and participate in discussions in order to identify the underlying reasons for violence and to provide techniques to manage/control violent outbursts.
The programs taught by the MDOC do not teach morals in an attempt to re-educate offenders, rather they provide tools to manage antisocial behavior. This is consistent with the philosophy that government does not teach morality, it only legislates it. This is the reason why punishment is not a deterrent to crime. Many violent crimes involve passion-unchecked emotions coupled with a complete lack of conscience, while the states solution is to apply logic and reason. The recidivism rate speaks clearly to the failure of this approach. Contrast this with the recidivism rate for those who actively participate in Christian faith-based programming which does teach morals. The government doesn’t teach morality, this only comes from the family, church, and schools. Unfortunately, in recent years moral teaching has been removed from schools due to the push for separation of church and state. So, in an increasingly secular society where church attendance is decreasing and over 50% of marriages end in divorce strong morals are not being taught.
What better place than in prison to teach those who never learned proper morals in the first place? In a controlled environment you should be able to get the inmates undivided attention and yet this is not the case. Too much unproductive free time and distractions coupled with the lack of enforcement of discipline have resulted in an environment that is not conducive to learning. Just look at the GED completion rates to see the evidence for this.
Punishment fails as a method of correcting bad behavior when the person being punished does not perceive their behavior as bad, rather as normal. Instead it results in a loss of respect for authority and tends to further entrench the behavior. It is a bit like when a parent tells a child, “Because I said so.” No explanation just a command not to do it again.
Our society had become a moral quagmire because it no longer believes in absolutes. Truth is whatever you want it to be. Morals and societal norms no longer serve as the restraints they once did to rein in aberrant behavior through peer pressure and societal expectations. Entertainers have pushed the envelope until it has become a garbage bag. They preach a message of unrestrained hedonism. These modern-day evangelists have millions of disciples living their lives following the philosophy of moral relativism. So, does it make sense to use television as a baby sitter in prison? Or flood inmate’s ears with violent and sexually explicit song lyrics through MP3 players?
Instead of warehousing people in prisons with lots of free time and no direction, the MDOC needs to find a better way to manage the prison population in order to effect change. Ex-offenders may never be model citizens after they are released, however they should no longer be the poster-children for a failed system whose faces appear on wanted posters. Use the time given to each prisoner to instill in them a better understanding of the expectations of a civil society through the application of a moral education.