Prisoners Who Focus on Success Reject Labels of Convicts or Inmates

By · Friday, February 20th, 2009

Paul wrote a comment asking me to elaborate on my perceptions with regard to the differences between those prisoners who identified themselves as either convicts or inmates. Specifically, Paul wanted to know whether I thought convicts had committed more violent crimes than inmates, and whether I thought convicts were more likely to re-offend upon release.

My experiences suggest that those who identified themselves with the convict label were more defiant of authority, and more receptive to adjustment patterns that put them squarely in the us-versus-them culture of the prison. They were indifferent or resistant to programs through which they might participate in order to prepare for release. They believed in distancing themselves from society and serving their time in ways that minimized their distractions from the outside world.

An inmate, on the other hand, was a prisoner who adjusted in ways to curry favor with prison staff and administrators. He focused on participating in programs, not with the goal of meaningful preparations for release, but because he wanted to impress staff members with his accumulation of certificates. Inmates were stigmatized with reputations of being patsies, or pawns of the administration. In prison parlance, an inmate was more a pejorative term, while those who considered themselves convicts wore the label as a badge of honor.

I have known men who stood convicted of heinous, violent crimes, yet adjusted in prison as if they wanted to fit the profile of a model inmate. They were ubiquitous to staff, ostracized by fellow prisoner, and active in every program available. Likewise, since I’ve been confined in minimum-security camps, I’ve know men who served brief sentences for white-collar crimes that were totally defiant of authority and openly embraced the tacitly understood convict code of adjustment.

Certainly, as my writings reflected, I’ve been convinced that a man’s adjustment pattern in prison could have an influence on his ability to overcome the challenges that would await him upon release. Though I was not convinced that a man’s propensity for violence predisposed him for the adjustment patterns of being a convict or an inmate, neither did I believe that those who identified with either group would be more or less prepared to function as a law-abiding citizen upon release.

Although I have never been released from prison, I have come to believe that men who committed to succeeding upon release could prepare themselves best by using deliberate adjustment patterns. Such patterns required the individual to understand his environment, to master it so he could pursue incremental goals that he deemed essential to his success. Such a man knew that he was neither a convict nor an inmate; he was a man, a prisoner. Such prisoners maneuvered their way through the storms of imprisonment without concern for labels that others tried to pin on them, and without a blind allegiance to the system of corrections. Such prisoners focused on success upon release and they refused to accept labels or limitation placed upon them by the abnormal infrastructure of so-called corrections. Their allegiance was to society, and doing whatever was necessary to ensure that they would emerge with the skills and resources to function upon release as a fully actualized citizen.

Those who chose such paths would reject the labels and they would not cede control of their life to any outside force. Through discipline and personal commitment, they could find their niche within the institution and thrive in spite of the adversity presented by both the population and the infrastructure of confinement.

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