Do prisons create prisoners?

In “The Tipping Point,” Malcolm Gladwell takes the stance, based on the Power of Context, that behavior is a function of social context.

There is a world of difference between being inclined toward violence and actually committing a violent act. A crime is relatively rare and aberrant event. For a crime to be committed, something extra, something additional has to happen to tip a troubled person toward violence, and what the Power of Context is saying is that those Tipping Points may be as simple and trivial as everyday signs of disorder like graffiti and fare-beating. The implications of this idea are enormous. The previous notion that disposition is everything – that the cause of violent behavior is always ‘sociopathic personality’ or ‘deficient superego’ or the inability to delay gratification or some evil in the genes – is, in the end, the most passive and reactive of ideas about crime. It says that once you catch a criminal you can try to help him get better – give him Prozac, put him in therapy, try to rehabilitate him – but there is very little you can do to prevent crime from happening in the first place. . . Character is more like a bundle of habits and tendencies and interests, loosely bound together and dependent, at certain times on circumstance and context. The reason that most of us seem to have consistent character is that most of us are really good at controlling our environment.

If behavior is a function of social context, then prison – prisoners consorting exclusively with other prisoners – is the most noxious environment ever created; and may be the most destructive foil to the success of society and even humanity as a whole.

In the Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne says, “It’s funny. On the outside I was an honest man, a straight arrow. I had to come to prison to be a crook.”

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One Comment on “Do prisons create prisoners?”

  1. takeo kudo Says:

    This is the most articulate perspective I’ve read on the futility of prisons as a reform component of society.


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