Characteristics of Adolescent Felons in a Prison Treatment Program

By Eisenman, Russell | Adolescence, Fall 1993 | Go to article overview

Characteristics of Adolescent Felons in a Prison Treatment Program


Eisenman, Russell, Adolescence


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).

METHOD

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.

RESULTS

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.

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