Understanding the Criminal Subculture

By O'Lear, Joseph K. | Corrections Today, April 1993 | Go to article overview

Understanding the Criminal Subculture


O'Lear, Joseph K., Corrections Today


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. …

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