10/17/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Devil They Know: Biography of an American Inmate

I think my saddest moment in prison came near the end of my term, when I threw out a question to the group gathered around my bunk. I asked them if they'd been hit growing up. Unsurprisingly, they all said yes, but the sad part was what they were hasty to add. "Oh but I deserved it. I was a bad kid." When I told them that as far as I was concerned, there was never any excuse to hit a child, they looked at me as if I was from Mars.

An educated person in prison might as well be from another planet. The way you talk sounds suspicious, condescending, reminding them of the judge who put them away or the teacher who sighed at them in class. So I learned to listen more than talk, and grew to understand the psychology of men who can't seem to stay out of jail. I was as curious as the next guy. If prisons are so unpleasant (and they are), why do so many keep going back?

To answer this question required a willingness to imagine a life with none of the advantages I took for granted growing up. This "biography," in its basic outlines, could serve to describe a huge cross section of the men I came to know in prison.

Our archetype is mostly raised by a single, poor woman. If it's his mother, she had him young, drinks or does drugs, smokes and has poor parenting skills -- at least until she becomes a devoted Christian or dies young. Very often, a grandmother or foster mother does the parenting. If he has siblings, they raise each other -- badly.

His father is largely absent, often in and out of prison himself. Stepfathers or boyfriends of his mother supply his few male role models, and they are more often than not, abusive. No one in his milieu even questions corporal punishment as the natural form of discipline, often with hairbrushes, belts and power cords. He is often sexually abused by an older man. He hates himself for being a victim, which perversely makes him less empathetic to those he will victimize, as his inner conclusion from these experiences is to abhor weakness, not violence. And he almost never sees a healthy and loving relationship between a man and a woman on which to model his own as an adult.

He experiences a great deal of loss early. Apart from parental abandonment, the toll in impoverished neighborhoods is high from lung cancer, diabetes, alcoholism, drug addiction and violence. Grief shows vulnerability, so it is internalized and bottled up. This invariably leads to acting out in school, which creates a vicious cycle of punishment and being tracked into undemanding or remedial classes. Even if he has a natural academic potential, it is undeveloped by teachers overwhelmed by large classes. Pressure is high to join gangs, where he at least doesn't feel stupid.

He finds relief in fantasy. Video games and TV are his first escape and they teach him simplistic, violent narratives and instant gratification. Already surging with testosterone, he tries alcohol and drugs. The stage is set. With almost no countervailing influences, obtaining fast cash through any means necessary is a completely logical choice for him. When he gets away with it, he feels powerful. For the first time he feels he has an impact on his world. Consequences are an abstract notion at best, older brothers and cousins and guys in the neighborhood seem to treat jail like a rite of passage, never revealing what a scary experience it is. The possibility of violent death is glamorized, or at least viewed fatalistically.

He believes drugs and alcohol are a non-negotiable necessity. Ninety-five percent of inmates can tell you exactly how, where and on what they will get loaded upon their release, even though it will often constitute a parole violation, sending them right back to jail. Sobriety, to most inmates, means sticking to beer instead of scotch, marijuana instead of heroin.

Social conservatives will point to men from disadvantaged social backgrounds who rise above their circumstances by studying hard, getting scholarships to college and moving into the professional class. But we take note of these individuals because they are the exception.

A system which punishes the poor for reacting unexceptionally to their poverty has created a criminal class which views prison as a sort of career. Like a boring factory job, they don't like it much, but they've concluded it's their lot in life. Periods of freedom are like rare vacations during which partying hard and spending as much money as possible seem like a completely rational response to a temporary break from incarceration.

What makes sense to an outsider is that a parolee stays off drugs and gets a job. But he is returned to the same neighborhood where his friends are, who instantly get him high and welcome him back to the fold -- whether selling drugs, credit card scams, stealing cars, etc. If he resists returning to that lifestyle, he usually gets a low-skill, low-paying job that barely allows him to survive, much less support any family. His alcohol or drug use inevitably causes him to lose the job and creates domestic friction.

Parole feels like a series of booby-traps, designed to trip the parolee up instead of support him staying free. He begins to accept returning to prison as inevitable, even a relief from the incredible stress of surviving on the outside. At least in prison his basic needs are met, and the traits he has the most trouble with, like aggression, are assets more than liabilities. It's not that he likes it, but he has the skills to deal with it.

Human nature is a funny thing. We are afraid of what we don't recognize. Crime, poverty and prison constitute a grim life, but it has the pull of the familiar. If these men don't get a sense of a different way to live early enough in life, they will continually choose the devil they know.

(Next: How to Break the Cycle of Recidivism)