02/21/2013 10:21 am ET Updated Apr 23, 2013

How Prison Life Contributes to Violence on the Streets of Chicago

Most of Chicago's biggest gangs were formed in prison or became stronger in prison due to the fact that many of the young men had to choose sides while in prison in order to survive. The prison culture dictates a primal everyman or every group for itself mentality. Some of the slightest arguments or verbal disrespect can result in someone being attacked or killed -- the same way this plays out on the streets of Chicago. When you place young men in a hostile environment where only the strong survive, it's hard to have compassion and not give into the prison culture. In other words, when in Rome, do as the Romans. Prisons are filled with all kinds of criminals from petty car thieves to mass murderers.

However, if you place marginal non-violent offenders in a prison around rapists, robbers, murderers, and real gangsters, only one or two things happen. The marginal non-violent criminal becomes violent and joins a gang for protection or the marginal non-violent criminal becomes the prey for the predatory criminals. It's like placing a young man with a small alcohol or drug problem in a facility with heavy drug users that have no intentions of slowing down or ending their addiction. In turn, the marginal drug user gets turned out by the more serious drug users.

There are nearly 10,000 inmates in the Cook County Jail awaiting their fate from the judge and in the meantime the prison culture begins to take a hold on the prisoners like a big tsunami coming ashore to devastate the dry land. Many of the inmates are in need of mental health services and other inmates fall victim to the code of the jail system. The Illinois Department of Corrections currently houses over 48,000 inmates in the State of Illinois. The majority of prisoners in the Cook County Jail and the Illinois Department of Corrections are locked up for dealing drugs or non-violent crimes. If an inmate does not catch on fast to the prison culture he will be dealt with by his peers and find out the hard way that prison life serves a continuous struggle to survive everyday. Additionally, a great number of the inmates that are released from prison are infected with the wrong thinking and many of the young men carry this behavior with them back on the streets to repeat the cycle of violence all over again.

Violent mindsets are reinforced in prison and we as leaders have to find a way to help prison officials understand why it is so important to work with non-violent offenders in another capacity like converting some of the prisons into institutions of higher learning. This would be great considering the recidivism rate in Illinois is over 51 percent. If there is any way that violence can be curbed it has to start with reducing the number of non-violent offenders entering the prison system and becoming violent offenders due to the pressure of trying to keep up with the hard-core code of prisons that spills over on the streets of Chicago on a daily basis.