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Institutionalized or Institutionalization

At what point in time does an incarcerated criminal stop thinking about being institutionalized and become institutionalized? Some never do. Others do because it’s the only way they will survive in the event of life without parole. There are prisoners with no family on the outside, who spend many years “inside”, and one day they receive the news they are being paroled. Going in must suck.  Being forced out must be worse.

In the movie Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) and other rookie prisoners enter a  maximum security prison. A  group  of hardened convicts bet on which one will not last the first night. Ellis Boyd (Red) Redding (Morgan  Freeman – don’t you love the irony of his surname) bets against Andy but loses. Later, Red said Andy seemed like a “man in the park without a care or worry.  Like he had on an invisible coat that would shield him from this place.” Yet later in the movie he shoots down Dufresne’s ideology of hope.  “ Hope? Let me tell you something, my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane. It’s got no use on the inside. You’d better get used to that idea.” Although Red had been imprisoned for 2 decades, his comment proved that he was not  a man who had been institutionalized.

I uncovered a few informal rules on, of all sites, About.com suggesting how to adjut to life as a prisoner:

  1. Leave behind your former life.  Remaining in denial prolongs the  adjustment period.
  2. Prepare for a dehumanizing start.  You are now only a number and your surname is all that anyone will ever utter.
  3. Tune out the racket. Noise is constant.
  4. Act sensibly if you want to stay safe. Mind your own business.
  5. Get a diploma or degree. Whatever education you are missing, take advantage of  the prison library.
  6. Live life a day at a time.
  7. And according to Red, forget about Hope.

Those are the suggested, idealistic rules for adjusting to prison life.  Reviewing Shawshank Redemption (one of the best prison movies ever) I would suggest this set based on character quotations:

  1. Believe in two things; discipline and the Bible. Put your trust in the Lord. Your ass belongs to us. – Warden Samuel Norton
  2. When institutionalized, prepare for Brooks Hatlens’ experience upon being forced outside: I don’t like it here. I’m tired of being afraid all the time. I’ve decided not to stay.  – before his suicide
  3. You’ll be sorry when he puts a knife to your throat. – Brooks Hatlen
  4.  Live the rest of your life as a place with no memory. – Andy
  5. You eat when we say you eat. You shit when we say you shit and you piss when we say you piss. You got that, you maggot? – Captain Hadley
  6. Excitement is something only a free man can feel. – Red
  7. The first night’s the toughest. – Red
  8.  In prison, a man will do most anything to keep his mind occupied. – Red
  9.  Come to prison to be a crook. – Andy

After years, life behind bars becomes mechanical, predictable and at some point in time, prison life is a person’s only existence. This is when a person is institutionalized.  Prison provides a false sense of security, a false life, false friends. These things aren’t truly valid because they are determined by someone else and are out of the prisoner’s control. The prisoner can no longer function independently without this mechnical, unnatural environment; hence the high rate of recidivism. Habits and ways of thinking developed to adapt to life in prison can prove highly dysfunctional post-release. There are many reasons for re-offending, one of the biggest being difficulty in obtaining employment. This cannot be the only reason however. Social services and food banks are apt ways of surviving. I believe it is the psychology of prison, of becoming institutionalized that leads a prisoner to re-offend; s/he needs to be back inside.  Life on the outside is too foreign and overwhelming. (I have trouble sleepin’ at night. I have bad dreams like I’m falling. I wake up scared. – Hatlen)

Some prisons have work programs, treatment programs, educational programs  and other inmate activities. Some prisons expect inmates to  stay in their cell all day. Visitation days and days when the prison is on lockdown are the only  days when the daily routine is altered.

  1. An inmate’s day begins with a wake-up call from the Correctional Officer.
  2. After breakfast, inmates in work programs go to work.
  3. Some inmates go to school.
  4. Some go to treatment programs, including drug programs.
  5. The inmates stay at their location until lunchtime.
  6. When the day is done, the inmate returns to his cell.
  7. Time is spent cleaning the cell, writing home, drawing, working out  or socializing with other inmates.
  8. Some inmates spend free time in a common room playing cards or watching television.

Adjustment – to life inside
Prisoners who had lived poorly before prison are often happier after being imprisoned: they are fed 3 times a day; they have the ability to get an education and they have the opportunity to work.  Prisoners who are imprisoned for longer terms think about having more control over their lives. Prisoners with a good life before imprisonment have more family visits than prisoners who did not.  Over time all prisoners lose contact with family and friends. Age has an important effect on prisoners. The older the prisoner, the more likely s/he is to become depressed, lose their desire to work in prison and increase their disciplinary infractions.

Adjustment – to life outside – the older inmate
An inmate who serves significant time in prison has a difficult adjustment post-release.While aging inmates may no longer be considered a threat to society, that doesn’t mean they can easily adjust to their new circumstances. With few social services available, the difficulties they face often go unnoticed. Changes in technology alone, can be daunting; some inmates entered prison in pre-cell phone and Internet days. While life on the outside moves forward, life in prison changes little from day to day. The saying time waits for no one” doesn’t refer specifically to older inmates, but it rings truer for them. Young people are more likely to have some family; older  people have few, if any. Even if there are family connections, it is difficult for relatives to accept the person back into the family because of lingering resentment or feelings of abandonment. Combined with the difficulties older inmates may have finding employment, they become isolated, which can lead to behaviors such as drug and alcohol abuse. In addition, older inmates can be a difficult population for social workers since developing a therapeutic relationship with someone who has lived in a world where trust barely exists takes time and patience. On the inside, an elderly inmate might even function as a big fish in a small pond: he has seniority, he has proven himself many times over the years, he has earned a grudging respect.  On the outside, he is no one, with no connections and no family.

Education and Employment
Prisoners who only graduated from high school had fewer conflicts with other prisoners and more disciplinary infractions.  Prisoners who were unemployed have more internal signs of distress, assaults and more disruptive infractions. A prisoner who participates in regime activities often finds life difficult to adjust to upon release. Halfway through Shawshank, Red makes an ominous comment:  These prison walls are funny. First you hate ’em, then you get used to ’em. Enough time passes, gets so you depend on them. That’s institutionalized. They send you here for life, that’s exactly what they take.

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