Reaching The 70%   an article by Ruth Utnage

If you remember correctly I have a percentage-based model of how inmates categorically fall into patterns of change. 15% refuse to or cannot change positively, 15% will change positively no matter what, and 70% will remain basically stagnant. So if 15% are unreachable at any given moment, the other 15% don’t seem to need help, how do we effectively reach the 70%? (As a side note, these percentages are estimates, obviously, and are based on personal observations, “empirically” collected, from over a 9 year period. )

First, it’s important to understand some sociological factors. We are dealing with a micro-society (prison) that is part of a macro-society (the community). Prison is a fear-based culture whereas society is not. In previous terms our micro-society influences the majority of its inhabitants through fear. This differs slightly from macro-society. On a larger scale the majority are still influenced by fear of some sort, however, not the entire culture is defined via fear. An example of the community being influenced by fear would be the fear of rejection leading to conformity of some sort, like wearing some new fashion that doesn’t actually make you feel more confident. The main difference being in a macro-society, like the U.S., we can dress these fears in more colorful language so people don’t have to admit that they are living in fear. Keeping with our example of fear of rejection, we conveniently speak about this as “fitting in” or “keeping up with trends” instead of calling it “fear of rejection”.

Prison is quite different. Fear is the primary governance and teacher, the main “influencer” wielded by two demographics: 1) inmates who are seeking to control other inmates using violence or the threat thereof and 2) the prison system itself via threats of isolation (segregation/the hole) or more time in prison (which is fear-based because it is well-understood, even by the simplest of minds, that prison is psychologically damaging to most and the “fear” is a further degenerated mental state when most already believe they came in broken, how much more broken will we be if “more time” gets added, etc).

Fear is is the primary tool used to modify a prisoners behavior in any given direction. However, let us also consider the nature of our valued “rewards”. The law of scarcity applies to any society. What is scarcest is the most valuable. In the case of the prisoner, our punishment is societal banishment, separation from “community” as a whole. What is scarcest, then, is community contact. This is valued above everything, except ones own life. Information is gathered and synthesized by the incarcerated on how to effectively commune with the community. Observation occurs, learning takes place on the best methods to have contact for any period of time, which is why volunteer-run programs are so popular opposed to peer-run programs, which are decidedly more effective (ask nearly any cogent prisoner not mired in a culture of violence and the answer will be the same) than the former, because they involve “people” from the outside…community.

Once a volunteer-based program becomes known to have some sort of prolonged contact with the community, which can be as simple as a literal 3-4 minute conversation on the side, inmates begin watching to see who is able to interact with the community and why. Why are they being rewarded? Who is being rewarded? What did they do differently? Then we must consider if it’s possible for ourselves to also receive that community validation, the reward.

This is where “reaching the 70%” becomes clear. People in day-to-day prison life are sometimes very different than when they are at a volunteer-run program. Remember the reward system I just outlined (albeit expediently and simplistically, for this simplistic approach I apologize, however necessary in order to keep us on track for now!), inmates observe keenly one another and who and how is being rewarded. Our most prized reward is community contact, our second most prized reward is contact in the form of praise from staff (which can also be in a program and the same rules above apply, except in a separate conversation).

Since it is well understood amongst ourselves that there are negative, positive, and neutral influencers. The 70% (neutral) observe which demographic receives the reward, which, remember is that overlooked 2-3 minute conversation on the side, that sense of intimacy that is completely lacking, attention that is entirely lacking and thought about more than nearly anything. Even if that side conversation is a reprimand or to correct some behavior, it still qualifies as a reward if the offender remains in the program. Not only does it qualify in the rewarded offenders mind but also in the minds of the 70%, which is our topic of interest. If the 70% are witnessing the disruptors receive the reward, which is most often the case, they believe they are not worthy of the “reward” and subsequently withdraw from the belief they are worthy because they are actively witnessing the “negative”, “bad seeds”, “change-resistant bottom 15%” get the ultimate reward – community engagement and validation. This is validation because, previously to said program, they were not “worth” the time (in their minds) to be spoken to.

Allow me to point out a vital piece of information. There are 3 influential demographics to the 70%: change-resistant (negative), the rehabilitated (positive), and the incarcerative system itself (which is the conduit for public opinion as well, which could be argued is a fourth influencer on its own, but the prison system is the result of public opinion, any public opinion that is widely held should, in theory, be reflected in system operations). This crucial piece of overlooked information is the reason, in my opinion, why our recidivism rates are so unwaivering. The 70% is literally watching the negative crowd receive everything of value to this micro-society and they are watching them get it because they are acting out and negatively. This leaves them with an internal conflict: being told to correct themselves while watching those who refuse to correct themselves get rewarded, furthermore, watching those who put forth immense effort to self-correction be completely ignored. Do the right thing, get ignored still, do the wrong thing, get rewarded.

Since there is the demographic that does change (the upper 15%), despite these conditions, there is an example for the 70% to follow. However, in order for them to begin following that path of non-recidivism – change – they need to see those who are efforting to change positively be rewarded and those who are not efforting to change isolated. Since the 70% is largely followers they are not confident, yet, enough to make changes to themselves on their own. They are still scared, gripped by fear of all kinds of things. Mostly, though, their nagging fear is the fear of social rejection and being targeted and subsequently isolated from other human beings. They ask themselves the question “how do I remain safe here?” and the answer, for them, is “fit in”. For decades now the prisoners who are change-averse have been the dominant influence because they manipulate the fear of others, fear they themselves are secretly imprisoned by. While those who are positive influences are highly regarded for their ability to walk their own path and rise above the chaotic micro-society to change in spite of the conditions, the 70% see that there is no visible benefit to that sort of perceived isolation that comes with being a positive influence. The voice that commands the most attention is the one who receives the most valuable rewards.

To summarize, what is normal behavior in society is normal behavior in prison, however, the drivers differ immensely. This is a vital mistake that pro-social and positive-change programs make is assuming a prisoners motivations for participation and engagement. Stories of change can be manufactured to recite at the next meeting so that they “prove” the program works in an effort to receive the “reward”, community interaction. By presenting themselves as the “hard-cases” and stereotypical “convict” they present themselves as problems to be fixed, the very reason volunteers volunteer, to make a difference, to “change” something. But they are so easily fooled into believing a genuine change is occurring when it is not, what they are witnessing is a well-practiced and well-oiled script that gets recited and perfected because it is what the “community” expects to hear a “Cinderella” story and how they watched the hardened convict “change”. The 70% witness this egregious show in horror as the ones who lie the best get rewarded for all the wrong things and all the wrong people know it.

You want to reach the 70%? Stop rewarding the negative influencers. Start rewarding true effort, those who put in the work. Hold your program to a high standard and have rules that reflect these standards and then hold fast to them, do not waiver. Create a reputation that those who truly work hard, truly put forth effort get rewarded with opportunity. At first only the highly driven will succeed, but in a short time the 70% will follow suit and mimic the behaviors if the positive influencers and not the negative and the program will burst with talent. So much legitimate change will occur that it will break international headlines with revolutionary results. Until then, the same exact thing is happening that has always happened and different people are expecting different results.

How about we try something different? I’ve already started…

With Love
Ruth Utnage

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“A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engages him in their struggle, then by a thousand actions in their favor without that trust.” (“Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by Paulo Freire )

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