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Criminal Psychology-Experiences from the Field

Updated on September 14, 2012

Criminal and Behavioral Psychology

So far in my short career I have had the opportunity to work with very violent, deviant people behind bars. I’ve had the opportunity to study their mannerisms, learn their thought processes and experience their actions as criminals and it has been a fascinating yet challenging journey. The psychology of criminal thinking is something that has been studied and has served as entertainment through television shows, documentaries and news interviews. What people don’t realize is there is much more to criminal psychology than what is presented through these outlets.

When I first started my career as a substance abuse counselor working inside a medium-maximum prison in Indiana I had no idea what I was truly getting myself into. My first day on the job I was scared out of my mind from the time I checked in at the front gate and was given clearance and then ushered through the steel door that slammed shut and locked behind me to the time I left for the day. I was inside with a bunch of animals and I had a bit of a panic attack but I tried not to let anyone see that. I met with my supervisor who showed me around and introduced me to my colleagues and then he placed me in a group of about 25 inmates with another counselor where the discussion was about their drug of choice. I heard many stories of violence, disappointment, anger, sadness and even regret. I sensed that some of the men in that group were ready for change because their old behaviors had only helped them commit crimes and go to prison. I also heard some of the men that had spent 20 or more years in prison speak about their willingness to commit the same crime all over again if given the opportunity. One inmate was serving a 25 year sentence after robbing a bank in the 1970s and murdering a police officer while making a getaway. When I asked him if he regretted his decision to shoot the cop, he informed, me without missing a beat, that he would do it again the exact same way because he felt like the cop was going to shoot him first. He showed no emotion about the life he took but knew if he was going to succeed in the world, he would have to change something.


My First Experiences with Criminals

I was not supposed to run any groups by myself for several weeks so that I could be properly trained, however within my first week I was thrown to the wolves and had to run the most confrontational group we offered, called encounters. This group consisted of 25 inmates sitting in a circle with three chairs in the middle. Two chairs faced each other and the third was for the moderator sitting just outside between the two chairs. Guess who the moderator would be for this group? That’s right, me. Not only did I have to moderate, but I had to moderate this group for over an hour. The purpose of encounters is for two inmates that have a concern or issue with each other come to the middle of the circle and discuss the problem. If the two cannot resolve the issue, then there are certain leaders within the outer circle that can weigh in and hopefully provide some direction. I was not used to this type of confrontation and certainly not ready for angry, violent men to confront each other, but there I was.

My face was burning bright red with anxiety and fear and I knew I had the look of terror on my face because many inmates commented on it and laughed at me. I managed my fear and attempted to turn it into courage and started the process. I started off by reading the little sheets of paper the inmates turned into me at the beginning of group with announcing the first person to come to the middle which is the complainant. I then announced the other person who rolled his eyes after hearing his name. Both were seated in the circle and I proceeded to start the discussion by “stating ‘Bruce’ you’re being brought to encounters because ‘Mike’ reports you took his deodorant over the weekend. Mike, tell Bruce about the situation and explain your feelings”. When I first read the complaint, I remember thinking, “really? This is the complaint?” Well, in prison taking another man’s property to use is very disrespectful and the conversation went from civilized discussion to yelling and swearing at each other within a second. Thankfully the leaders of the group stepped in and moderated the discussion and cooled things off because I obviously had no clue what I was doing.

As time went on I learned how to properly facilitate each group, was laughed at, called names, inmates told me ‘no’, some guards were jerks to me and treated some of the inmates with respect, and I was basically tossed around like a rag doll until I started to gain some traction. I built up a thick skin very quickly and before the program was discontinued I had the reputation as tough but fair. I had to learn how these men thought of their environment and how they thought about the crimes they committed, meet them there and then help them find motivation to change.

Alcatrez Cell


Criminal Thinking and Thinking Errors

Criminal thinking is a very odd process and it takes some time to learn how and why people think and act the way they do. I had discussions everyday with inmates about stealing or using drugs and tried to understand why they thought it was right. An average person walking down the road and notices a bicycle lying in the middle of someone’s yard would probably keep walking but may have a thought like “they should move that bike before someone takes it”. Where a criminal’s thought process would be more along the lines of “is anyone looking? I could take that and sell it to make some quick cash. Besides, they shouldn’t just leave it out like that. What do they expect?” These are two very different thinking patterns and I have spent my career attempting to understand the why and how to help those that want to change, change.

Moving into the next season of my career I wound up working in a medium security prison in Illinois at another Therapeutic Community. Research shows these programs are beneficial and help reduce recidivism rates. This time the entire prison was treatment oriented, not just a small section as the Indiana program was. The inmates I worked with here could not have violent convictions and had to have a sentence of around 5 years to be considered. It was a pilot program the state had never before attempted and even the wardens were behind it which really helped. I continued to study thought patterns and create an environment in which change could occur. I no longer had the fear as I once did when I first started in the field because it was being replaced by experience and confidence. Violence was still common and I always kept my guard up everyday, all day but I felt almost comfortable by this time working in a prison setting. My office was a modified cell with the bed, toilet and sink replaced by a computer and desk. I realized during this period of my career motivation was a key factor to making people succeed or fail in the program and that the criminal thinking was perpetuated by common thinking errors.

It was interesting to learn how motivation levels affected an inmate’s ability to succeed in the program and within the institution. I learned Motivational Interviewing as a counseling style to help inmates experiencing ambivalence about changing behaviors and mindsets and saw how powerful it was. My rapport and relationships with the inmates improved because I was no longer telling them how to think or act, I was asking questions, making statements that reflected what they shared so they could hear how some of their thought patterns sounded and gave affirmations. Inmates would come up with resolutions to problems on their own which created a much stronger commitment than me telling them.


Adult Probation and Criminals

I grew weary working inside the prison system. I was tired of feeling like I was a prisoner due to such strict rules and being around large populations of adult men who for the most part were miserable every single day. The old adage, “misery loves company” was especially true inside a prison. If you’re not careful, the negative behaviors, attitudes and violence can grip your throat and choke you and that’s how I felt. I wanted to continue working in corrections, but more in a community setting. So, the next season of my career landed me working in probation. What a fresh start and new scenery. I actually had a real office! My caseload increased dramatically from 25-50 inmates to 150 defendants with many different types of crimes from Theft to Involuntary Manslaughter. My interaction with defendants was at most 15-20 minutes once per month for high risk defendants and 15-20 minutes every 3 months for low risk defendants. I could no longer spend very much time assessing thought patterns and criminal thinking errors but did use Motivational Interviewing when I could. Since this counseling style works best using it in brief intervals, it seemed to work well in this setting.

I learned probation for a majority of defendants was a joke. Criminal thinking for those not receiving adequate treatment will lead the afflicted to find the path of least resistance to accomplish goals largely using unethical, illegal, and immoral means. Of course, unethical and immoral are subjective but I think the point is made clear. For instance, I had a defendant who had stolen around $100,000 over the course of a two year period serving on her child’s school’s PTA board as the Treasurer. She was placed on a period of 3 years of probation with me and over a year she had skipped appointments, failed to pay restitution, failed to comply with any of my directives based on her court order and wound up in front of the judge. I was aware she had a daughter with medical conditions she was attending to, however this was never her excuse for missing appointments or following through with her requirements. When she was taking care of her daughter and informed me ahead of time, I would work something out with her. Her case was in court for violating her terms of probation and she sobbed to the judge that her daughter was dying of cancer and that's why she failed to comply with probation. I testified under oath that her non-compliance was due to irresponsible behavior and that on occasions when she did need to take care of her daughter, I allowed her to do so by scheduling appointments around her daughter’s care. Needless to say the prosecution argued this defendant used her daughter’s illness to cover for her overall irresponsible behavior towards probation and the judge agreed. I marveled at the depths a person will go to cover the tracks of irresponsibility and reckless behavior. She was also arrested during her time with me for Driving without a Valid License and for DUI which she later also attributed to her daughter’s illness. I've never had a seriously ill child but I can tell you that I would do everything I could to keep the courts off my back so I could be there for my child instead of doing things my way and end up spending 2 years in prison like she did.

I later moved into Intensive Probation where I was armed and carried a caseload of high risk, street gang members and hardcore drug abusers and dealers. I loved this job because I was out on the streets everyday making home visits. This position awarded me the opportunity to not only address the criminal thinking but I was able to gain access to the home and family to learn how these defendants truly lived. I learned criminal thinking can be traced to family ties in many cases and this type of thinking is perpetuated through several generations. Street gang members often had family members that were also apart of the gang, so it became near impossible for them to leave the gang. Many defendants violated this type of probation pretty quickly if they were still living the street life and would end up in jail. Research shows that in order to help facilitate changing a criminal’s thought process, immediate sanctions must be delivered. Well, in this county, probation violations seemed to be more of a nuisance to prosecutors and as a result a judge could take up to two years before a ruling on a violation! So, I had to continue supervising high risk offenders in the community even after I submitted a request to violate. If the defendant could afford a good attorney, that attorney could request continuances for months and months which perpetuates the criminal thinking. The reason why criminals fail to abandon their criminal thinking mindsets is because ultimately it works for them in many cases, especially within the criminal justice system.


Lessons Learned

Now, my career has landed me in a supervisory role where I have the opportunity to share my experiences and knowledge with my staff of counselors, case managers and group facilitators. My interaction has been limited to helping out with difficult cases but I try my best to stay grounded and remember that it was not long ago I was in their shoes. I miss the interaction with criminals and helping them move towards becoming more productive but it’s also rewarding to teach and guide staff about criminal thinking and psychology and how to help offenders stuck in the mindset at least move to a contemplative stage of change. Over the span of my career I’ve learned people will truly resist change unless they’re ready to change despite severe or even life altering/threatening consequences. I’ve also learned that as a change agent I have to lead by example and telling someone how to change or what to do can actually create more harm than good. A person that wants to change and is ready to change will generally only commit to solutions and modifications in their behavior if it’s realized within their own thought processes. It’s important for me to create a safe environment for change to occur and to move the person towards change through their own ideas, thoughts and emotions. Criminal thinking is a pattern of thinking errors that have been reinforced through family, friends, prison, jail, the justice system or possibly counseling. Someone must grow tired of the same consequences and must eventually become uncomfortable with being arrested, booked, spending time in jail, going to court, paying fines, fees and costs, and not being around to help raise a family or be employed for any significant amount of time. When these consequences become uncomfortable and tiresome, then change is possible. Until then, criminals will keep playing the game, wasting tax payer resources and facing the consequences of their actions over and over and over again. I love my career and hope that I can continue to help facilitate change in those that truly want it. The rest will come through my programs picking up bits and pieces of information to help make the decision to change hopefully later on.


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