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My Year in a County Jail
My Year in a County Jail
Dr. Darryl Winer
Now, you may ask, just what can a person do to get a year in the County Jail. Shoplifting? Drugs? Driving accident? Or any of a hundred things. In my case, I committed no crime, but got a year for a paid post-graduate psychiatric internship. (Emphasis on “paid”.)
As a shrink, fresh from school at that time, I got the opportunity to work as part of the psychiatric team in the county jail of a large western city, housing over 900 prisoners serving sentences, awaiting trial or court, or transportation to other prisons. There was the usual array of folks in there; some for relatively minor transgressions, others not so minor, and some downright baddies.
Among the jail inmate population there were many with mental disorders - some minor, some not so much. The usual types; neurotics, psychotics - functional and organic, compensating and de-compensating, the personality disorders and chief among them, the routine psychopaths ,were all in attendance. It is this last group, and by far the most represented in the jail, that I’ll talk about today.
Since I really don’t want to write, and no one wants to read, another Psych 101, let me focus on the popular and technical understandings of psychopathy. Most of the lay public has a mental image of a wild eyed, wild haired, crazy guy in a bell tower arbitrarily shooting innocent people on the ground below with a rifle. He is viewed as violently out of control and , indeed, patently uncontrollable. Such is the prevailing view. Unfortunately, this is not so.
In fact, the person described above, could be a psychopath, but more likely is just a psychotic. To be sure, psychotics are typically characterized as manifesting a substantive loss or lack of contact with reality. The reality they perceive is bizarre, threatening, and terrifying often with accompanying hallucinations and delusions. Their responses to these alarming perceptions frequently result in the violent, hostile, and aggressive outbursts we see so often on the front page and the six o’clock news.
The psychopath, on the other hand, is best described as a person who, generally, is not out of control. Indeed, they ply their trade of manipulating others for their own purposes quite skillfully. The hallmarks of psychopathy are: Poverty of feelings for others, inability to postpone gratification, feeling of being above the law, and believing that others are put there for their personal use. This may sound like a pretty unsavory character, and is, in truth, exactly that. The problem, though, is that a really good psychopath can be quite difficult to identify. Part of the psychopath’s talent is the ability to become adept at a skill set that furthers their goal of manipulating the people around them. They are often charming, clever, and knowledgeable in narrowly defined areas. Particularly those areas that directly support them using people to achieve their nefarious goals.
So, let me describe the consummate and perhaps best known (and loved) psychopath. Please meet, Bond, James Bond 007. Ian Fleming’s British government spy character portrayed so famously by Sean Connery and some other guys.
Picture this: Bond is on the beach romancing the sweet young thing when the bad guy’s henchmen come sneaking up from behind. Barely interrupting his passionate kiss, he deftly picks up a nearby spear gun and THUNK, nails the bad guy to a tree. Bond’s matter-of-fact comment, “I guess he got the point.” Looks like a “poverty of feelings” to the trained observer. Furthermore, the sweet young thing, always the bad guy’s doll, moll or daughter has fallen under Bond’s kiss and spell and will now blindly assist him in carrying out the downfall of the bad guy. Make no mistake, controlling her is part of Bond’s plan all along, and she is merely a pawn in his great scheme, and usually ends up dead.
Next, we see Bond running for his life from dozens, maybe hundreds, of the angry and heavily armed henchmen, inside the bad guy’s great mansion. He may be in a robe or his boxers (see: sweet young thing , above) and completely unarmed. As he dashes out the front door, presumably to safety, he suddenly reappears through the front door and grabs a handful of grapes from a fruit bowl there on a table, and runs off again. Sounds like an “inability to postpone gratification” to me. He wanted those grapes now, even at the risk of his life.
Since the psychopath just naturally assumes that his goals are more important than anyone else’s, and, for that matter, no one else’s goals are worth anything at all, any rules or laws must not, therefore, apply to him. In Bond’s case, lest we forget, he is licensed to kill. Doesn’t get much more above the law than that.
Bond, while often portrayed as petulant and child like in routine matters of the world (think: Q), he is particularly skilled at those matters that advance his personal goals. He is, for example, a weapons expert, a wine connoisseur , an accomplished lover, and able to throw his hat onto a hat rack from thirty feet away.
So here we have the loveable, bold rapscallion busily saving the world from great peril, asking nothing more than a beautiful girl, great wine and the occasional bad guy to vanquish. What a guy. Well, take away the ”serving his country” part and you have a textbook psychopath. Using people to achieve his ends without a care in the world.
Sadly, psychiatric treatment of psychopathy is notoriously unsuccessful. For someone to seek and internalize change, they need to start by recognizing this as a failing. Few sufferers do.
In the jail setting, even when faced with the certitude of having actually been caught, convicted and imprisoned, the psychopaths remained convinced of the righteousness to do what they did and, furthermore, the right to continue to do so. In fact, they continue to live according to their own rules even in prison where such behavior is, paradoxically, actually adaptive.
Thus endeth today’s excursion to the County Jail.