Prisons: What To Do with the Seriously Character Disturbed?

The United States has the dubious distinction of having a higher percentage of its population incarcerated in some manner than any other country (possibly save one) on the planet.  Almost 8 percent of the population is too dysfunctional to be allowed to roam the streets freely.  I know, I know, I’ve heard the criticisms:  We over-sentence people to prison with stupid things like “three strikes and you’re out” laws.  Prison should be for seriously violent offenders only – all the rest should be in rehabilitation programs.  A lot of the folks in prison are really suffering from addiction or mental disorders and can and should be getting treatment instead of punishment.  Prison is where you go if you’re poor and disadvantaged, while the rich get away with murder.  I’ve heard it all.  And I know that there’s a lot of truth in the criticisms.  But I’ve also seen with my own eyes the stark realities of prison life and also have years of experience working in a wide variety of settings (including treatment centers) whose clientele – despite every reasonable effort made on their behalf – eventually became inmates.  So I know that despite the legitimacy of some of the criticisms mentioned above, the reality of the situation is much more sobering.  Our country, among others, is drowning in a sea of character disturbance.  And not only do we seem oblivious to the root causes of the problem but we also persist in addressing it in ways that are definitely not working.

Misconceptions abound about why people commit serious crimes and eventually find their way into prison.  Some of the misconceptions have been around a long time and persist despite mounds of contrary evidence.  I attended a seminar just recently at which a presenter reiterated beliefs I’ve heard many times before – beliefs that eventually propelled her into a “ministry” of sorts to the prison population that she carries out in her retirement.  The formal introduction she gives to the inmates who regularly attend the program she’s fashioned for them reflects these beliefs (and I quote as accurately as my memory serves):  “I know you were abused and neglected.  I know you were unloved.  I know you were disadvantaged and disenfranchised.  I know how victimized you were by poverty and injustice, ” etc. (The presenter actually used the words: ‘I know you were the real victim’ when talking to a group of prisoners given life sentences for violent assaults and murder).  And I know how disrespected you feel being labeled psychopaths, sociopaths, and antisocial personalities and written off by society.  But I also know that if you hadn’t suffered in so many ways, you wouldn’t be in this awful place today.”  The presenter held these beliefs with unwavering conviction, just as she held the firm belief that all that was necessary for the inmates’ healing and restoration was, as she put it, “compassion.” I must tell you that there’s a big part of me that wishes beyond measure that this woman is right.  It would be great if these folks were simply “wounded and broken” and enough compassion could truly heal them. But sadly, she isn’t right.  And because she isn’t, the challenge we face in dealing with the seriously character impaired among us is much more daunting (I have much more to say on dangerous misconceptions about why people do bad things in my books In Sheep’s Clothing, Character Disturbance, and The Judas Syndrome).

The tragedy plaguing our country and so many other free societies is that the prevailing cultural climate has fostered so much character disturbance that almost one in ten among us simply can’t be trusted to function without close supervision or confinement.  No society can be expected to function very well in those kinds of circumstances.  To add insult to injury, what we do with that “captive audience” once we have them confined goes against everything we know about how to assist folks in developing the skills, habits, or motivation necessary to be a well-disciplined, contributing member of society (unfortunately, there will always be some who are so disturbed and incorrigible that they can never see the light of day).  While we know how to confront and correct problematic thinking patterns and behavioral habits and in many cases have years to employ the strategies, we mostly choose to merely “warehouse” (while also providing necessities, food, educational opportunity, healthcare, etc.) the severely dysfunctional among us at an annual price tag per inmate equivalent to an upper-middle class income.

We need to completely revolutionize our approach to dealing with the seriously character disturbed.  But our situation is probably going to have to get a lot worse before we decide to make it better.  Right now, many states are taxing their already tight budgets to the limit in order to build even more prisons and provide more bed space in other restrictive environments.  Local jails and other institutions are bursting at the seams and some very dangerous folks remain on the streets because of overcrowding.  Ultimately, however, our only salvation will lie not in imposing harsher penalties on those whose character has become severely impaired but in affirming character-fostering values and traditions that can prevent such serious character development failures and in daring to confront directly the beliefs, attitudes (especially attitudes of entitlement), ways of thinking (especially narcissistic, egocentric thinking), and behaviors (especially manipulative, exploitative, dishonest, and responsibility-avoidant behaviors) that erode both character and culture.

This week the Canadian people were given a stark reminder of just how dangerous the world can be when even one person embraces a twisted belief.  You can find more on this topic in several other articles on this and other blogs, including the articles:  Radical Ideologies: Deadly Ways of Thinking and A Peek Inside the Mindset of Terror.  I’ll also have more to say about recent events as well as the problem of serious character disturbance on Character Matters this Sunday evening.

ANNOUNCEMENT:  Just got the cover art for the new Japanese edition of In Sheep’s Clothing, so I thought I’d share.  New Russian and Korean editions are also scheduled for release soon and I’ll post updates when the covers become available.

Japanese Edition ISC cover


9 thoughts on “Prisons: What To Do with the Seriously Character Disturbed?

  1. Very nice. Something I’ve thought about. My prescription? 🙂

    First, find another way of dealing with non-violent offenders. Reforming “vice laws” would mean some of them would walk — the drug users and peddlers, the prostitutes and pimps, and the like. Others, like fraudsters and thieves, would be dealt with without incarceration, by getting them to work on behalf of their victims. Incarcerating people like that is double punishment (for others): first, they con some people, and then the whole society pays for their imprisonment. Not to mention the likely recidivism.

    If prisons were only for the violent, there would be plenty of room.

    By the way, after Colorado voted to regulate marijuana (instead of prohibition) they were faced with having to close some prisons. Hurrah, I say.

    But I have not thought this out from the character-disordered angle. Looking forward to your solution!

    1. What I find interesting is that for the most part violent crime seems to be declining in society which is heartening to see and then you have to wonder about how statistics are taken etc… As it is well known that DV for instance many victims don’t report the crimes but aside from that I think putting people away for marijuana use is futile and agree with you Vera that this should be a legalised drug across the board. I think that would help lower crime rates significantly. I think there are other drugs that could be legalised too but sometimes wonder as it is dependent on the drug, some are worse than others. Consider alcohol a legalised drug which probably does more damage than those that are illegal.
      Still I think it is the high end crimes as White collar crime that goes unnoticed. These people have the means to get away with it…they do deals out of court and sometimes no crime is ever recorded, they go on to do it again and again. I believe it is these character disturbed individuals who are doing the most harm to society. I think the GFC was indicative of that… as Puddle and Einstein say these people inflict pain that has all sorts of dire consequences for millions of people…it is a chain reaction and they are fraudsters and psychopaths who need to be dealt with in a serious manner. I don’t know what the answer is but they may not be the person who physically commits violence on another person but they are responsible for the fallout.

  2. Those who commit fraud need to be incarcerated, because it takes a character disordered person to commit that kind of crime. I disagree that it is a non-violent crime. Usually the scam involves hundreds and thousands of hard-working people being completely wiped out. I can’t think of anything more violent than that.

    Only very stiff penalties, handed out every single time, will deter these psychopaths from committing fraud. You can’t cure them, you can only do what you can to protect the public.

    1. Violence doesn’t have to be physical violence. You can kill someone by driving them to kill themselves. You can distort someone’s bank account, marriage, reputation without lifting a finger in physical violence. Someone selling illegal and deadly drugs to children might as well be handing them a loaded gun in a game of Russian Roulette. When a psychopath lifts their leg on a mother with children, the devastation goes way beyond her emotional well being and most assuredly affects her children and her ability to parent them in a healthy way. There is so much to what you said her Einstein. Violence is not a requirement to do some serious damage.

  3. Could we analysis the women doing the ministering to the prisoners and wouldn’t you think at some point
    she would have to take off the rosé colored glasses.

    1. All I can say is if ‘compassion’ worked there would be a number of us here who would be the saviours instead of survivors. Compassion in an individual is fodder to manipulate for Character Disturbed people. I say use your compassion where it is needed…to those who have been victimised by these predators and help them empower themselves. As for the CD’s help them by all means but be well armed and know your stuff. I suppose unfortunately she may find out the hard way…I hope not!

  4. “….the prevailing cultural climate has fostered so much character disturbance that almost one in ten among us simply can’t be trusted to function without close supervision or confinement….” – Sadly, it’s even worse than that. The incarcerated are those who simply got caught. There’s another segment of the character disturbed population that never get caught and are therefore not incarcerated and are therefore running lose to the detriment of everyone. Then there’s the character disturbed population that doesn’t do anything illegal, per say, but is simply a pain or a total nightmare for decent people to deal with. And Dr. Simon, thank you for the book ‘Character Disturbance.’ It’s a masterpiece in the psychopathology genre.

  5. “…affirming character-fostering values and traditions that can prevent such serious character development…”

    Dr. Simon,
    What are these “character-fostering values and traditions”?
    How does one go about “affirming” these?


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