I grew up in a time of convicts.
These days, a convict is hard to find. Convicts lived by a code that governed their conduct on the streets and in prison. Not that convicts weren’t dangerous criminals — they were, and their numbers included notorious murders, robbers and thieves. And they played by the rules.
Rules? The convict code was a set of unwritten rules to keep the peace and hold correctional officers at bay while running various criminal enterprises behind the walls. On the surface, correctional officers saw compliant prisoners following orders, where they stood for count, rarely attacked staff and kept to themselves. The convict code made sure that nothing drew the attention of the keepers to the kept. More attention meant, increased searches and possible disruption of the underground economy of drugs and contraband.
The unspoken agreement of I don’t mess with you — you don’t mess with me, kept convict shot callers in positions where they could direct their underlings, usually along racial lines, so they reduced friction with staff and other convict groups. There was a potential for abuse and corruption in these criminal enterprises and on a periodic basis, convicts would clean house and literally “kill off” wayward soldiers who ran outside the rules, or put down a power struggle within the group. It was part of doing business as a prisoner, you kept to your own, did what was a asked of you and didn’t rat out your own.
It was a simpler time. Somewhere in the mid to late 1980’s the social dynamic changed on the inside. A younger, more violent population started coming into prison, men who had power and prestige on the outside and were unwilling to leave those battles on the streets. They expected the same instant gratification they experienced in street gang circles. Street gang violence spilled over in prison yards, crip on blood, and Hispanic north and south street rivalries brought the convict code to its knees.
There were exceptions to the convict culture, of course. The extreme exception were the presence of prison gangs on the yard. For example, the Aryan Brotherhood would keep all the white boys in line, and not necessarily in a warm and fuzzy way. Bodies piled up when the Folsom Prison Aryan Brotherhood decided to clean the yard of sex offenders. Months of stabbing attacks on white sex offenders led to extended lockdowns. The convict code also allowed the Aryan Brotherhood to make weapons and sell them to the Mexican Mafia who would use them on Black Guerrilla Family gang members. The underground economy in action.
When violence levels peaked, prison gang leadership was taken out of the general population and locked up in SHU. The power vacuum demanded to be filled and it was–with the thousands of young street gang members sentenced to prison. And the bloodshed ticked upward.
I recall listening to two convicts, guys who’d been behind bars for decades, lament over the kids coming in and ruining everything. Dammed inmates. That’s what this new breed of criminal was, an inmate, not a convict. Inmates were out for themselves, willingly crossed racial lines to take on another gang, and would attack correctional officers to boost their street cred.
As for a convict – think Morgan Freeman in Shawshank and an inmate would be John Malkovitch in Con Air, quick to react and out for personal gain.
Where have all the convicts gone? Private prisons, sentencing laws designed to divert low level offenders to jail, and federal court population caps have left prisons with the violent, mentally ill, medically challenged, and recalcitrant population. A tough population to work with. The convicts are aging out (paroling, dying, giving up) and we’re left with an inmate with little incentive to change. And guess what he’s coming back home–more often than not–worse off than when he went it.
I miss dealing with convicts and we’re all going to pay the price for it.