Where Have All The Convicts Gone?

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.

View of folsom prison main yard via getty images

View of folsom prison main yard via getty images

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.

courtesy of dailymail.uk

courtesy of dailymail.uk

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.

image courtesy of wired.com

image courtesy of wired.com

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.

image via the fog city journal

image via the fog city journal

I miss dealing with convicts and we’re all going to pay the price for it.




  1. Excellent article and spot on Jim!

    1. Thanks Jim! Ah, the good ol’ days…

  2. Frank Rogers-Smith · · Reply

    Prisons use to be penitentiaries when criminals went to repent of their crimes. Now prisons have become therapeutic centers for victims of an uncaring society that does not understand them.

    1. So very true, Frank. Prisons have become the dumping ground for people who don’t fit. The sick, mentally ill and anyone who becomes a burden.

  3. […] legislation, is that the inmate population changes. The less likely to offend, the workers and the “convicts” who know how to do time, all disappear. What’s left behind, are the sick, lame, lazy and critically broken. We are seeing an uptick […]

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