Lessons that I Learned in Prison


About 25 years ago, my law firm represented the surviving children of a couple that had been shot to death by a sixteen-year-old kid. The kid, let’s call him Dan, had also shot and killed the children’s grand-mother that night.

The surviving children weren’t suing Dan. But in representing them, we wanted to find out what had gone on in the killer’s mind when he entered the family’s home and shot the children’s parents and grand-mother.

Easy enough assignment, I thought. I’ll go up to the state prison and talk with the guy. I learned a few things during that “conversation” with Dan that I remember more clearly than anything I ever learned in law school.

When I asked Dan how he felt about killing these three people, he reacted as most  emotionally and mentally healthy people would when answering a question like, “Why did you choose a roast beef sandwich for lunch?” No anguish, no guilt, no shame, no regret. No emotion. Dan showed no feelings. “Absence of affect” is what the psychologists called it. He was sixteen years old, and he was emotionally dead.

Cultural competence is a big issue for a lot of people involved with service organizations. You need to be able to communicate with and relate to people from diverse cultures to provide services effectively. We often think in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, class, age, social or economic status, etc..

Cultural competence is also important for personal safety and self-defense. It cuts across race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, and other categories that we usually associate with cultural competence. Part of cultural competence for personal safety is the realization that there are sub-cultures of people who think and behave in ways most people cannot comprehend.

Most people are ego-centric. It’s hard for them to realize that not everyone thinks and behaves as they do, that not everyone has the same belief systems, mental capacity, values, or norms.

The lesson Dan taught me was basic: there are some people out there for whom killing is not that big a deal. Dan’s story is more complex than that. He had been severely abused since he was a small child. Other factors affected his life. But the bottom line was that when I met Dan in that dreary prison library he no longer had any capacity for compassion or emotion.

Another lesson I learned was that people hold vastly different belief systems. When I worked for a district court, one of our criminal cases involved a father who had raped his daughter with a dildo. He rationalized that he was teaching her about babies and that it was his right and his job as a father to do so.

Yet another case dealt with a mentally ill mother with schizophrenia and paranoia who had abducted her daughters and kept them on the run for years. Her intentions may have been noble, but the effects of her actions were harmful. Her daughters were smart and resilient girls. They recovered. But for many years, these girls lived like fugitives and beggars. Well-meaning people had assisted the mother because they assumed she was thinking and behaving as they would have. They didn’t realize that she was mentally ill.

Keeping yourself and others safe should include your realization that not everyone has the same world view or behaves as you do. Simple, you say. But think about it. How often do you use ego-centric type of thinking when gauging others?

6 Comments on "Lessons that I Learned in Prison"

  1. Nadia Beiser says:

    Thanks for your reasonable caution!
    The auto “perceive-then-classify”
    default setting of our usual attention
    level is designed for efficiency, but
    shorts our actually remarkable ability
    to observe far more than will fit into
    the confines of our expectations. The
    subtle clues discarded because they
    don’t “fit in the box” with the rest
    are those we need to pay more attention
    to, especially in unfamiliar and/or insecure
    The kid’s ” not-matching” game
    called ” what’s wrong with this picture ”
    is a great reminder to really OBSERVE,
    … and try not to filter through your own
    point of view and expectations .

  2. Thanks, Nadia.
    Cognitive dissonance (Leon Feininger, 1950’s ) is a related concept.

    People hold certain belief and value systems. When they perceive information that conflicts with their belief systems, this conflict is uncomfortable and they try to create harmony. For example, most people hold the belief system that parents love their children and will do only what’s best for them. In most cases, this is true. But occasionally you come across a parent that is mentally ill, emotionally disturbed, or evil.

    The rapist may have applied an extreme type of cognitive dissonance in rationalizing his rape, “harmonizing” a heinous crime with being a parent.

    Neighbors and acquaintances of rapists and killers often apply cognitive dissonance when they make statements to the press that the man living next door was such an ordinary, quiet, nice guy.

    A very common form of cognitive dissonance or cultural incompetence regarding certain criminal or a-social sub-cultures is the assumption that people don’t lie. For some people lying is a default behavior. It’s not simply a habit but rather a survival skill that they acquired in a world where giving away information could create vulnerability. That culture is alien to many people. People assume that someone needs a reason to lie. In some cultures, people need a reason to tell the truth.

    Being aware of the concept of cognitive dissonance is a self-defense and personal safety skill.

    Or in less academic language, be aware that people don’t always think and behave as you think they should. (That sounds so simple – )

  3. Lilie Allen says:

    Thank you, Brigitte, once again. Insightful, well-written. Thank you, that you take the time to present this information. Most of the time, unless you have a fairly specific reason for researching this particular information, it doesn’t come into the average person’s ‘field of view’. Proving, again, that self-defense begins long before an incident. From the cradle to the grave, so to speak. As grandparents, parents, caregivers, we can make our children more ‘aware’ of the world around them. When you learn and understand the concepts that may be involved in the ‘reality’ perception of others, you then learn to drop what isn’t helpful (judgment) and adopt what is helpful (planning and preparation/coping skills). End results: Overall, less predation. You can’t always remove/control the predator, but you sure can inhibit the opportunities.

  4. Lilie, thank you for taking the time to comment.

    You make a very important point – “…self-defense begins long before an incident.”

    Self-awareness is part of self-defense – being aware of our cultural lenses, our levels of alertness, our moods, our pre-occupations. Relaxed awareness, coupled with a basic knowledge of violence dynamics and, literally, open-mindedness can increase our safety and reduce opportunities for both predatory and emotion-based violence.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful comments.

  5. Powerful article! You really can never know where other people are coming from. I have never spoken with someone like Dan, or maybe I would not have noticed if I have. I feel sorry for him and sorry that these cycles of abuse continue.

    And nice picture choice….it never hurts to take reminders to pay attention and stay aware wherever you can find them.

  6. That’s very interesting. Thank you ! I would be interested in learning how to survive if you ever get thrown in prison.

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