Book excerpt: As I Live and Breathe: A Perspective from a Prison Psychologist

Focusing on her experience working in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, a female psychologist gives an account of the world inside the system


The following is excerpted from Marla Patterson’s book, "As I Live and Breathe: A Perspective from a Prison Psychologist." The book is a description of a female psychologist’s experience working with high- and maximum-security inmates in the Federal Bureau of Prisons (USP Leavenworth and USP Marion). It captures some of the challenges correctional staff face when working with this population, along with addressing the impact it can have on staff.

Marion’s Average Joe

Very few inmates are designated to a maximum-security facility straight from court. The majority work long and hard to get there. They’re initially designated to a regular facility commensurate with their needs: minimum-, low-, medium- or high-security. At these institutions, when an inmate engages in misconduct, he loses commissary privileges, visitation, telephone, and e-mail, or is placed in SHU for a period of time. Misconduct impacts the inmate’s points, which are used to determine his security level. If his points go up (or down, for that matter), he’s generally transferred to a facility that matches his newly acquired security level. Transfers occur one level at a time. An inmate that engages in misconduct at a low-level facility transfers to a medium-level facility. If he’s at a medium-level facility when the misconduct occurs, he transfers to a high-security facility.

Transfers to Marion when it was a supermax were rare – usually one or two inmates per week. Transfers to Marion as a medium-level facility aren’t rare. Usually there’s a bus full of inmates going and coming each week. The BOP tries to stay true to security level points, keeping their institutions pure – which means, if an institution is a medium-security institution, ideally every inmate in that facility has security points within the range of a medium-security facility. If something occurs and his points change – i.e., he serves a percentage of his sentence, causing points to drop or he receives an incident report causing his points to increase – he’ll be transferred. Points for incident reports are tallied according to the severity and frequency of the misconduct. Several minor incidents within five years can result in a transfer, but one serious offense may not result in a transfer if the point tally doesn’t increase the security level. Misconduct is divided into four levels:

(Image/Moonshine Cove Publishing)
(Image/Moonshine Cove Publishing)
  1. Low-severity misconduct such as malingering or using abusive language;
  2. Medium-level severity such as refusing to work or insolence:
  3. High-level severity such as fighting or offering a bribe;
  4. Highest-level severity such as encouraging a riot or killing.

The majority of inmates at lower-level facilities follow policies and rules. They might engage in minor misconduct but, if they get caught, they usually respond quickly to the disciplinary process and complete their sentences without problems.

Inmates who end up at a supermax either fail to comply with the rules over and over again or engage in extreme behavior while at a high-security facility. Generally, they have many opportunities to change their future course but choose not to. They’re intractable; no matter what privilege is taken from them, they’re unaffected. This isn’t due to mental illness. They’re simply defiant. Their sanctions increase, and they work their way up in the system by transferring to higher-security institutions, with the last stop being a supermax. They don’t alter their course because the loss of commissary, loss of contact with their loved ones, and increased restrictions on their freedom have no impact on their behavior. These losses are either not that important to them or suffering these losses is worthwhile in some way. The benefit outweighs the cost. You may think there’s more to it than this, but there isn’t.

There have been lawsuits filed by inmates specifically regarding the negative effects of “solitary confinement,” primarily at ADX Florence. I want to remind you, people very rarely end up in a supermax from the get-go. This only happens in the most extreme cases, such as with individuals considered the utmost threat to the community or nation. The majority work their way up to it. The average inmate is deterred from misconduct long before he ends up at a supermax. Inmates don’t want to be cut off from their loved ones. They realize they won’t be able to tolerate the increased restrictions, so they opt to follow the rules. They realize if they’re involved in repeated assaults within one year, they’ll lose a great deal and therefore they don’t do it.

But inmates who end up at a supermax think and feel differently. They simply aren’t impacted by the things that affect you and me. They’re not even impacted by the things that affect most inmates.

Inmates housed at Marion supermax tended to fall into two broad categories, although all of them were at the extreme end of being manipulative. They had a disregard for social norms, a penchant for victimizing others, and lacked genuine emotions and empathy. Most had a general arrogance and engaged in pathological lying. The difference between the two groups had to do with the degree of impulse control and emotional lability.

One group tended to be volatile and engaged in extreme and erratic behavior. They needed a great deal of stimulation and were easily bored. Because of their frequent displays of unruliness, there’s little doubt they were exactly where they needed to be – confined to a cell.

The other group was glib, charismatic, and appeared earnest and emotionally controlled. They were conversant, intelligent, and interesting. These are the most dangerous beings because they’re so good at what they do. Left to my own devices – i.e., my observations, interviews, or intuition – I could easily believe they weren’t dangerous. There’s no signal they’re lying or insincere. They’re consistent in their stories and appearance. They’re an amazing breed and fascinating to talk with.

All staff know the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. The inmates at Marion have a history of violence, manipulating and intimidating others, and/or compromising staff. So it’s important to not trust your own senses when it comes to making decisions regarding these inmates.

It didn’t take me long to conclude that many of the inmates at the supermax were evil. It was clear a piece of their humanity was missing. I’d worked with evil inmates at every security level, but it was rare, and I didn’t recognize it at the time. It was only after being inundated with them and in retrospect that I became aware of this fact.

It’s amusing that a common proclamation from this type of inmate is, “I’m not a bad person.” In fact, I don’t think I ever heard an inmate describe himself as a bad person – even after stabbing another inmate 27 times, talking about raping children or molesting his daughter, committing arson, burning a baby to death, repeatedly extorting the elderly, or abusing his parents. I never asked their definition of “a bad person.” Whatever it was, they never qualified. 

I think the expression “banality of evil” fits the population of a supermax perfectly. This expression was originally used to describe Adolf Eichmann and refers to ordinary people who are simple-minded (Arendt H. “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.” 1963: New York, Viking Press). But I’m using it to describe the prevalence of evil at USP Marion, which was quite ordinary. The general depth of inhumanity and level of demands, manipulation, hatefulness, and infantile behavior of these inmates were much more saturated than at Leavenworth, although I encountered plenty of it there, too. If you want to know what the average, most troublesome inmates look like, I think Sam Rockwell’s portrayal of “Wild Bill” Wharton in the 1999 movie “The Green Mile” was spot on. His energy level and complete disregard for others captures the most common problem for inmates: poor boundaries. There’s a general unwillingness to respect other’s space, possessions, opinions, or attend to one’s hygiene, voice level, or bodily functions.

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