Portrait of an Inmate

Excerpted from the Chaplain's Report,
February 1948

The subject for this study is an inmate who first came to my attention a few weeks after my beginning as chaplain here. While in the Cell House during the departure of the inmates from their cells, this man called down from the third tier and said he wanted to see me and that he would be right down. He came down and without any preliminaries said that he had a group of musicians and they were going to play for Protestant church. I was interested and pleased, but particularly noticed the aggressive manner of the subject. I expressed my appreciation, however, and it was agreed that the group would be used if it were officially approved. Following that contact there was an inmate musical ensemble under the direction of the subject playing at each Protestant service for eleven months without a miss. The personnel of the group changed to some extent, but the subject and one friend of his were always on hand.

This inmate is outstanding because of his unusual shortness. He is 5 feet and 3 inches tall, but is stocky and weighs about 170 pounds. Outside of this peculiarity or deviation from the norm he is apparently physically sound. He has a somewhat rugged yet attractive facial appearance. Other documented evidence concerning his early years indicates that he was an illegitimate child born on January 15, 1915. At the age of two months he was adopted by a married couple with the consent of his mother. The adopting parents divorced in 1918, however, while the husband was in the war. Following this the subject was reared by the sister and her husband of the original adopting mother. It is stated tyhat this couple adopted the subject when he was 4 and during his youth provided him with the opportunities consistent with marginal circumstances. Those opportunities are reported to have included membership in the Y.M.C.A., Boy Scouts and violin lessons for 5 years. However, it is also indicated that this couple used a form of discipline based upon threats to place him in a reform school, which they did when he was very young, and of making insinuations about his parentage.

It appears that the subject was pre-occupied with the matter of his parentage and at the age of 13 ran away from the home of the step-parents and through a search of the records and some adult assistance was able to locate his true mother. He has indicated great disillusionment in this discovery and after spending two days with her returned to the home of his step-parents.

The subject is said to have lived with the step-parents until he reached the age of 17 when he was, according to the Admission Summary, "subjectively convinced he was not worthy to live in decent surroundings." Since that time he has been a vagrant making his way around the middle west and resorting to thievery and larceny; howver, most of his adult life has been spent in prison.

The reports concerning his previous record indicate that he was sent to a boy's school when he was 14 for delinquency. His sentence was 18 months and 22 days. Later he was placed on a year's probation for burglary in another section of the country. At the age of 19 he was sentenced to a state institution for burglary and served six years before his release. Upon his release he was arrested for vagrancy and given a 6 months sentence in the state where he had seved the 10 year sentence. Later in the same year he was given a 3 month sentence for trespassing; this was in another state. The next year he was sentenced to another state prison for a term of six years. He escaped from this jurisdiction and at the age of 27 was convicted on two Federal charges: One for transporting stolen securities in interstate commerce and one for transporting stolen auto in interstate commerce. He received a ten year sentence on the first charge and a five year sentence to be served concurrently for the stolen auto. During the course of his incarceration in the Federal prison he received a 20 months additional sentence to be served consecutively. This sentence resulted from an inmate riot in which the subject was a leader.

Other symptoms of his predicament are evidenced in his being classed as a homosexual. He has admitted to this writer that he has such an addiction and has inquired about its cause while indicating that he has studied it to some extent in psychological books. Without proposing to be an authority in the field, I suggested that homosexuality results from a block in one's development whereby he does not make the usual transformation through the period to the heterosexual level because of emotional difficulties. The subject does not seem to be burdened by a complex in this respect because of his ability to admit his status. He does not give evidence of being the obvious, effeminate type, but reports preferring the passive homesexual relation even though he will accept the active role. He reports his first being initiated in homosexuality as a boy of 10 when he spent a few days in a small town jail where he was placed for running away. He reports the experience as horrible. He has been diagnosed as "Constitutional psychopathic state: inadequate personality, emotional instability, sexual psychopathy."

It is revealed that the subject has followed a technique of doing minor physical harm to himself on various occasions. Quite frequently he is reported to have cut his arm. On one such occasion it was felt that he intended suicide and was rushed to the institution hospital after a loss of two pints of blood. Another time he is said to have bit himself.

Since his arrival at this institution the subject has had several minor reports, most of which indicate insolence on the part of the subject. He has worked as a cell house orderly and of late has been working in the institution laundry. His chief recreational activity is music and he plays the violin reasonably well, being able to read music and to play without music. In his leadership of the inmate group he manifests his usual aggressiveness which most inmates are unable to tolerate. As a consequence most inmate musicians refuse to play with him. A few are loyal, however, and thus a musical ensemble of three of four inmates is usually available for Protestant worship. The subject has shown a consistent aggressiveness, but at the same time there is evidence that he doesn't mean it. He has been reliable for the most part, although he is subject to moods and of recent months the ensemble has played only spasmodically. He consistently argues that he is not religious and that he does not go to church for religion, nor does any of his musical group. He apparently attended church or Sunday school when young and has an acquaintance with the hymns. He reports being fond of the church type songs. I have not sought to check his aggressiveness by any pointed reference to it. In ways, however, it is necessary to subtly offer some resistance. He has never had occasion, however, to turn upon me with excessive emotion.

Of recent months, the subject has reported having an alergy which causes him considerable discomfort. He has received various medical forms of treatment, but has been told by the doctor that he has a "nervous condition". He originally felt that this could hardly be true because he did not show any tension in his hands which is supposed to be the sign of nervousness. However, a few days ago he called me to his cell and told me more of his alerfy and wanted to talk about the possibilities of its being psychological. He said the doctor wanted him to see the psychiatrist, but that he did not have confidence in the psychiatrist. It is probable, however, that he fears the implications for his reputation if it is known that he is seeing the psychiatrist. In this conversation he seemed much less aggressive than at other times and manifest an open attitude of receptivity which appeared most significant. He explained that he could not understand why he had been criminal all his life in the face of the treatment his step-parents had provided. We discussed the nature of the rejection in his life and he was not able to see how that would effect his subsequent life. He showed no insight into the importance of his early years. He said he felt that as a criminal he had to be psychologically unbalanced and he found some suggestion of this in that he always sought to manifest a semblance of honesty and respectability, even when he was stealing most. He appeared to be somewhat self-conscious, however, and would occasionally break the trend of the discussion with exterraneous discussion. He seemed able to admit that much of his aggressiveness was a cover-up. More than recognizing his childhood as a source of this inferiority, however, he felt that his physical size was the cause of it. In terms of his alergy and skin difficulty we discussed the possibility that it might be unconsciously manifest for an unconscious purpose of escaping a situation or obtaining attention. He complained that it was real suffering, however, when he had to face a miserable night in his cell without relief. He indicated other somewhat neurotic symptoms as being part of the ailment, however, in mentioning a tense anxiety coming over him and of having to breathe deeply as though he were fearful of death.

Psychotherapeutic treatment of the subject has not progressed in any substantial way as yet. However, for the first time since coming here I have the feeling that this person is seeking help in the right direction -- the direction of inner clarification and psychological insight. I hope to find opportunity to follow through with the subject and assist him in gaining some relief from his tensions. I asked him if he would care to enter upon a sustained period of regular discussion and come to the Chaplain's office. He said that he would like to have the discussions at his cell rather than go to the office where it would be readilly observed.

This man began attending church services of his own voilition and for avowedly selfish reasons -- to play music. Nevertheless, he has been present through the services and has heard the sermons through the past months. Just what the effective element is that creates this change of view point is difficult to relate and perhaps cannot be detailed more precisely than to say it is the grace of God. I should not speak too optimistically about this development for there is ample opportunity for regression and mishandling, but it is the first evidence I have noted of the brash attitude giving way under the pressure of suffering and insight being sought about oneself.

I think this might be cited as typical of the type of personal work I do at this institution. As in the case of the subject, much of it is a type of waiting. Much of it is going about the seeming mechanics of services, casual contacts, arrangements and pursuits without any attempt to pressure one into a new frame of mind. Then through the mystery of grace someone is ready and asks for help. Only at this decisive point does it appear that my work is now significant, but the waiting is significant, too.

Furthermore, these opportunities do not develop independently of the other members of the staff and perhaps other inmates, too. In this case the doctor was an essential although possibly an unwitting guide. If he had, as some do, insisted that the ailment was basically organic and required only more medicine, it would have afforded the subject more occasion for looking elsewhere for his anxieties' source. Also the cooperation of the Warden and Associate Warden has been necessary in arranging the times of practice and permitting the men to play at the Protestant service which, in turn, brought the subject to church. Thus, it behooves none of us to assume that we hold the exclusive key to the secret of rehabilitation. Our failure are our common failures and our successes are our common successes made possible by our mutual presence.

I could not have forseen this eventual turn in the attitude of the subject and cannot contend that I had set out to help him or to convert him. If what is happening is really significant it must be clear that it is the hand of Providence which uses us, all of us, in ways beyond our conscious intent.