Learning Leadership and Citizenship in Prison

Prisoners learn much of what they know about leadership and citizenship from their peers. To begin, their very first experiences with what leadership looks like in prison come from observations of how their fellow prisoners and staff conduct themselves. Leadership in prison can take many different forms, including:

  • Leaders of clubs. By the time they rise to leadership roles in prisoner- led clubs, these men tend to have acquired many managerial skills that include an ability to delegate responsibilities to others and to train those delegates to take on the assigned task; “each one teach one” is a common theme among prisoners, and such delegation and mentoring serves the function of an informal apprenticeship. Leaders of clubs must also develop an understanding of how to best prioritize their time, goals, and energy, and they must become fluent in the function and form of business-like documents such as e-mails,[1] proposals, and memos. Additionally, they need strong public speaking skills and the ability to communicate effectively with staff members, including prison administrators who are commonly considered out- of-reach by prisoners.
  • Leaders and teachers of educational classes and cognitive-behavioral programs. The staff and educators who hold classes in prison teach leadership skills and also demonstrate what being a leader looks like. They share knowledge while also teaching patience, time-management, empathy, and understanding. Effective teachers work with students to help them to develop themselves and bring the best out of them without degrading them or frustrating them. This is a delicate balance that is not easy to achieve and is extremely valuable to learn, both in prison and the larger community.
  • Leaders of peer-taught classes. These men commonly share many of the same skills as club leaders and professional educators, with an emphasis on training/teaching, public speaking, and time- management. They offer good examples to other prisoners of how to speak effectively and respectfully with each other. They demonstrate how to manage groups and inspire a deeper level of thinking and reflection.
  • Leaders of prison gangs. Interestingly, it is common to see many of the same types of management skills in gang leaders as we see in other forms of prison leadership. Gang leaders tend to display strong people management skills and have a well-developed sense of hierarchy and bureaucracy. They understand and share an understanding of democracy and politicking. They also tend to have a family-oriented style of interaction taking a great deal of pride in caring for each other like a brother would. There is commonly a familial element to the leadership style they adopt, demonstrate, and teach.
  • Lead men in prison jobs. These men teach others who work under their leadership how to do the task at hand. Again in an apprenticeship type of way, they share their knowledge and skill in on-the-job training sessions. To reach these trusted work positions, lead men need to develop and demonstrate good communication and time- management skills. They also need to effectively liaise between the prisoner laborers that work under their tutelage and the staff/pro- duction coordinators that oversee and manage the lead men.

In addition to these more formal roles, there are also informal leaders within the prison who are just people with strong personalities and charisma that others naturally gravitate to and follow. These are the popular individuals who don’t necessarily have strong management skills but definitely have influence among their peers. This can be good or bad in that what they demonstrate can be antisocial behaviors or prosocial behaviors, but either way, they are likely to be admired and emulated by their peers.

Each of these types of leaders also teaches citizenship through their leadership. They demonstrate a way to coexist that others can learn from and emulate. Beyond those leaders described above, the men in prison learn about what citizenship looks like from their “cel- lies” or cellmates, their neighbors, dining-table partners, and others they come into contact with on a daily basis. The etiquette of citizenship is constantly being reinforced with instructions from other prisoners about not looking into someone’s cell that is not yours, about how to respect the spaces that have been claimed by other groups, and about respectfully excusing oneself after bumping into or passing closely by another person. These are some of the things that define citizenship in prison, that make up the ways in which interactions are conducted within the confines of confinement.

Some of these ideas about prison citizenship are taught in Admissions and Orientation (A&O) classes held for prisoners just coming into the facility. A long-term, more experienced prisoner teaches the majority of the material in 32 hours of class sessions. Topics include how to access areas of the prison in order to meet one’s needs—including an overview of the particular prison’s Medical, Dining Room, Clothing Room, and so on. The peer leader offers encouragement to new arrivals to seek out educational and religious opportunities. In these ways, a leader of the prison population provides a number of models of citizenship, while also demonstrating their own leadership style.

Many of the ways individuals learn to be citizens while in prison are comparable to conduct that is generally taught outside of prison: do not look into someone else’s home, respect the spaces that have been claimed by other groups (police stations, college campuses, gated communities), treat interactions with others respectfully, and be kind. We note, however, that in some cases the men in prison conduct themselves with better citizenship and sense of community than do those in freedom. For example, men who have paroled often share their view that there is a great deal more disrespect among those in freedom; rudeness and disrespectful language are common and generally go unaddressed in the community, and abuses of power and position are vividly splashed across the media.

Much of the above also applies to the staff members who work in prison. The ways in which they lead and manage are examples to both prisoners and other staff members, and that can be either positive or negative. When staff treats prisoners poorly, some may be inclined to lash out and treat other prisoners and other staff badly, as well. Generally, however, most staff members demonstrate a more positive attitude that serves to model patience and rational understanding. The Oregon Department of Corrections and the admin?istrative team at the penitentiary make an effort to teach principles of democracy and representation in the daily running of the state’s correctional facilities; prison is very structured and there is a clear hierarchy of power that is supposed to be worked through starting at the lowest level for each issue.

Regardless of their particular role, leaders in the prison population must learn and practice patience and persistence, and they must learn to deal with the cumulative effects of ongoing frustration. In his role as President of the Lifers’ Unlimited Club, Trevor explains:

I’ve gotten permission for this or that to occur and days later been told that it can no longer happen ... by the same folks who had just signed off! Same person who signed off now saying “no” and if you take that stuff personal or develop the idea that it is of no use, you will burn out and lose the drive that is so paramount to affect the change we desire. To “be the change you want to see in the world” you really have to dedicate yourself and continue to work towards the efforts you believe in while knowing when to pull back and approach the issue from a different direction. The skills acquired through navigating this environment can greatly help you succeed in the free world I’ve no doubt.

  • [1] While prisoners generally do not have access to the Internet in Oregon, club leaders find it very useful to be able to communicate with outside community partners and organizations electronically. All e-mail and phone communication with outside community members arerun through prison staff members. As an example, when Trevor needs to send an e-mail, hewrites the message with the following statement prominently displayed at the beginning ofeach e-mail: This is (Staff Advisors' Name), Recreation Specialist at the Oregon StatePenitentiary. I am sending this on behalf of (Trevor’s Name), a prisoner here at OSP and thePresident of the Lifers’ Unlimited Club. The message is generally written on an older computer on the prison’s “Activities” floor, saved to a club-owned thumb drive, transferred to astaff member’s computer, and then sent through the staff advisor’s Department ofCorrections’ e-mail account. Responses to the e-mail are printed and the hard copies aregiven to the club’s officers.
< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >