Ex-Prisoners and Their Struggle to Make Decisions
When Pat Nolan got out of prison, some friends took him to lunch at a local deli. What was meant to be a simple, pleasant outing detoured into an excruciating debacle for Pat. As he recounts:
The waiter came over to take our orders. Everyone else told him what they wanted, but I kept poring over the menu. My eyes raced over the columns of choices. I knew that I was supposed to order, but the number of options overwhelmed me.
My friends sat in embarrassed silence. I was paralyzed. The waiter looked at me impatiently. I began to panic. How ridiculous that I wasn’t able to do such a simple thing as order lunch. Finally, in desperation I ordered the next item my eyes landed on, a turkey sandwich. I didn’t even want it, but at least it put an end to this embarrassing incident.
For two years I hadn’t been allowed to make any choices about what I ate. Now I was having a hard time adjusting to the simple options most people face every day. If I had this much difficulty after only a couple of years in prison, think how hard it is for those inmates who haven’t made any choices for 5, 10, or 15 years. When faced with a baffling array of options, is it any surprise that so many newly released prisoners make some bad choices and end up back in prison?
Before prison, Pat had served as a California assemblyman for 15 years. He had made countless significant decisions affecting legislation and people all across his state. But now he was taken down by a list of sandwich options.
Many other ex-prisoners have echoed Pat’s distress over making even simple decisions when they first get out. Is it just the initial “culture shock” of being back in freedom, or is something more going on? And does the problem require intervention?
OVERWHELMED WITH CHOICES
After having so many of his actions dictated to him in prison—when to eat, what to eat, when to sleep, etc.—Pat felt overwhelmed by so many options on the deli menu, what might be called “choice overload.”
Research shows that for people in general, not just prisoners, the initial attractiveness of “freedom of choice” produces internal conflict as the number of choices rises. In their 2000 study, “When Choice Is Demotivating,” researchers Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper performed various experiments to compare the effects of having to choose from an extensive array of options versus a limited set of options.
They discovered that extensive choices “undermine choosers’ subsequent satisfaction and motivation.” When given many choices (compared with a more limited number) people experience more frustration with the choice-making process and more regret about the choices they make.
The researchers state, “How can there be so much dissatisfaction in the face of so much opportunity? Perhaps it is not that people are made unhappy by the decision they make in the face of abundant options, but that they are instead unsure—that they are burdened by the responsibility of distinguishing good from bad decisions . . . one might expect people to be even more debilitated in contexts in which people feel more highly accountable for the choices.”
This high-accountability pressure might be especially true for newly released prisoners, who often sense that people are scrutinizing them, expecting them to fail again.
When Pat went to the deli, his friends had probably been there before—they were familiar with the options, and they probably already had in mind some sandwich preferences. Had they gone to an untried restaurant where all of them confronted extensive unfamiliar options—say, for example, food of a particular ethnic group—all of the friends might have struggled with choice overload. In that context, Pat would not have felt so out of place.
ACCUSTOMED TO A REGULATED LIFE
In “Is There Life After Imprisonment?” British researchers point out that going to prison causes “massive disruptions” in people’s “normal lives.” When someone sentenced to a long incarceration arrives at prison, “he has to come to terms with the fact that he is starting a new life . . . a prison life—and somehow he must learn to live it.”
Conversely, being released from prison also causes massive disruptions in what by now has become the new “normal” for the prisoner.
In describing his own decision-making battle after two years in prison, Pat notes that those with longer sentences face an even tougher struggle. These are the ones most prone to become “habituated” to the prison environment. At the extreme, they become “institutionalized”—at which stage an inmate views prison as “home,” has no desire to be in the outside world, and has lost all ability to make independent decisions.
But long before prisoners get to that stage of institutionalization, they can become dependent on the regimented prison routine, where daily choices of what to wear, what to eat, where to go, and how to do an assigned job are determined by someone else. Prisoners still have some choice in their lifestyle, of course: Will they take a nap or watch TV in the day room this afternoon? But those choices are highly limited (the choice to watch TV may not include the choice of which show to watch, for example).
Habituation can have benefits in prison, but limitations on the outside. Having one way to do things means that if you stay within that restricted framework, you won’t get into trouble with corrections officers. Such limits may feel frustrating at times, but they also feel safe. In the outside world, where there might be hundreds of brands to choose from or scores of ways to complete a particular project, those safeguards are suddenly stripped away. There is no one “right” choice; there may be many right choices among the wrong choices. But the habituated prisoner has lost much of the ability, and much of the initiative, to evaluate and discern the varying quality of options.
So while the thought of freedom may excite them, the unsettling reality of freedom often sends ex-prisoners searching for something familiar. Not prison, necessarily (though some released prisoners do deliberately commit crimes so they will be sent back behind bars). But they may return to their pre-prison friends and stomping grounds, where at least they understand and can fulfill the expectations.
IN CONTROL OR OUT OF CONTROL?
How prisoners adapt to the massive disruptions in their lives, both inside and outside of prison, depends a great deal on their “locus of control”—a term referring to a person’s perceived control over the events in his or her life. As researchers Lorraine Reitzel and Beverly Harju define: “Put simply, if people feel that they have control over the events that happen to them, they have an internal locus of control. Those who have an external locus feel as though they have little control over what happens and that luck or fate governs most of the events in their lives.”
In their study of how locus of control influences inmates’ adjustment to prison—particularly their level of depression—Reitzel and Harju found that those with a strong internal locus of control were the least depressed. Depressive symptoms were most common among those with a strong external locus of control. These “high externals” tended to develop a sense of helplessness in their evaluation of the prison setting, and were less adaptive in dealing with the stress of the environment. They endorsed such statements as “no matter how hard I try, the system won’t give an inch” or “most of what happens to me in jail is out of my hands.”
“Internals,” on the other hand, were able to find advantages even to being in prison (such as the educational or treatment programs offered) and recognized that the choices they made could affect their environment. (For example, their actions influenced how much respect correctional officers gave them). High internals demonstrated better problem-solving skills. They were also more likely to seek out services when in need.
Locus of control also influences ex-prisoners’ ability to adapt to their return to the community. Newly released prisoners face significant challenges and struggles on the outside: Finding employment, housing, and a mode of transportation usually rank at the top of their list. Many prisoners encounter numerous rejections when they disclose their criminal record. High externals, who see themselves as powerless pawns, could become depressed, give up, or default to poor choices. High internals would tend to be more resilient, better able to cope with setbacks and consider new options, and stronger at problem-solving.
Feeling overwhelmed by so many choices on the menu, Pat felt a sense of “panic” and perhaps even shame. He berated his indecisiveness as “ridiculous,” which led to a feeling of “desperation” to make a decision, any decision.
Pat’s high level of anxiety and self-flagellation pressured him into making a careless choce.
In a 2008 study, “Emotional and Personality-Related Aspects of Career Decision-Making Difficulties,” researchers focused on three common clusters of difficulties: pessimistic views, anxiety, and self-concept and identity. Both pessimism and anxiety were directly related to indecisiveness. The lower one’s self-esteem or sense of self-worth, and the less stable one’s sense of personal identity, the greater the difficulty in making decisions.
These emotional factors become even more exaggerated in prisoners with mental health problems, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The 2004 study “Damaged Goods: Exploring Predictors of Distress in Prison Inmates” notes that nearly 20 percent of U.S. prisoners have spent at least one night in a mental-health treatment facility or report a mental illness.
Prisoners who have been victimized in prison—by assault, rape, theft, vandalism—show increased symptoms of distress and depression. “Damaged Goods” reports that “exposure to trauma” negatively affects a prisoner’s capacity for making good decisions. Victims of “inmate bullying” demonstrate poor thinking skills.
WHAT DO THEY THINK OF ME?
The decisions we make are affected not only by our own emotions, but also by the emotions we perceive in others. As he struggled to make a sandwich choice, Pat perceived that his friends were embarrassed and that the waiter was impatient with him. His interpretations may or may not have been correct. It didn’t matter. His belief that they were embarrassed and impatient increased his own embarrassment and impatience with himself. And because he could not persist through the pain of those feelings, he then rushed into a poor choice.
Research validates that other people’s perceived anxiety or excitement may influence our own emotions and evaluations during decision making. One recent study is “Affecting Others: Social Appraisal and Emotion Contagion in Everyday Decision Making,” by Oxford University researchers Brian Parkinson and Gwenda Simmons. They state that transfer of emotions “based on social appraisal occurs because someone else’s perceived affect [emotion] carries information that alters our appraisal of the emotional meaning of what is happening.” Emotional contagion refers to “catch[ing] another person’s affect automatically and without necessarily registering its personal significance.”
Again, let’s look at Pat’s deli dilemma. Pat perceived the waiter’s impatience but did not take time to “register” its significance. What difference did it make if the waiter was impatient? It was his responsibility to serve the deli customers and bring them what they want. His impatience (if Pat’s perception was correct) might reflect a weakness in the waiter, but certainly not in Pat.
However, in the anxiety of the moment, we may not take the time for such evaluation. Among newly released prisoners, already typically fearful about the odds for failure, the added anxiety of looking like a loser in front of others can push them into making premature—and unsatisfactory—choices.
Sometimes the consequences aren’t so bad. Pat’s anxious selection of a turkey sandwich didn’t give him much enjoyment, but it certainly wasn’t harmful. On the other hand, suppose an ex-prisoner believes his wife is frustrated that he isn’t pulling his financial weight in the family. He may take a job working in a bar just to ease that feeling of frustration and anxiety—without carefully evaluating the temptations that could ensnare him at that work site.
MENTAL ENERGY DRAIN
Research shows that “people tire of the endless demands for choice and the stress of decision making.” In their article, “Making Choices Impairs Subsequent Self-Control,” Kathleen Vohs and colleagues describe several studies they conducted to gauge the effects of decision making on subsequent “self-regulation.” This refers to a person’s ability to override one powerful response with another response that helps him or her “attain goals and conform to standards.”
They found that “self-regulation, active initiative, and effortful choosing draw on the same psychological resources. Making decisions depletes that resource, thereby weakening the subsequent capacity for self-control and active initiative . . . It has also led to greater passivity.” Depleted by the effort of making a choice—weakened even more by the fear of appearing foolish in the eyes of his friends—Pat gave up and passively “selected” the next item he saw on the menu, an unwanted turkey sandwich.
What this means for prisoners is that the initial transition to the outside world, where they are suddenly hit by countless unfamiliar choices, can make them extremely vulnerable to making poor choices and engaging in negative behaviors—simply because they lose the mental strength for persistence and self-control. If ex-prisoner Jack exerts so much energy just trying to choose which meal to order or which toothpaste brand to buy, what energy will he have left to pursue job leads or, once he finds a job, to get up and get to work on time? It’s far less demanding to go back to his old buddies, who can help Jack renew his old “job” of dealing drugs on his own time schedule!
DYSFUNCTIONAL THINKING PATTERNS
Back in the 1970s, psychiatrist Samuel Yochelson and clinical psychologist Stanton Samenow completed a landmark 16-year study on the criminal personality. Based on extensive interviews with prisoners, they delineated 52 “thinking errors” that underlie offenders’ maladaptive behavior. Among these 52 errors: compartmentalized thinking, manipulativeness, impulsiveness, and refusal to be dependent on others.
In 2007, drawing upon Yockelson’s and Samenow’s work—in addition to subsequent studies—researchers Jon Mandracchia and colleagues came up with a more concise three-factor model of dysfunctional thinking patterns that are prevalent in offenders. The three factors relate to control, cognitive immaturity, and egocentrism.
As they explain in “Inmate Thinking Patterns: An Empirical Study,” control covers thinking patterns that reflect “a desire for power in all aspects of life.” Immature cognitive tactics include “using generalizations and labels for others and the environment, believing that one knows what another is thinking, rejecting responsibility . . . and relying on emotions for judgment even when contrary evidence exists.” Egocentrism refers to thinking patterns focusing intently on the self—such as “avoiding acting responsibly because of a belief in one’s own incompetence” and “being self-righteous, closed-minded, and secretive.”
Pat was not a career criminal; he went to prison once after being caught up in an FBI sting. Misjudgment may have led to his incarceration, but he lacked what could be termed a “criminal mind.” Repeat prisoners, however—those caught in a cycle of criminal activity—generally demonstrate persistent dysfunctional thinking patterns.
What is especially problematic, as researchers have consistently discovered, is that such offenders are usually unaware of the erroneous nature of their thinking. And unless these thinking patterns are exposed and modified, released prisoners will continue to make poor decisions that can re-ignite criminal behaviors.
WHAT CAN HELP?
Pat Nolan regained his decision-making skill, as caring family and fiends patiently supported him through his early angst-ridden adjustments. Today Pat serves as a vice-president with Prison Fellowship, advocating for criminal justice reforms.
Here are some ways to help ease ex-prisoners’ struggle with decision making.
- Lessen the number of choices. Before going to a restaurant, for example, ask the ex-prisoner what kind of food he or she prefers. If the answer is “a good steak” or “Italian,” choose a place that suits the preference.
- Give time to choose. Order an appetizer everyone can share while the ex-prisoner studies the menu. Patiently encourage the prisoner to try on as many pairs of pants as he wants on a shopping excursion. Plan accordingly so you’re not in a rush.
- Encourage proper self-care—nutrition, exercise, rest—to build up internal “self-regulation” resources. Remember, making decisions depletes mental energy.
- Help the ex-prisoner find appropriate professional resources. This might include mental-health counseling to help with issues of anxiety or depression, or career counseling to help determine suitable employment options and enhance decision-making skills.
- For significant choices (employment opportunities, housing options), help the ex-prisoner think through pros and cons of the various options. Don’t make the choice for the ex-prisoner, but ask questions that will help him or her make a responsible choice. “What are the benefits of that job? What might be some limitations? Without a car, what are some ways you could get to your job?” Suggest options he or she may not have considered.
- Provide training (best if begun while people are still in prison) in decision-making skills to help prisoners understand their thinking patterns, identify erroneous ways of thinking, and learn more effective ways of thinking. Some people may also require professional counseling; cognitive behavioral therapists specialize in helping people modify unhealthy thinking patterns, which in turn will change their actions.
- Provide a support structure for the ex-prisoner—a mentor, a church family, an accountability group, etc. Ex-prisoners need people to believe in them and to help give them guidance and a base of security in the midst of so many challenges and adjustments. A study called “Keepin’ My Mind Right” found that “the manner in which religious inmates accomplished the task of staying on track and coping with confinement was primarily social”—such as connecting with “positive others” who shared their religious values. The importance of positive, supportive relationships certainly carries over into reintegration into the community.
- Encourage their relationship with God—the One who gives wisdom, who loves them unconditionally, who forgives when they go astray, who picks them up when they stumble and sets them back on the right path, who calms their fears with His perfect love, and who transforms them through the renewing of their minds.
Research studies referenced:
Crawley, E. & Sparks, R. “Is There Life After Imprisonment?” Criminology and Criminal Justice 6(1) (2006): 63-82.
Hochstetler, A., Murphy, D. S., & Simons, R. L. “Damaged Goods: Exploring Predictors of Distress in Prison Inmates.” Crime & Delinquency 50 (July 2004): 436-457.
Iyengar, S. S. & Lepper, M. R. “When Choice Is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 79 (December 2000): 995-1006.
Kerley, K. R. & Copes, H. “ ‘Keeping My Mind Right’: Identity Maintenance and Religious Social Support in the Prison Context.” International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology 53 (April 2009): 228-244.
Mandracchia, J. T., Morgan, R. D., Garos, S., & Garland, J. T. “Inmate Thinking Patterns: An Empirical Study.” Criminal Justice and Behavior 34 (August 2007): 1029-1043.
Parkinson, B. & Simons, G. “Affecting Others: Social Appraisal and Emotion Contagion in Everyday Decision Making.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 35 (August 2009): 1071-1084.
Railey, M. G. & Peterson, G. W. “The Assessment of Dysfunctional Career Thoughts and Interest Structure Among Female Inmates and Probationers.” Journal of Career Assessment 8 (Spring 2000): 119-129.
Reitzel, L. R. & Harju, B. L. “Influence of Locus of Control and Custody Level on Intake and Prison-Adjustment Depression.” Criminal Justice and Behavior 27 (October 2000): 625-644.
Saka, N., Gati, I., & Kelly, K. R. “Emotional and Personality-Related Aspects of Career-Decision-Making Difficulties.” Journal of Career Assessment 16 (November 2008): 403-424.
Vohs, K. D., Schmeichel, B. J., Nelson, N. M., Baumeister, R. F., Twenge, J. M., & Tice, D. M. “Making Choices Impairs Subsequent Self-Control: A Limited-Resource Account of Decision Making, Self-Regulation, and Active Initiative.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 94(5) (2008): 883-898.