This CorrectionalNurse.Net guest post is from Rob Tilley, MD, MBA, an Oregon physician with extensive correctional experience.
At first glance, this statement that inmates don’t lie seems to make no sense. Anyone who has worked with inmates gets quite used to altered truths being spoken on a routine basis. But, by the end of this post, I think you’ll agree with me that inmates don’t lie.
No Social Contract
In everyday society, we have a social contract with each other. Largely we expect that what other people say is generally true. Certainly, there are times in which we shade the truth or express ourselves in a manner that is not wholly factual. For example, we don’t tell a co-worker that the new hairstyle is really not flattering. We also will try to present ourselves in the best light, sometimes when our work has not been the best. Nevertheless, we all engage in these behaviors, smoothing our social interactions and still adhering to our general principle that our communications should be fundamentally honest.
In my experience, I typically find that inmate culture does not reflect this contract. Many inmates lead a life of struggle and deprivation. From our perspective, we could rationalize that a change in this behavior would result in a better outcome, but from the inmate’s perspective, this is a way of life in a community that is experiencing the same difficulties.
The Inmate Tool Kit
Inmates use many strategies to acquire the things that they need to survive, whether it’s a safe place to sleep, food, companionship and, yes, drugs and sex. It is not uncommon for inmates to be very friendly and to deal with correctional staff on a seemingly pleasant and reasonable basis when things are going well. This same inmate can be confrontational, deceptive or manipulative, though, when the need arises. Each of these strategies are essentially “tools” within a “toolkit” that the inmate uses depending on the scenario and the need.
A common strategy is to say what the inmate thinks the listener wants to hear. At times this can work, especially if what they are saying appeals to us. Other times it seems evidently ridiculous. For example, upon searching a suspect’s pockets, police officers have heard the claim that “These aren’t my pants.” A clearly absurd statement and yet this can be viewed as a desperate attempt to use the last tool left at the suspect’s disposal.
So why do I say the inmate isn’t lying? Inmates have not entered into the social contract expect from others, namely that our words are intended to communicate fundamentally true information. In their world, words are not for that purpose. Words are said solely for the purpose of obtaining the desired ends.
Since words are tools for this purpose, there is no guilt associated with any deception, because truth is simply not part of the equation. In fact, I have even heard frustrated inmates say that they don’t understand why I refused to comply with their request when they said statement X, Y, or Z – clearly thinking this was what I needed or wanted to hear. This is a direct admission that, in their minds, the words should have been the key to getting what they wanted. But, they had no realization that the truthfulness of the statement was crucial.
In my experience, inmates are, for the same reason, quick to forget what was said to them. Of course, they remember quite well when they think those words can be used to their advantage. Otherwise, verbal expressions are frequently completely forgotten.
Learn to Observe
In my work in correctional health care, I have made it a point to observe inmate interactions. Telling lies among themselves rarely seems to result in personal friction. In their world, without a social honesty contract, offense is neither given nor taken when lies are shared. In fact, true friction among inmates usually result from alterations and challenges to perceived social status rather than lies and deceptions.
This knowledge has helped me in dealing with inmate patients. Rather than focus on the words they say, I consider, instead, what these words would obtain for them. Very often, when I do this, the intent of the inmate becomes clear in the words that they chose to say and how they present them.
This is why I say, “Inmates don’t lie.” Yes, the words might be inaccurate, but the intent and what is communicated to the astute listener is often completely clear.
What do you think? Do inmates lie? Share your thoughts in the comments section of this post.