Social Hierarchy among Prison Inmates

People who are in prison are often looked down upon by those who have never been incarcerated.  They are treated as second-class citizens, even after serving their time and reintegrating into a community.  Thieves, rapists, drug abusers, and others are often all looked down upon in the same way.  The reason the person went to prison doesn’t matter.  They are all washed by the same brush, so to speak.  This is an unfair stigma for many of them.  But, right or wrong, there is no denying that society has its class system, and those who are in or who have been in prison rank lower in those social strata.

But how do prisoners see themselves?

Inside a prison, there are unspoken rules.  Every inmate knows them.  Those who are fresh to prison learn them quickly.  One of these rules is simply that not all inmates are equal.  Whereas everyone locked up in a prison looks the same to those who are standing on the outside, the inmates don’t see it that way.

It is hard for most people to grasp that there are actually crimes that can give a person status among other inmates.  Murderers often rank atop the social order in a prison.  Yes, one of the vilest of crimes society knows is one of the most celebrated among the prison population.  As hard as it is to believe, the glamour and rarity of this crime brings a certain awe to the convicted murderer.  Consider the notoriety that people like Ted Bundy or Charles Manson gained once convicted.  Women wrote them with lewd propositions or offers of marriage.  Or both.  Books are written about convicted murderers.  Movies depict their crimes in dramatic detail.  Murderers are the celebrities of prison inmates.

In the middle rankings of prison social systems are the more common-place crimes.  Burglars.  Thieves.  Drunk drivers.  These are crimes that are committed so often that they aren’t very interesting to the prison population anymore.  These are the “regular joes” among prison inmates.  Not looked down upon, not looked up to.

Near the bottom, but not the lowest, are rapists.  Rape is a crime that not even other criminals condone.  Rapists are looked down upon, but tolerated.  The other inmates will socialize with them only when no one else is around.

Below even rapists at the bottom of this inmate-created social ranking are child molesters.  People convicted of this crime will often lie to other inmates about why they are in prison because they know what will most likely happen if anyone finds out what they are really convicted of.  If the other inmates do find out what crime has sentenced them to time inside, the child molester will often lie and say such things as “I had to plead guilty to avoid something worse,” or, “the kid lied and the jury believed the kid over me, wouldn’t you?”  They hope to avoid some small part of the negative stigma placed on child-molesters by the other inmates.

Child molesters in prison provide a means for the other inmates to feel better about themselves, giving a skewed sense of perspective.  By looking down on this one group, they feel like their own crimes aren’t that bad.  It’s not uncommon for prison guards to see inmates cursing child molesters, assaulting child molesters, or worse.  If the guard points out that both the child molester and the other inmates are all in prison, all convicted criminals, the response is often something like, “Sure, but all I did was rob a store.”  Or, “Sure, I stabbed somebody but I ain’t no baby raper.” 

There is no doubt that child molestation is one of the worst crimes there is.  Nothing can excuse it.  Nothing can make it better than what it is.  The convicted child molesters have little in the way to offer anyone to mitigate what they did, or what they were charged with, at any rate.  And the other inmates know this.  This and other factors make child molester inmates easy targets for the other inmates.  Making them the lowest of the low among themselves is easy for the inmate population.

For their own part, child molesters tolerate being looked down upon, hoping to slide through their time in prison unnoticed, or at least get through it with the least amount of negative attention.  And all the while they know, when they get released, they will be released into a society that looks at them the same way the other inmates have.