The Tier System at Patuxent

Prison rehabilitation experiments which do not fail completely seem to share a common element. They accept the inmate's game-playing mentality. In essence, such programs proclaim, "Play along with us and you will get out earlier." A famous example of this approach was the Patuxent project in the state of Maryland.

What was unique about the 1951 Maryland law?

Patuxent was unique. Its population of young male delinquents had life sentences, in effect, because of a 1951 Maryland law which said "defective delinquents" could be committed indefinitely, possibly forever. Defective delinquents were defined as those who posed a clear danger to society. The only way they could get out of the institution was by changing their behavior.

How did the graded tier system at Patuxent work?

To encourage change, Patuxent used a graded-tier system. The prison had four different areas called tiers. A prisoner entered on the bottom tier. At this entry level, Patuxent was much like an ordinary prison. First-tier inmates had few privileges or rights. If the prisoner behaved properly for a period of time, he moved to a higher tier. In Tier II a prisoner had longer exercise periods and visits to the prison commissary for candy and other small purchases. Eventually, in the fourth tier, a prisoner was allowed to stay up as late as he wanted. He could have picnics with his family on the lawn. If his good behavior continued, he could eventually spend some time in the Patuxent halfway house in downtown Baltimore, away from the main institution. If he behaved himself there, he could be released on parole.

Inmates of Patuxent learned to play along if they wanted good living conditions. They called it "shamming." One inmate said, in an interview:

What was shamming?

Look, man, most of us are good at shamming. We grew up on the streets surrounded by confidence games. Literature is available to everyone now—hell, we talk as much about the Oedipus complex as about baseball. We know what these cats want to hear. Not the real gory stuff—what you're really thinking—because that scares 'em and makes 'em think you're still dangerous. But you spill your guts in a nice kind of way and act as if you're gaining all these insights. Now that you know yourself and that you killed that girl because you were really killing your mother, you don't have to kill any more. It doesn't seem to occur to 'em that I might want to kill my mother several times over. Hell, everything I've told 'em is a lie. One big sham. (Trotter, 1975)

The director of the prison, Sigmund Manne, said it did not bother him if prisoners were shamming.

If a man can sham well enough to make it in society, I have no objections. It means he's developed the internal controls that are necessary.

In what respects did the Patuxent program work well?

Patuxent worked fairly well by one measure. It had a low recidivism rate. In other words, prisoners released from Patuxent seldom returned to prison. Critics said this was because only the most promising individuals were released. Others were simply locked up for good. Defenders of Patuxent said that was just the point. A correctional facility should keep people off the streets if they cannot "play along" with society. If they can, fine—let them go. They may think they are shamming, but in the process they get practice at needed social skills.

Why was the Patuxent program discontinued?

Whatever its virtues, the Patuxent approach did not last long. Lawyers argued that the indefinite sentence violated a prisoner's legal rights. The cost-per-patient at Patuxent was about twice the average at other correctional institutions. The final blow was Maryland's passage of legislation forbidding behavior modification systems of all kinds in correctional institutions—an act which struck some psychologists as a bizarre contradiction of the very idea of "corrections" in prison. Other psychologists welcomed this change as a legal reform freeing prisoners from unwanted manipulation. The Patuxent experiment and similar graded-tier systems were ended, and Patuxent closed in 1979.


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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey