Psychopathy and the Redemption Dilemma
Welcome to the Redemption Dilemma page, which seeks to inform and educate on the difficult but vitally important topic of psychopathy, especially for those involved in criminal justice and sentencing reform. There is an enormous disconnect between the vast scientific knowledge on psychopathy that has accumulated over the past thirty years and the movement to end mass incarceration, in which the subject is never mentioned.
As a long-time prison/sentencing reformer, I was accustomed to passionately stating, "Every human being is capable of redemption," and "We are all worth more than the worst thing we've ever done." Then, after a devastating betrayal by an individual for whose freedom from prison I successfully fought for a decade, I learned these statements are far too simplistic. There are people among us, both inside and outside of prison, who are without conscience and can commit acts of immense cruelty and callousness with no remorse. They are masters of deception, manipulation, and impression management. These are the psychopaths, and they can be extraordinarily difficult to spot (even by highly trained professionals) until it is too late and the harm is irremediable.
Even as I continue to advocate to end LWOP (life without parole) and other extreme sentencing, I also educate about psychopathy and the need for intensive training for prison staff, psychologists, parole board commissioners, and others involved in the release process. I also advocate for research on prevention and treatment of psychopathy, which is virtually non-existent at this time. (There is evidence from the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center in Wisconsin that intensive therapy for teenagers bring about a reduction in recidivism of almost 50% (please see link to the right). However, there is no known effective treatment for adults with psychopathy.)
Psychopathy is indirectly related to, but not the same as, childhood abuse and trauma. There is much evidence that psychopathy is biologically based, but its expression can be greatly influenced by the environment in which the child grows up--the healthier the environment, the fewer the manifestations of psychopathic traits. Anecdotal evidence for this concept is provided by the story of neuroscientist James Fallon, author of "The Psychopath Inside." (Read more about Dr. Fallon by clicking the link to the right.) However, psychopathy is more directly related to the perpetuation of childhood abuse and trauma when psychopaths become parents, teachers, coaches, clergy, and others in positions of authority over children. In these cases, the infliction of abuse may be intentional and sadistic, rather than the result of unresolved trauma in the adult.
Awareness of psychopathy is critically important to the long-term success of the movement to end mass incarceration. If it is not acknowledged that most, but not all, people in prison are capable of rehabilitation and redemption, and if efforts are not increased to identify those with psychopathic traits at high risk of committing violence, releasing large numbers of prisoners will inevitably lead to instances of heinous crimes that will threaten to force the pendulum back to "lock them up and throw away the key." Research shows that 1 of 4 maximum-security prisoners can be diagnosed as psychopathic, so this risk is not negligible.
For an incredibly powerful introduction to the topic of psychopathy, please watch the first 30 minutes of the video "i am fishead" (link to the right), which features preeminent psychopathy researchers Drs. Robert Hare and Paul Babiak.