top of page

Captive Audience: Escaping the Criminal Justice Paradigm Trap

Captivity is not a natural situation, so a desire for freedom, a desire to do whatever it takes to obtain freedom, is an instinctive reaction when one’s liberty has been compromised. This instinctual response to captivity is well understood by those immersed in the justice system, who keenly recognize the imperative need for resolution to incarceration. Moreover, they grapple with the sobering reality of the revolving door phenomenon, particularly prevalent among black men, as a systemic flaw of the criminal justice apparatus.

Or is it? Without question, there are many who posit that whatever failings the criminal justice system may have, the real problem lies elsewhere. Perhaps neither side is completely wrong, and both are measurably correct. What we all can agree on is that at the very least, there exists a ‘systemic disconnect’ in a nation that imprisons more of its citizens on an annual basis than any other western democracy. In scrutinizing this unsettling reality, it is paramount to transcend the confines of the conventional news cycle and explore alternative reasoning regarding the perpetuation of these incarceration systems. Afterall, there doesn’t seem to be a shortage on the number of people available to imprison.

So, here’s a revolutionary thought: While discriminatory laws, a fractured and prejudiced criminal justice apparatus, and questionable law enforcement practices undoubtedly play significant roles, wait for it…culpability also extends to the individuals enmeshed within the justice

system – HOWEVER, this issue is not simply about being accountable for committing a crime by serving time. Rather, the accountability the justice involved must confront and reconcile is the harsh truth that fostering ignorance and perpetuating oppressive ideologies are profound contributors to the maintenance of these systems of confinement, as well as eroding the very foundations upon which a healthy society thrives.

Consider this: How often do people from disadvantaged backgrounds characterized by poverty-stricken neighborhoods, limited education, and single-parent households, become trapped in desperate – yet life defining – situations?  Desperation implies hopelessness and little to no perceived resolution. The only alternative seems to be bad ones, leading to behaviors like drug dealing, joining gangs, or being exploited, which ultimately only worsens their plight. This is a problem and a primary avenue of incarceration, right?

Yet, when we scrutinize our families, neighborhoods, and communities—the traditional bastions of social and cultural rectitude —do they truly provide the emotional, spiritual, and intellectual nourishment necessary to resist the pull of these carceral systems? Regrettably, all too often, the answer is no. It's akin to being trapped in a dark room, wanting to escape, yet refusing to turn on the light to see how to do so.

It's time to turn on the light.

Having the means to see is indicative of the first crucial step in this journey, which is awareness. As individuals and a community, we have to know what’s going on. We require unadulterated knowledge and self-application of the wisdom therein.  We must be willing to look beyond the surface manifestations of disenfranchisement and embark on a collective and individual journey of self-examination. This entails a deliberate commitment to exposing ourselves to truth, knowledge, and wisdom for the purpose of reshaping prevalent cognitive understanding that is neither cognitive or an understanding.

The stark reality is that individuals who become entangled in the criminal justice system often develop a vastly different perspective about themselves and the world around them compared to the average person. The psychological toll of incarceration manifests as a profound and enduring trauma, warping the mentality of those within its confines. Prison fosters a paradigm where challenging authority and circumventing rules are not only tolerated but encouraged, where entitlement is perceived as a God given right, and exploitation of others is normalized. Over time, even individuals who may initially resist such behaviors find themselves desensitized to these norms, gradually accepting them as the new normal. This insidious cycle perpetuates what can be termed as the "paradigm trap." These distorted perceptions, attitudes, and mindsets do not vanish upon release from prison; instead, they persist and infiltrate back into society, permeating our communities.

Consider the individual on supervised release (probation/parole) who, conditioned by their time behind bars, seeks to subvert the conditions of their release as they believe it as the standard course of action. Or contemplate the freshly released individual who, having internalized the dependency fostered by incarceration, passively waits for external support rather than taking proactive steps to rebuild their life. Similarly, those with extensive involvement in the criminal justice system may resort to exploiting others, viewing victimization as a normative aspect of existence.

This perpetuation of distorted beliefs and behaviors underscores the urgency of breaking free from the paradigm trap. It demands comprehensive reevaluation and reintegration efforts that extend beyond mere physical release from incarceration (and external needs such as employment and housing). Rehabilitation programs, social support systems, and community initiatives must collaborate to identify, target and dismantle the cognitive dissonance ingrained by incarceration, while empowering individuals to reclaim agency over their lives. Moreover, it is imperative that these efforts commence from the very moment of incarceration, rather than waiting until the aftermath, when the damage has already taken its toll.

Only by recognizing and addressing the enduring impact of incarceration on the psyche can we hope to break the cycle of recidivism and foster genuine rehabilitation. It is incumbent upon us to provide avenues for healing, growth, and redemption, steering individuals away from the gravitational pull of the paradigm trap toward a future characterized by resilience, dignity, and opportunity.

An obvious paradigm shift is needed. The question then becomes; how do we create buy-in from those who have already been consumed by the Paradigm Trap? Top of Form


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page