The Judas Ladder


This tale involves a “clever” inmate. He enjoyed the respectable rung of bank robber, but found he had suddenly descended to approximately the level of a sex offender. The reason for his slippage was the inmate code, which demands allegiance to other inmates under virtually all circumstances. “Ratting out” a fellow inmate may cost one his life, or at the very least, result in a decidedly anxious, paranoid existence.

Knowing that Judas was reflecting upon something that was exalted, Jesus said to him, “Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom. It is possible for you to reach it, but you will grieve a great deal.”

                                                                 - The Gospel of Judas1

We all need a lower rung to stand on. Regardless of our position-and perhaps because of it-we need the assurance of a lower rung on which to wipe our collective feet. Certainly, there is the perpetual risk that we might inadvertently slip, tumbling down to those lower rungs we had so recently despised.

Inside the New Asylums, be advised that there exists a unique social ladder. Just as the Correctional Officers have a clear hierarchy deriving from military organization, inmates have their own ranking system. The inmate hierarchy is a social order, and an inmate’s place within the hierarchy determines the amount of “respect” he is accorded by other inmates. Respect is the infinitely dense logic of the prison-debt and morality orbit around it, finally collapsing into its gravitational pull.

Because the inmate code favors disdain for law enforcement, we find inmates who have killed law enforcement personnel at the top of the hierarchy. Roughly second in the inmate hierarchy are those serving life in prison for murder. “Lifers” may be viewed by other inmates as the “wise sages” of the prison system. They may be revered for their ability to “maintain their dignity for decades, like monks.”2

Next are inmates who have committed some sort of violent offense, which has “proved” their willingness to use violence. After violent offenders, the hierarchy becomes somewhat less clear. However, inmates who have used “cleverness” to commit crimes such as large-scale theft, fraud, or bank robbery are generally respected by other inmates.3

Pushed to the bottom of the hierarchy are murderers of women and sex offenders. Sharing the absolute lowest level-alongside Judas and Satan-are inmates who have committed a sex offense against a child. Sex offenders who serve their time without experiencing major harassment tend to be those who are adept at becoming invisible. Those whose egos cannot accept their place on the ladder, or who otherwise try to loose themselves from the frozen lake, are treated to a hide skinning that has them diving back under the ice for cover. Eventually, they learn to stay under the ice.

This tale involves a “clever” inmate. He enjoyed the respectable rung of bank robber, but found he had suddenly descended to approximately the level of a sex offender. The reason for his slippage was the inmate code, which demands allegiance to other inmates under virtually all circumstances. “Ratting out” a fellow inmate may cost one his life, or at the very least, result in a decidedly anxious, paranoid existence.

Vince was only 1 year into his 12-year sentence and was bunked with a cellmate who belonged to a certain inmate social organization. It was the case that members of this organization were zealous advocates of their heritable phenotypic characteristics-the most prominent of which they considered to be the amount of melanin in their epidermis. Over many months, Vince learned that his cellmate had plotted and helped to kill another inmate who was not part of the organization because of, among other things, failing to possess the requisite skin pigmentation.

The murder was at first front-page news, then fourth-page news, and so on. The prison investigation team, even with assistance from the FBI, was having trouble obtaining evidence to charge Vince’s roommate with the murder. Nonetheless, they were sure they had the right man. They pursued a not uncommon course of action-to secretly talk to the cellmate of the suspect and see whether he is willing to help them by wearing a wire while encouraging the suspect to admit responsibility for the murder.

Relying on his cleverness, Vince agreed to wear a wire. A deal was to be struck-and Vince was led to believe he might knock 3 years off his sentence. Vince was quite successful in getting his cellmate to say things that ensured a conviction of murder. When the trial was over, Vince’s roommate was sentenced to life without parole and immediately transferred to another prison. As the legal dust settled, there was plenty of time for the aforementioned social organization to discover that it was Vince who had betrayed his roommate.

Meanwhile, to Vince’s great displeasure, prosecutors informed him that legal technicalities precluded the contingent 3 years removed, and Vince was no longer eligible for any time off of his original sentence. Having never anticipated such an outcome, there he sat without any deal, and no promise of favorable treatment in the future. An insidious, metastatic fear began to wrap itself around his cortex and autonomic nervous system.

It is difficult to fully capture the dread that someone in Vince’s position might begin to experience. Here I would offer a little cinematic assistance. Imagine that you are approached by a mysterious and frightening stranger who claims that he knows you. He walks right up to you and says: “When a person is sentenced to death, they're sent to a place where they can’t escape, never knowing when an executioner may step up behind them, and fire a bullet into the back of their head.”This was the reality in which Vince now found himself, and it predictably began to take a toll on his psyche.

Prisons are relatively reliable places. That is, certain things can be expected to occur in a dependable manner, such as cell counts, chow time, and inmate movement. Other things occur reliably that are less a matter of security or procedure. For example, given enough time, every inmate on a unit will become aware of each other’s crimes. Some things occur predictably, yet imperceptibly. For example, an inmate will be inexplicably housed among other inmates bearing a grudge against him. At some point, said inmate will find himself in an isolated area with cleaning duties along with other grudge-bearing inmates. How does this happen? One could speculate endlessly and never arrive at a firm conclusion.

And so through a series of circumstances leaving no discernible trail, Vince was cleaning under a unit stairwell when he caught a glimpse of 2 shadows that quickly and silently boxed him into a corner underneath the stairwell that could not be directly viewed by security cameras. The last thing Vince remembered, after the blinding punches to his face, was the full weight of 2 inmates on his chest and arms. His last thought before unconsciousness-why are they pouring water in my ear . . .?

Vince’s next memory was waking up in the prison infirmary, having already been to an outside hospital. He discovered that the side of his head was heavily bandaged. He quickly learned that the fluid gushing sensation in his ear had, in fact, been his auditory canal filling up with blood as a result of his ear being completely cut from his head with a razor blade that had been fastened to the end of a toothbrush. This was in addition to a fractured skull, fractured orbital bones and 3 broken ribs. Neither his severed right ear nor his attackers were ever located. The makeshift toothbrush scalpel had been left at the scene, wiped clean of fingerprints. Vince spent the next 5 months in the infirmary, and required 2 trips to an outside hospital for reconstructive surgery to help heal up the small mound of tissue that was where his ear used to be.

With his physical wounds tended to, Vince’s emotional wounds now came to the fore. He could not sleep, and when he did, he was frequently awakened by nightmares of being attacked. He spontaneously broke out into sweats and palpitations whenever he was around stairwells. He could only recall pieces of his attack, while other pieces forced their way into his consciousness uninvited, culminating in a panic attack. Vince wondered whether another attack might be on the horizon. Indeed, he lived in a state of dread, which over time was accompanied by strong feelings of hopelessness and depression. All of this eventually led him down the path of speculating on the pros and cons of remaining alive in prison for the decade. After Vince refused to leave his cell for a month, a mental health consult resulted in his inpatient admission.

Over time, Vince’s PTSD and depression responded partially to treatment. Yet after a 3- or 4-month hospital stay, some staff began to question his desire to be discharged. There was speculation that he had become “too comfortable” on the protected unit, and no longer had the “healthy” motivation to return to the general population of the prison. In fact, his motivation to be stepped down to an intermediate care program, now a familiar installment in the New Asylums, was also in doubt.5 Privately I wondered: who among us would be motivated to return to the “place where they can't escape, never knowing when an executioner may step up behind them”?

Vince remained on the unit, with chronic, severe PTSD and depression that was in partial remission. Clever deals come to clever people, and sure enough, another deal came Vince’s way. This time, the deal was extended to him by several plaintiffs’ attorneys who were bringing a class action suit against the prison alleging, among other things, insufficient mental health staff and resources. Again, Vince relied on his cleverness in deciding to accept a deal, only this time the deal involved him accepting the role as a primary plaintiff in the suit. His task was not to wear a wire, but to work with attorneys to arrive at a reasonable agreement for what was needed by correctional mental health services to render good care. 

One of the most common forms of legal action in the New Asylums is called the Consent Decree.6   This Decree legally memorializes an agreement between 2 parties before a judge, with the purpose of avoiding civil litigation. The defendant-in this example, the New Asylum-agrees to take specific actions to resolve the problems outlined in the Consent Decree, which becomes legally binding on the consenting parties. What’s more, if the New Asylum violates the terms of the Consent Decree, the plaintiff may then seek enforcement through a contempt action and formal civil litigation. Consent decrees are typically time-intensive and may continue for many years, sometimes many decades.

Vince must have realized that by placing himself on the masthead of the Consent Decree, he would be virtually guaranteed continued protection and health care. Surely, some will say Vince’s decision was a venal and strategic move. His true motivations seem, in the grand scheme, irrelevant to me. The end result was that the prison came under much closer scrutiny by outside authorities, and the overall mental health services were drastically improved at a time when they were desperately needed.

The English word redemption has its roots in the Old Testament and means to “repurchase” or “buy back.” One might be amazed on considering how debt, deals, and market forces underpin much of our historical notions of morality.

Social hierarchies may be subject to change, because all structures are ultimately unstable. Having entered at a respected rung, Vince slipped to the bottom, where he was reborn and arose to embrace a different type of respect. Among his peers on the mental health case load, he became a hero who helped ensure their improved treatment. Among correctional staff and administration, he became an assured partner in the daily functioning of the prison.

“Look, you have been told everything. Lift up your eyes and look at the cloud and the light within it and the stars surrounding it. The star that leads the way is your star.” Judas lifted up his eyes and saw the luminous cloud, and he entered it.1

References:1. Kasser R, Meyer M, Wurst G, trans-eds. The Gospel of Judas. The National Geographic Society; 2006.
2. Ross J, Richards S. Behind Bars: Surviving Prison. Indianapolis: Alpha Books; 2002.
3. Kaminski MM. Games Prisoners Play. Allocation of Social Roles in a Total Institution. Rationality and Society. 2003;15:189-218.
4. Lynch D, Gifford B. Lost Highway. 1997.
5. Condelli W, Dvoskin J, Holanchock H. Intermediate care programs for inmates with psychiatric disorders. Bull Am Acad Psychiatry Law. 1994;22:63-70.
6. Metzner JL. Class action litigation in correctional psychiatry. J Am Acad Psychiatry Law. 2002;30:19-29.


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