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The John Dillinger Syndrome



John Dillinger, as a teenager, had a petty criminal record. Before he was thirty, Dillinger robbed a grocery store of $50.00. Dillinger’s father, after discussion with the prosecutor, convinced his son to plead guilty without the benefit of a defense attorney. John Dillinger was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison. While in prison, he became the student of famous depression era bank robbers. Dillinger was paroled after nine years in state prison. The next two years of his life was a series of bank robberies, famous escapes, and his eventual death.

The following article and survey suggest that some young inmates leave prison more adept at crime due to the tutelage of more experienced inmates. The professor who conducted the study reported that his conclusions were obviously not true of all young inmates who are released from prison and that many young inmates become productive members of society. There are several other factors to consider regarding whether a young inmate becomes a better criminal upon release. Factors such as the family support system, post prison employment, the strength of gang ties, and many other aspects of Re-Entry determine whether an ex-inmate becomes a recidivism statistic. It is always important to remember that John Dillinger, even with his extensive bank robbery education, was shot dead outside of a movie theater two years after his release from prison. The following article supports that first time offenders should not be imprisoned with hardcore inmates.

When Crime Pays: Prison Can Teach Some To Be Better Criminals

by Shankar Vedantam – NPR

Prison provides an opportunity for networking with more seasoned criminals.

In popular lore — movies, books and blogs — criminals who go to prison don’t come out reformed. They come out worse.

Scientists who have attempted to empirically analyze this theory have reached mixed conclusions, with analyses suggesting that activities like drug addiction or gangs are what determines whether the correctional system actually gets criminals to correct their ways.

What else could be at work?

Donald T. Hutcherson II, a sociology professor at Ohio University in Lancaster, recently decided to tackle the question by mining the vast data in the U.S. government’s National Longitudinal Survey of Youth.

The survey conducts incredibly detailed and confidential interviews, and then repeats those interviews with the same people year after year — often going to extraordinary lengths to track down those who may have moved overseas or ended up in prison.

Included in the survey are questions about how much money individuals make legally and illegally. Because the survey also ascertains whether people have spent time in prison, Hutcherson pored through data from tens of thousands of queries to a large number of young people to establish whether illegal earnings went up or down after individuals served time.

If prison reformed criminals, illegal earnings once people were released ought to have gone down. But if prison was a “finishing school” for criminals, illegal earnings after serving time should have increased.

“Spending time in prison leads to increased criminal earnings,” Hutcherson says. “On average, a person can make roughly $11,000 more [illegally] from spending time in prison versus a person who does not spend time in prison.”

As to the process by which this happens, he says, “You come in [to prison]. You’re 16, 17, 18 years old. You’re looking around and you’re thinking, ‘Listen, I can learn from these seasoned veterans.’ And that’s exactly what you do. … Basically, you are spending a lot of time around other criminals, seasoned veterans who know the lay of the land, and they can teach you the mechanisms — ways to get away with crime.”

Because the study looks at averages, it’s important to note that Hutcherson isn’t saying that all criminals come out of prison primed to become bigger criminals. Lots of people, obviously, come out determined to lead law-abiding lives.

Hutcherson pointed to the role of social networks in all of our lives. In the legal economy, being connected to influential people — via networking — is widely seen as a way to get ahead on the ladder.

The same phenomenon appeared to be at work in the illegal economy as well. “You would think that being punished, serving time in prison, for young people would be a deterrent,” Hutcherson says. “But look at it this way. When you leave prison, who are you going to hang out with? You’re not going to all of a sudden join the chess club.”

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PrisonPathFrom Ghost Inmates to Felon's Right to Vote - Prison Path Visitor Information & Inmate Locator- Prison PathWhat is Prison Like in Pennsylvania - PrisonPath Visitor Information & Inmate Locator- PrisonPathPrisonPathProf Anthony Goodman Recent comment authors
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Prof Anthony Goodman

Classic criminology and Edwin Sutherland’s differential association theory.. Additional Comments– You hit the nail on the head… in the mind of the individual (ex-offender/con) determined to make a difference, they are going to have to make changes regarding their associations, especially if on paper (supervised release), as is the case with many. Conversely, those determined to continue flouting the criminal justice system, will do just that, regardless of what they experienced while incarcerated. By James Yes that was defiantly my personal experience. Prison at 17 gave me the opportunity, skills, advice and information necessary to elevate to a higher level… Read more »


[…] to society. Prisonpath discussed one impact of the prison experience upon the nonviolent inmate in “The John Dillinger Syndrome”. The studies have also shown that the elderly population in our prisons has increased dramatically […]


[…] 3.The John Dillinger Syndrome: John Dillinger went into prison as a young man. Before his imprisonment, he had a petty criminal record. While in prison, he became the student of famous depression era bank robbers. After Dillinger’s escape from prison–the rest of his life became history. Some argue that prison teaches inmates to be better criminals… […]