The roots of the word prison comes from prisune from before 1112, which means confinement. Prisune was influence by pris, which means taken.

As a result of a growing and changing prison population in this country, I will reiterate statistics of the presence of an archetype. Personal observation on the prison yard has brought to my attention that most of my fellow inmates did not fit the prison stereotype that popular media portrays. My main point is to show the existence of a much larger population of chemically addicted inmates, who fit the archetype of the puer aeternus. Those same types of people I associated with for over twenty-five years, many who never spent any prison time whatever.

From the roaring twenties through the nineteen fifties various forms of the media have characterized a prison stereotype that includes gangsters, sociopaths, convicts and ex-convicts. Presented here will be a discussion about that prison stereotype, drawing from Babyak and Gilligan, followed by a discussion of an archetype--the puer aeternus--that is descriptive of present-day inmates. Aaron Kipnis will provide the reasons for this. With help from Erich Fromm, also discussed here will be two types of aggression that will differentiate the old stereotype and the puer. Nakken, von Franz, Yeoman, et al, will compare the puer aeternus with the addicted population of our country's prisons.
The Prison Stereotype:

The convict, the sociopath, and the gangster stereotypes are not mutually exclusive. Their acerbic personalities are often described as hardened, violent, racist, devoid of compassion, destructive, and untrustworthy. It is no wonder that so many people in our society want to keep them locked up for their turpitude.

Humphrey Bogart and Fredric March played escaped convicts in a classic nail-biter in The Desperate Hours where they held a terrified family hostage. Robert DiNero has portrayed similar figures in films such as Goodfellas, True Confessions, and Cape Fear. Whereas their roles are fictional, there are those in real life who are found on the front pages of daily newspapers, in magazines, biographies, case studies, newscasts, and documentaries about serial killers, pedophiles, rapists, cannibals, sadists, and many other people who have committed atrocities, and these people have always and will continue to be housed in prisons.

Thomas Gaddis provides an excellent example. He was the author of a book entitled Birdman of Alcatraz about Robert Stroud, which is what inspired the 1962 movie of the same name. The Hollywood portrayal made him look like an American folk hero with his scientific discoveries in medicine and his compassion for birds, but in the real world of the state prison system he was quite different from the movie portrayal.

Jolene Babyak (1994) paints a more accurate picture of him: on "November 1, 1911, Stroud struck Henry in the back with a knife. As Henry ran, Stroud got off a few more thrusts. A physician reported that Henry received seven stab wounds in his back, shoulder, upper arm and buttocks, one of which penetrated the pleural cavity"(p.62). Stroud later admitted that "he had intended to kill Henry and regretted being unsuccessful" (p. 62). It was Bird Man's intention to kill two other prisoners too. Stroud was also a homosexual who "proudly called himself a 'pederast,' a man who prefers sex with boys" (p. 62). The MMPI confirmed a previous diagnosis of a "profoundly and significantly disturbed" personality, a "psychopathic deviate" who was impulsive and paranoid--the perfect profile of a sociopath (p. 252).

Gilligan (1996) quotes Dennis X who intended to "gouge out his eyes, cut off his ears, cut out his tongue, cut off his penis and testicles, and then stuff all these up his anus" (p. 80). He was unable to complete that project only because the knife broke. Following the murder, "Dennis X experienced no feelings of guilt or remorse" (p. 80).

The violence described above is what Fromm (1973) considers malignant aggression: "cruelty and destructiveness, is specific to the human species and virtually absent in most mammals; it is not phylogenetically programmed and not biologically adaptive; it has no purpose, and its satisfaction is lustful" (p. 25).

The majority of inmates in this country do not fit the scandalous prison stereotype just described. Kipnis (1999) reports studies done by the Prison Activist Resource Center that lists the top ten reasons for Californians entering prison today:

1. Possession of a controlled substance

2. Possession of a controlled substance for sale

3. Robbery

4. Sale of a controlled substance

5. Second-degree burglary

6. Assault with a deadly weapon

7. Driving under the influence

8. First-degree burglary

9. Petty theft with a prior conviction

10. Vehicle theft

Clearly, violent crime is practically absent (p. 176).

According to Kipnis, drug offenders represent sixty percent of federal prisoners and over one-third of state and county prisoners (p. 121). Considering those percentages, let us examine the top ten reasons for Californians entering prison, which is likely to be similar across the nation. Numbers one, two, four, and seven are directly substance-related. However, how many of the people incarcerated for numbers three, five, eight, and nine were acquiring money to support a habit? And how many of number six' assaults (the only one involving destructive behavior) were committed while under the influence? That would be hard to determine, as would the correlation existing between number ten and substances.
The Puer Archetype:

This archetype is not shrouded in violence and destruction. Puer aeternus is Latin for "eternal boy" and used in mythology to refer to a child-god who is forever young. Psychologically it refers to an older man whose emotional life has remained at an adolescent level--a puerile nature.

Nakken (1988) offers a timeless description of how adolescents usually live for the moment. He posits that the chemically-dependent also live for the moment, using emotional logic. Emotionally, the chemically-dependent act like adolescents and are often described as adolescent in behavior and attitude. After all, many issues they struggle with are the same issues that face adolescents. The difference is that the chemically-dependent stay trapped in an adolescent stage as long as their disease is in progress (p. 16).

Marie-Louise von Franz (2000) agrees: "In general, the man who is identified with the archetype of the puer aeternus remains too long in adolescent psychology; that is, all those characteristics that are normal in a youth of seventeen or eighteen are continued into later life" (p. 7). Von Franz was not including the chemically addicted, however, since her lectures were presented in 1959-60 in Zurich. At that time, even here in the United States, drugs were not a big problem yet, but there has been a big problem with alcohol addiction for a long time all over the globe. Apparently, it did not occur to her to correlate alcoholics with the problem of the puer aeternus.

Impatience is a classic symptom of the chemically-dependent. In meetings of Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous everywhere members talk about their struggles with impatience. In the big book of Alcoholic's Anonymous "The Man Who Mastered Fear" wrote that "at long last I am doing the kind of work I have always wanted to do, but never had the patience and emotional stability to train myself for" (p. 284).

Again von Franz agrees: "And then something absolutely classic happens, namely, the gesture of impatience. That is typical for the puer aeternus! When he has to take something seriously, either in the outer or the inner world, he makes a few poor attempts and then impatiently gives up" (p. 30).

In Now or Neverland: Peter Pan and the Myth of Eternal Youth, Yeoman (1998) finds that Peter Pan and Captain Hook "share many characteristics. Both have difficulty relating to others; they are isolated and self-centered; each is motivated by a lust for power and control [italics mine]; and each fears the passage of time with the inevitable changes and transformations it occasions" (p. 16).

That passage also describes the chemically-dependent. Most will agree that getting along with or relating to the chemically- dependent is, at best, difficult. If one attends NA or AA meetings for very long, selfishness and self-centeredness is a theme inevitably heard around the tables. Control is also omnipresent In addiction there is the seductive illusion that a person can be in absolute control.

Yeoman quotes Satinover concerning the puer: "this missing sense of identity, or of oneself as a cohesive whole, results in disquieting feelings of fragmentation and worthlessness. It motivates the puer's pursuit of the ecstatic 'high'--in drugs, alcohol, sex, sport and daredevil escapade--that transcends the outer conflict or inner depression which threatens fragmentation" (p. 24).

To suggest that violence or aggression is absent among this part of the prison population would not be realistic. In addition to the malignant aggression mentioned earlier, Fromm talks about another type of aggression: "This defensive, 'benign' aggression is in the service of the survival of the individual and the species, is biologically adaptive, and ceases when the threat has ceased to exist" (p. 25). The prison environment is conducive to a certain amount of violence. Self preservation warrants it. Gilligan believes that "the very conditions that occur regularly in most prisons may force [italics mine] prisoners to engage in acts of serious violence in order to avoid being mutilated, raped, or murdered themselves (p. 163).

In explaining how normal people usually outgrow immaturity and irresponsibility, Kiley (1983) reminds us that "victims of the Peter Pan Syndrome have the opposite problem. They can't escape irresponsibility. This trap begins as innocent, typical rebellion, but mushrooms into an adult lifestyle. A fundamental piece of the puzzle of the Peter Pan Syndrome is gross irresponsibility that spawns ineptness in basic self-care skills" (p. 45).

The Peter Pan syndrome of the puer aeternus has a co- dependence with the prison system when it comes to enabling irresponsibility. Smethers (1992) shares his prison experience by explaining that inmates are well provided for, having little, if no responsibility for themselves. "Our clothes and linen were cleaned for us every week--all we had to do was drop it off and pick it up; they provided our meals for us--all we had to do was wait in line and eat; we had a big yard to play on--a weight pile where we could flex our muscles, show off, and be macho. We built reputations, status, and respect from our peers by controlling the drug and alcohol flow, managing moneymaking schemes, and having our subordinates do our dirty work. Drugs were plentiful on the yard, and pruno (homemade wine) was easily made. At that time, every three months we could have money and material things (a package) sent to us from home. If we were married, we could even spend the weekend in a bungalow with our wives and relieve ourselves sexually. In maximum security prisons that have rooms (cells), we could enjoy watching our own color television" (p. 3).


For many years the popular media has characterized the prison stereotype as violent, dangerous, and desperate, as Gilligan and Babyak have explained. By reiterating Kipnis' statistics of the current prison population, we see the emergence of a new population--those who are incarcerated for substance- related charges. Not being within the scope of this paper to explain the reasons why, I have offered ample feedback from von Franz, Kiley and Yeoman to indicate the nature of this large percentage of the prison population. To be sure, many ex-cons--including me--do not want the opprobrium associated with the prison stereotype.

The "eternal child" in man is an indescribable experience, an incongruity, a handicap, and a divine prerogative; an imponderable that determines the ultimate worth of worthlessness of a personality. C.G. Jung (CW 9i, par. 300)


Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. (1976). Alcoholics Anonymous. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.

Babyak, Jolene. Bird Man: The Many Faces of Robert Stroud. (1994). Berkeley, CA: Ariel Vamp Press.

Bion, W.R. Experiences in Groups. (1999). New York: Routledge.

Fromm, Erich. (1993). The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc.

Gilligan, James. Violence. (1996). New York: Vintage Books.

Jung, C.G. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. (1959). New York: Pantheon Books.

Kiley, Dan. The Peter Pan Syndrome: Men Who Have Never Grown Up. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company.

Kipnis, Aaron. Angry Young Men. (1999). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Books.

Nakken, Craig. The Addictive Personality. (1988). San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row Publishers.

Smethers, John. (1995). Prison--The Day Care Center. Pleiades Magazine, Vol 11, No. 9.

von Franz, Marie-Louise. The Problem of the Puer Aeternus. (1988). Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books.

Yeoman, Ann. Now or Neverland: Peter Pan and the Myth of Eternal Youth. Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books.

Author's Bio: 

After 40 arrests, five formal probations, four country jail sentences, and a prison term (as a result of chemical dependency), I turned my life around. I was released from prison in Dec 1989, and have been clean and sober since. I started at Barstow College in Feb 1990. Received my AA degree in '92 from Barstow College in Barstow, CA; BA in '94 from Chapman University in Orange CA; MHS in 98 from National University in San Diego CA, and finished with a Ph.D. from Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, CA in Feb 2004. I have taught as an adjunct instructor for Park University and Barstow College. I can be contacted through my website or directly to my email account