Could you recognize evil?

I’d like to start this post by defining what I mean by evil. I am not using the word in a supernatural or religious sense, i.e. talking about “the devil’s work” or some such nonsense. No, what I’m talking about is behavior that is harmful, without empathy, violent, etc. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s move on.

As a public health nurse for a local county, part of my job includes visiting the county jail. Once a month we run a vaccine clinic for the inmates. Medically speaking, this is a high risk population due to their risky behaviors and the cramped quarters of jails and prisons. And, ethically speaking, even inmates have a right to healthcare. So we go and immunize for the flu, pneumonia, tetanus and whooping cough, and hepatitis A and B. Sometimes I’m the only nurse that goes, sometimes a group of us from the health department go. We usually see between 40-80 inmates, both male and female, during a visit. Each visit typically takes between 3-6 hours depending on how many inmates sign up for our services.

Before working for the health department, I had never been to a jail or prison in my life. Not as an inmate, not as visitor, not to bail any friends out–nada. But I’d obviously seen prisons and jails on television and in the movies, so I had an inkling of what to expect from an aesthetic sense (I realize that what happens in prison and jail in media is fictionalized or exaggerated for the sake of drama).

And sure enough, the layout of the facility, the 400 lb doors, the cell blocks, etc. were all pretty much how I thought they would look. So far so good. What I wasn’t prepared for, and was surprised by, was how polite everyone in jail was. Allow me to explain.

In my normal shifts at the health department, the people I usually see are…um, how to put it…frazzled. That’s putting it mildly. It isn’t uncommon to have to deal with unruly children and parents who can’t or won’t wrangle them. Or people who are paranoid about vaccines. Or people who have panic attacks at the sight of needles. Or people who forget all their records and paperwork. Or people who didn’t answer all of the questions on the vaccine administration record. Or people who just like to complain about every little thing.

So it was a pleasant surprise to walk into the jail. As you can imagine, life for the inmates is pretty structured and orderly, and that definitely showed in their approach to the vaccine clinic. Everyone had their paperwork filled out and ready to go. Everyone was prompt and on time. Everyone formed a line. Everyone said “Yes sir” to my questions and followed all of my commands. Everyone said “thank you” and a few of them even said “God bless you.”

I suppose people in prison or jail are used to being looked down upon or treated differently. And healthcare, even a simple vaccination, can restore a little dignity in a person’s life. And perhaps it was this idea combined with how orderly and polite everyone was that kind of lulled me into a false sense of sympathy.

I didn’t know, at the time of my first visit, why these people were in jail. But in my interactions with them I noticed several things. First, there were a lot of very young people. Like 18-20 years old. And a lot of minorities. Also way more men than women. I figured that a lot of these people–kids, really–were in there for drug and alcohol related crimes, probation violation, that sort of thing. I figured that most, if not all of them, were just kids that had made a dumb mistake and were serving their time for it.

Boy, was I naive.

That was certainly what had happened to a lot of the inmates. But I’ll never forget the end of my first visit. The officer that had been escorting us around all of the cell blocks said, “Congratulations, you looked twelve murderers in the eyes today.”

Whoa, hold up. Murderers?! We hadn’t even entered the maximum security wing of the jail (that would come during later visits)! Part of delivering fair and uncompromising care to people is knowing only the information pertinent to their medical treatment. And being a murderer, while perhaps unsettling, technically isn’t medically relevant information.

So I had sat down with murderers. I had talked with them. Looked them in the eyes. Touched them. Helped them stay healthy by administering a vaccine. None of that really bothered me. I believe in the ethics of science and medicine. What bothered me was that I had no clue who the murderers were.

Thinking back on the return drive to the health department, there was nothing that distinguished the murdery people from the non-murdery people in the jail. And that was a truly scary thought. I’d sat down and talked with murderers and I didn’t have a freaking clue. Luckily they were all incarcerated at the time. But at some point, obviously, they had been murderers just out and about in the general public, like anyone else in society.

Literally like anyone else.

If I couldn’t even tell who was a murderer in a freaking jail, how many times had something similar actually happened outside the walls of a jail or prison? How many times had I walked past a murderer or a killer on the street in my lifetime? That thought left me feeling pretty vulnerable.

See, we all grow up with a certain image of what “bad people” look like, thanks to TV and movies and books.

bad-guy downloadKillers and murderers are usually portrayed and pictured as, well, creepy. There’s something a bit off about them. Perhaps they’re socially awkward. Perhaps, in the case of Nicholson’s character from The Shining, they’re abusive alcoholics. They more often than not follow a pretty standard pattern of appearance (again, creepy or unattractive) and behavior (weird, obsessive). So now let me introduce you to some real killers!

images (1)


Pictured in that first photo are the Menendez brothers, the ones who killed their parents in the 90’s. And below that is Jeffrey Dahmer. Now contrast these two with Jack Nicholson and Javier Bardem in the photos above. If I had walked past either Dahmer or the Menendez brothers back in the day on the street, I probably wouldn’t have thought twice about it. They look normal. Now imagine being in a room with Bardem’s character from No Country For Old Men.

Well all like to think we have a handle on who the bad people in the world are and why they do the bad things they do, what pushes them to their crimes. But how many times have we heard neighbors and family members say things like, “He was such a nice guy! Never gave me one problem!” Ted Bundy was such a prolific killer in part due to the fact that he was a “normal” and even attractive looking guy, and a “nice” one to boot. That’s how he lured a lot of his victims to their deaths–he looked like someone they could trust and wanted to help, one of the good guys!

I guess my ultimate point is that not every villain is going to be twirling a waxed mustache in a darkened ally. Not every killer is going to be some unkempt loner who feels awkward around women or living with his abusive mother. When we rely on stereotypes to determine who is trustworthy and who is potentially a threat, we do ourselves a great disservice.


2 thoughts on “Could you recognize evil?

  1. Basing our actions on stereotypes can not only cause us the trust people who are evil but it can also cause us to reject good people. I have met people who looked like stereotypical thugs but who in fact were very good people.

    1. Very good point. I remember reading about a homeless guy who returned a lost engagement ring, and another who returned a backpack full of money. Just goes to show you can’t judge a book by its cover.

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