: to affect or change (someone or something) in an indirect but usually important way : to have an influence on (someone or something)
manipulate transitive verb
: to control or play upon by artful, unfair, or insidious means especially to one’s own advantage
: to change by artful or unfair means so as to serve one’s purpose
“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Matthew 10:16
At work I am a manager. I manage a team of information professionals. I assign tasks to my team members. I give them feedback on how they are doing. I provide a vision for where we are taking the department and the company.
When one of my team members says that they want to become a manager I look at how well they can influence others. Can they get people working towards a common goal – even when my team member has no authority over those other people?
When I visit people in jail or prison I am hopeful that my presence can have a positive influence on the people behind the walls: both inmates and staff.
Those people also have an influence on me. At the very least I hear from a different point of view. My life experiences are vastly different from someone who grew up on a reservation surrounded by alcoholism and physical abuse, or the immigrant who is dealing with language and culture issues along with their legal woes.
Sometimes influence can turn insidious. Influence becomes manipulation. In the penal system the consequences can be minimal to staggering.
When I had been doing prison ministry for about 10 years I started meeting with a new inmate on a regular basis. As we were beginning to get to know each other during my weekly visits he would occasionally ask me to look up something. First it was inconsequential things: how did a particular programming language work, how would you go about designing a program to do this and such. Later he asked if I could find addresses for certain businesses. I wanted to show that I was a nice guy and that I cared about him, so I provided the information. Later he asked for the address of the school where his daughter attended. Again I complied.
I had been manipulated.
He never bothered to mention that there was a restraining order prohibiting him from contacting his daughter.
As the loving Christian we want to show how much we care. But there is risk in getting manipulated, and what we intended for good gets used for evil.
How bad can it get?
A pastor friend mentioned that there was an opening at a Federal prison for a chaplain. Further research revealed that the previous chaplain had been manipulated by an inmate, had broken some of the rules at the institution, and subsequently was fired from his position.
At a prison in the Midwest a Christian had been visiting an inmate over a number of years. The inmate convinced the man to move some money between several bank accounts that the inmate had, because it was so hard to do this via paper mail. Every month the man moved the inmate’s money from one account to another. This went on for years. It later came out that the funds were being moved into an account to pay for a hit man to murder one of the inmate’s enemies. This good Christian man had become an unwitting accomplice to murder-for-hire.
Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
I’d say 1 in 4 times I visit the jail I’m approached by someone, usually at the end of Bible Study, who will ask me to do something that would be a violation of the rules: take a note and deliver it, make a phone call on their behalf, bring them a book or other materials from the outside. Some of these things can happen, but they must be done through proper channels, I am not the proper person to do it. Usually if they are approaching me they either don’t know the process (so I tell them what they need to do), or they are trying to bypass the system for unsavory reasons.
There is a saying, “In prison you hear a lot of sad stories. Some of them are true.”
Some of the manipulation is pretty easy to spot, other times it is done with stealth and finesse. There are some categories I’ve learned to spot. You will see them both inside and outside prison.
The Sad Sack: This person is chronically down. They might say, “if you could just do X, Y, or Z then things would be so much better. But if you don’t I understand because most people don’t care about me.”
The Crisis Magnet: This person is constantly moving from one crisis to the next. “I wouldn’t normally ask you to do this but…” Because of the current crisis the rules don’t apply to them, or there is an explanation why they didn’t follow through, or…
The Victim: Never responsible, always the victim of circumstances, their power comes form playing the helpless pawn. They will usually appeal to your sense of justice.
I’m sure there are more.
There is an interesting psychological study.
A person walks up to a stranger and asks them to do something strange, “Stand on one foot and sing Yankee Doodle”. The compliance rate is very low.
A person walks up to a stranger and asks them to do something simple and non-threatening, “Can you count how many black dots are on this card?” Then the person is asked to do something a bit more intrusive, “can you stand on one foot?” Then they are asked to sing Yankee Doodle. The compliance rate was much higher than in experiment #1.
For some people manipulation has been a critical survival skill and they’ve become good at it. They know to just ask for small, incremental things, and to gradually up the ante.
Prison ministry involves risk. For that matter, so does life.
So why take the risk?
34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’