There are a lot of people in prison in the United States. Sons, daughters, brothers, cousins, mothers, nieces, friends, loved ones… In fact, there are more jails and prisons in the U.S., than there are colleges and universities. When friends or family members are locked up, the idea of prison becomes intensely personal. For others, prison is something you see on TV.
How do we, as a society, justify capital punishment, solitary confinement, physical and emotional abuse by prison guards, and sexual violence experienced by inmates in the United States?
Well, some deny it. It’s hard to face that something horrific is going on every day in our society, with permission from the authorities we’ve chosen to trust.
Others know, but look away.
We are able to do this by dehumanizing prisoners. After all, they wouldn’t be in prison if they weren’t deviant and evil… Right? By creating a separation between us and them we can comfortably ignore the harsh realities faced by millions of people on the other side of tall, concrete prison walls.
Recently, a women’s rights group called for an investigation into accounts of systemic sexual harassment and rape of multiple women held at a Texas immigration detention center for families (see here and here). To clarify, the women detained there are not Norwegian exchange students who have overstayed on their visa. They are poor women of color who have been imprisoned along with their families for having arrived without documentation to the Land of the Free, looking for opportunities to create a decent life. They are also women who for the most part go without the legal support, financial resources, and connections necessary to make their voices heard.
This parallels numerous other accounts of inhumane treatment, abuse, and harassment experienced by prisoners throughout the United States. Jessica S. Henry, Professor at the Department of Justice Studies at Montclair State University, cited disturbing examples from 2010 and 2012 of cruel abuse of two male prisoners in Florida who died at the hands of their prison guards. Both men had been imprisoned for non-violent crimes.
I want to clarify that I am not stating that prison guards are worse people than others. However, the authoritarian and militaristic culture of the prison system is extremely effective at dehumanizing prisoners and shaping the attitudes and behaviors of guards and other people in authority. When someone has been dehumanized, they are no longer seen as a person with rights and dignity. Not surprisingly, this can result in horrific abuses of power.
The Stanford Prison Experiment is a famous example of how the prison mentality works. In short, a group of healthy, middle class, male Stanford University students took part in a study in 1971 on the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or a prison guard. The students were randomly divided into a group of “prisoners” and “prison guards” and instructed to simulate prison life, where guards had the role of overseeing prisoners and carry out coercive practices commonly found in U.S. prisons (see this website for an excellent description of the study). Long story short, on the fifth day of the experiment about a third of the guards had become “hostile, arbitrary, and inventive in their forms of prisoner humiliation”, “appeared to thoroughly enjoy the power they wielded”, and were “behaving sadistically”. By that time, the prisoners were already “withdrawing and behaving in pathological ways” and the study was prematurely ended on the sixth day for “moral reasons”.
The prison industry in the U.S. exists in a political, economic, and cultural context. It is not a coincidence that new prisons are being built all over the country and that owners of private “correction facilities” make more money than ever. Angela Davis has written extensively about the context of mass incarceration in the U.S. and she has pointed out the clear link between poverty, racism, and the ever-growing power of the prison system:
“Our criminal justice system sends increasing numbers of people to prison by first robbing them of housing, health care, education, and welfare, and then punishing them when they participate in underground economies. What should we think about a system that will, on the one hand, sacrifice social services, human compassion, housing and decent schools, mental health care and jobs, while on the other hand developing an ever larger and ever more profitable prison system that subjects ever larger numbers of people to daily regimes of coercion and abuse?”
When crimes are committed, race and class play a big role in determining who gets punished and how (click here if you are not familiar with this).
Race and class also play a big role in determining who gets “groomed” for prison in childhood. Children going to schools in predominantly white, middle class neighborhoods are less likely to experience school as a punitive, prison-like place, than children who attend seriously underfunded schools in predominantly Black or Latino areas. Schools for kids living in poverty tend to lack proper funding. Schools for kids of color living in poverty tend to have even greater lack of funding. When this is the case, school is not a place where you come to learn and develop your potential. Instead, it is a place where you are not attended to or stimulated mentally; where your strengths are not highlighted; where you don’t get access to healthy extracurricular activities and expressive art programs; where there are guards who place you in handcuffs when you misbehave; where you are sent to “detention” – instead of counseling – when you act out emotional problems; where there are too few staff on the ground to intervene when someone is bullied. It becomes a place you dread going to and a place you can’t wait to get away from at the end of the day. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t thrive in a place like that.
So what do we do with all this? Can we work together to see the humanity in each other?
Can we create a society where people are held accountable for their actions, without being unfairly targeted, abused, or killed by authority?
Can we dismantle a prison industry that bases its profits on human breakdown and militarism?
I want to believe we can.