Prison Reform: Breaking The Grip Of The Shadow Government

Posted on February 13, 2011


Author, Stan Moody:

I received a poignant email from a colleague. She had read my article, Racketeering Charged at Maine State Prison. Her message got my attention: “The same rules that apply in prison have evolved in organized crime…Officers gain strength by creating a ‘selfhood’ out of so-called ‘brotherhood’ because they are incapable of full humanity.”

The Sicilian code of omerta holds to two primary virtues: “Whoever appeals to the law against his fellow man is either a fool or a coward; whoever cannot take care of himself without police protection is both.” Thus is created a conspiracy of silence.

In the context of prison reform, I was having difficulty understanding why guards, who are treated poorly and unfairly by administrators, will sacrifice their personal integrity by complying with a set of arbitrary rules that are off the books and remaining silent over violations of human rights.

Just Following Orders:
The Nuremburg Trials rejected the defense that the perpetrators of the Nazi Holocaust were simply following orders. Each was tried on a high, personal standard they called “natural law.” Closer to our time, we have watched the videos from Abu Ghraib and agonized over how an American icon like Staff Sgt. “Chip” Frederick, could turn into a monster when his whole life exhibited normal family values.

Psychologist Philip Zimbardo of Stanford University has an answer: Our society has become so focused on individual integrity that we “…overestimate the effects of someone’s temperament on their behavior and underestimate the effects of the environment in which they act.” Our ability to exercise free will under conditions of power and abuse may be way overestimated.

The prison culture is a sub-culture of military life. Prisoners are treated as recruits in boot camp; guards are treated as inferiors who have not yet been toughened against caring. Firmly in place is the “Kid System” of prison hierarchy – standing by your designee long after human decency would dictate otherwise.

The way this is justified, according to Zimbardo, is to “…diffuse responsibility so people don’t feel accountable.” We defuse responsibility by focusing on the presumed incorrigibility of convicted felons and the safeguarding of the public at any cost, thereby creating a subhuman culture.

Zimbardo demonstrated this phenomenon through what is known as the “Stanford Experiment.” Students were recruited to imitate prison guards and prisoners. After 6 days, the experiment had to be stopped because the prisoners were being pushed to the point of emotional breakdown.

The mere use of symbols of power such as uniforms, whistles, handcuffs and sunglasses and referring to prisoners as numbers gave license to the guards to be abusive. Known as a social cascading effect, people begin doing things based on their perceptions of what others expect.

From the Top Down:
What can be done to break this dehumanizing pattern?

It can only be changed from the top down. Prison administration, just as with organized crime, is incapable of redeeming itself without first admitting its complicity in justifying illegality and corruption through pride in noble objectives of its own self-promotion.

The welcome mat must be laid for staff with opposing views to come forward. Presently, those with the courage to do so are subjected to attacks on their personnel record, leaving behind an object lesson of what happens to anyone who dares point out systemic problems within the system.

In prison life, omerta reigns. Prisoners adopted as “kids” of guards protect guards from accusations of abuse by any means required, including filing grievances against staff members with personal integrity. Guards adopted as “kids” of administrators are protected by shoving grievances into limbo. The system becomes one of winking away violations of human decency while destroying with righteous indignation the lives of those in the way.

John Darby, an army reservist in the same company as Sgt. Frederick, was the person responsible for bringing the abuses of Abu Ghraib to light. He and his family were forced into hiding for fear of retaliation from members of his own unit who justified their actions at Abu Ghraib on keeping us free from WMD’s that never existed.

It is all a house of cards with noble purposes that permit ignoble acts.

In the words of the colleague who prompted these thoughts, “God must show us the path out of brotherhood to selfhood. That’s the answer!”