Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely, Even in the “Best” US Prisons

Oregon – Best of the Worst

A comrade who lives in Portland, Oregon recently wrote telling me:

“There was just an article in the local paper about how great Oregon’s prisons are compared to the rest of the country.  The governor doesn’t want to expand prisons here, which is a good thing!  But I wouldn’t brag about being the best prison system in the country, when the whole system is a huge problem.  It’s like being the best of the worst.  But it’s definitely created a dialogue, and many folks are critical of the prison system.”

Her comments came in response to a recent article on my past year’s experiences in Oregon’s prisons, compared to my twenty-two years previously imprisoned in Virginia.

Even if we took at face value that Oregon has Amerika’s “best prison system,” one must ask for whom it is the best?  Are they talking about for prisoners or for prison officials?  Or the public at large?  Or perhaps the prison industries that reap billion-dollar profits from prisons and cheap prisoner slave labor?

The Public Doesn’t Benefit

It can’t be the best for the public.  One example of this is revealed in another recent article I wrote, about the extreme psychological torture (sensory deprivation) Oregon officials intentionally and knowingly inflict on their prisoners in the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC) Segregation and Intensive Management Units.  The majority of ODOC prisoners pass through and remain confined to these units for months to years at some point during their confinements.  This torture admittedly causes serious mental pain and damage (even organic brain damage), and in many cases psychosis, even if inflicted only briefly.  And these prisoners carry those mental illnesses back to their communities upon release, which certainly benefits no one.

Worse still, as those articles demonstrate, ODOC officials have less respect for the law than those they presume to confine as punishment for supposedly breaking the same laws.  So in terms of our rehabilitation, the only example they set is to teach us how hypocritical “the system” really is.  And no one respects hypocrisy which might explain the exorbitant recidivism rates of US prisoners.

Guards Gone Wild

As my correspondent pointed out, how does one put a positive face on any prison or prison system in Amerika?  The corrupting effects of the guards’ absolute power is inherently negative for them and prisoners.

This was proven beyond doubt in an experiment conducted at Stanford University, where psychologist Philip Zimbardo and his students creataed a simulated prison in the university’s basement.  Twenty-one normal, stable, intelligent students were selected.  Half were given the roles of guards, the other half of prisoners, all randomly selected based on coin flips.  In Zimbardo’s own words, here’s what happened:

“At the end of only six days we had to close down our mock prison because what we saw was frightening.  It was no longer apparent to us or most of the subjects where they ended and their roles began.  The majority had indeed become ‘prisoners’ or ‘guards,’ no longer able to clearly differentiate between role-playing and self.  There were dramatic changes in virtually every aspect of their behavior, thinking and feeling.  In less than a week, the experience of imprisonment undid (temporarily) a lifetime of learning, human values were suspended, self-concepts were challenged, and the ugliest, most base, pathological side of human nature surfaced.  We were horrified, because we saw some boys (‘guards’) treat other boys asa if they were despicable animals, taking pleasure in cruelty, while other boys (‘prisoners’) became servile, dehumanized robots, who thought only of escape, of their own survival, and of their own mounting hatred of the guards.”

George  Jackson gave a similar assessment of the corrupting dynamic of prison, and went further to identify those repsonsible.  He also elaborated how they attempt through villainizing stereotypes to rationalize it:

“When people walk on each other, when disharmony is the norm, when organisms start falling apart it is the fault of those whose responsibility it is to govern.  They’re doing something wrong.  They shouldn’t have been trusted with the responsibility…  The apologists recognize that these places are controlled by absolute terror, but they justify the pigs’ excesses with the argument that we exist outside the practice of any civilized codes of conduct…  An official is allowed full range in violent means because a convict can be handled no other way.

“[H]ave you ever considered what type of man is capable of handling absolute power.  I mean how many would not abuse it?…

“The textbooks on criminology like to advance the idea that prisoners are mentally defective.  There is only the merest suggestion that the system itself is at fault.  Penologists regard prisons as asylums.  Most policy is formulated in a bureau that operates under the heading Department of Corrections.  But what can we say about these asylums since none of the inmates are ever cured?  Since in every instance they are sent out of the prison more damaged physically and mentally than when they entered.  Because that is the reality.  Do yo continue to investigate the inmate?  Where does administrative responsibility begin?”

Even the courts have admitted, “prison guards may be more vulnerable to the corrupting influence of unchecked authority than most people.”

So the reader can but imagine the all-round negative conditions and effects inherent in the institutional setting of US prisons, which bends and deforms minds and personalities on both sides of the cell door…even in the “best” Amerikan prisons.

In fact, exactly a year ago on April Fool’s day, The Oregonian newspaper ran a front page article proclaiming that Oregon prison guards suffer symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) at rates over twice that of firefighters and almost three times that of deployed military personnel.  Also that 94% of Oregon guards admit the very experience of their prison jobs caused them to perform negatively on the job within the previous month.  While 72% of them admit the job negatively affected their personal relationships.  Again, this is the state of guards who work in a prison system that professes to be among Amerika’s best.  So who benefits?

Anyone familiar with PTSD knows that among its symptoms are impaired decision-making, especially in interpersonal relationships, occupational activities and other important areas, also paranoia or hypervigilance; impaired impulse control, especially prompting outbursts of anger and violence; impaired concentration and sleep, etc.

One recalls the hushed scandal of a few years back involving numerous US soldiers returning from deployment with the same symptoms, and committing violent acts and a string of killings of spouses, girlfriends, children and other relatives.

It Ain’t PTSD

What begs questioning here is not whether these actions are symptomatic of PTSD, but instead whether they reflect dangerous deformations and expansions of the egos and personalities of people given absolute power over others, like prison guards and deployed US soldiers, which would explain the higher incidence of PTSD – like symptoms among guards (whose entire job consists of constantly imposing direct and absolute power over others), as opposed to US soldiers (who have only periodic contacts with occupied civilians populations).  So we can understand, if such experiences prompt abuses and murders of loved ones by soldiers, it certainly prompts much worse against prisoners who are regarded by guards as no better than “despicable animals.”

Torture and abuse experts have found unanimously that those who engage in torture and abuse injure not only their victims, but also becomme damaged creatures themselves.  It’s a self-reinforcing spiral – namely absolute power corrupts absolutely, generating abuse and deformed character; while abuse itself also deforms the abuser’s character.  And as the Stanford experiment showed, it’s not merely PTSD, but it is definitely mind-altering…dangerously so.  Yet last year’s Oregonian article falsely claimed “little is known about how prison work affects people.”

And really, it can’t be PTSD, since ODOC guards do not face danger at the hands of their prisoners.  In my own experience, and based upon the admissions of ODOC guards and prisoners alike, prisoner-on-guard violence is almost non-existant.  The only violence that occurs is typically no more serious than prisoner-on-prisoner fist fights, which are often manipulated by officials and quickly brought under control with OC gas.  So essentially these guards are like stage security on The Jerry Springer Show.  Also, I’ve observed that ODOC guards tend to enjoy “breaking up” fist fights, especially when large numbers of uninvolved prisoner bystanders suffer OC gas contamination and rush away blinded, with snotty-noses, and gagging, coughing and sneezing.

Which brings us to and is consistent with the recognized high incidence of physical abuses of prisoners by guards, that plague US prisons nationwide.

It’s All About the Dough

The problem is officials and criminologists don’t wish to admit the known destructive effects of US prisons on all concerned, and furthermore that prisons have never proven to reduce “crime.”  And why?

Because the prison industry is one of the most profitable to US corporations and it serves to dispose of large numbers of people who cannot be put to profitable use in society.  People who present a major threat to the status quo, because, being unprofitable and thus unable to find employment, they are apt to join together in struggle against the system.

Therefore, government and corporate power have a shared interest in the existence and use of the existence and use of these socially destructive institutions.  Which is why the common people will never be given a real picture of what’s going on and why.  It’s called fascism – the condition of a society wherein the interests of private corporations and government converge and become one.  Leaving everyone else to live behind bars and stripes.

Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win!
All Power to the People!

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