A Discussion About Violence

Rallie Murray

Issue 56

From Prison Focus Issue 56

Philip Zimbardo, the psychiatrist behind the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment in which a group of students took on the roles of “guard” and “prisoner”, which quickly developed into an abusive nightmare. Zimardo described the abusive conditions in prisons and jails as part of “The Lucifer Effect” in which a group of people with power over another group of people will exercise that control in increasingly violent and abusive ways the longer such behavior goes unchecked. Guards who otherwise are sympathetic to incarcerated people might join in violent acts of physical abuse against those people so that they do not become “outcasts” or suspected of disloyalty amongst the other guards. These testimonies show that the idea that a group of guards with complete authority over someone who they see as lesser than them would engage in physical abuse simply because they can, is not some kind of “myth” as pro-prison pundits might claim, but rather a demonstrable fact.

One thing that should be added to the discussion on guard culture and violence in California prisons and jails is that the violence is not isolated to within the facilities. According to ?, “Common police training skills such as knowledge of weapons, exercise of authority, and command presence and control techniques can become embedded in officers’ behavior, and ‘spill over’ into their home lives. When used to control family members and intimate partners at home, these techniques are humiliating, abusive, and dangerous.”

While reports estimate that 10% of families in the United States experience domestic abuse, for the families of prison guards and police officers it is much higher. In a study conducted by faculty at Florida State University it was found that out of 710 correctional officers who participated in the study approximately 33% knew of co-workers or other guards who had committed unreported domestic violence, while 11% admitted to having been physically violent with their spouse or domestic partner. Further, 30% reported having experienced domestic violence as children. The same “thin blue line” that keeps guards from reporting physical abuse and humiliation perpetrated by their co-workers against prisoners affects their willingness to speak up about domestic abuse.

Inside and outside the prison guards feel comfortable perpetrating acts of physical violence and humiliation. This culture of violence influences state politics, as California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) is one of the most powerful unions in the state at least as far as political lobbying is concerned that has consistently fought to keep prisons as spaces of punishment rather than of rehabilitation. It is used to force people who are incarcerated to behave according to their interpretation of rules and to retaliate against people who speak out against abuses. In allowing these abuses to go unchecked and ignoring people who are incarcerated when they submit 602s, the CDCr demonstrates that when it claims to value respect and the rehabilitation of those who it holds in custody is just a cunning lie to make the public feel better about what goes on behind bars.

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