Prison Cruelty

"The prison cannot be changed as long as the old basis of suppression and isolation is maintained"

To the uninitiated, prison cruelty seems to be a rare and isolated phenomenon. When on occasion instances of it become known and the community has its sense of decency outraged, there is generally a demand for investigation and removal of the guilty warden and keeper. With that achieved, the average citizen settles back comfortably into the old habits of life, without asking too many questions, and with the general assumption that, after all, it cannot be expected that prisons should be turned into palaces.

To him who goes into the matter more deeply, there is the added comfort, not only that the given warden has been punished for cruelty,-but that there are legal and constitutional provisions against its reappearance. Our laws provide against cruel and unusual punishments, and to the average mind, with its faith in the law, this is sufficient assurance against their repetition. These facts, added to the infrequency of the publicity, strengthen the general feeling that prison brutality is a personal matter for which particular individuals are responsible.

This is the general view. But to those who are acquainted with prison organization, brutality is a constant factor—constant as the prison itself; and the publicity which upon occasion makes it known to the public has only an accidental relation to the thing itself. It is some fortunate approach on the part of an inmate to the publicity forces in the community, or some accidental trial, such as brought before the public the current charges against Bedford, which makes it evident that brutality exists in a particular institution. It is obvious, of course, that, had it not been for the trial at which the charges of brutality at Bedford were brought in as a part of the court procedure, brutality might have existed for a long period of time without general public knowledge. I am stressing this point because it helps to carry the important fact that cruelty in prison and publicity out it are not closely related.

Historically, cruelty has always marked prison administration. We have records of brutality in prisons stretching over all written history, and including practically every nation of which we have written records. Prison brutality is both continuous and universal. Publicity, public indignation, investigation, removal of officials, and the institution of reform methods have, up to the present time, been ineffective in eliminating brutality from prison administration.

A prison is primarily a grouping of human beings involving problems of cooperation and discipline. As such, it gives room for the play of all the various emotions and instincts common to man in any other grouping. There is, however, one striking difference. This difference is that the man in the prison, just because he is shut out and away from the world, is forced, so to speak, to become a closer neighbor to himself, and therefore exhibits most of the instincts and passions, the loves and hates, the boldness and the fear, common to men, but in a more intense, more direct, and less concealed way. A prison is, in a sense, the greatest laboratory of human psychology that can be found. It compels men to live social lives—for man lives primarily by being social—under unsocial conditions, and it therefore strains to the breaking point those things that come naturally to people in a free environment. The fact that men are more sensitive, more self-conscious, more suspicious, more intensely filled with craving, more passionately devoted in hate and in love, just because most of these emotions are expressed in idea rather than in fact,—makes the prison a grouping of men requiring very delicate and sympathetic treatment. This is the general background which must be taken into consideration in the discussion of prison administration, and in any analysis of the forces that lead toward prison brutality. Like every human grouping, the prison group is complex, and all that one may hope to do in an analysis is to describe what seem the most important elements in the situation.


Our approach to the criminal is the first element in any consideration of prison brutality. It is obvious that somehow or other our feeling about the criminal is different from our feeling about other members of the community. We feel differently about him because we are under the impression, that he is a being distinctly different from ourselves. Just why he is different, or just in what degree he is different, or whether the difference is really one that is basic in the man himself rather than in our assumption about the man, does not concern the average person. We know that he is different. This belief is common to most people, and, in general, it is shared by officials concerned with prison administration.

The elements that go to the making of this attitude may broadly be described in the following terms. The first apparent fact is that we do not ordinarily distinguish between the thing a man has done and the man himself. We tend to translate a single isolated act into a whole being, forgetting all of the man s past, with its innumerable unrecorded emotions and deeds. We make the crime and the man synonymous. In common parlance we say that the man who has stolen is a thief, and the man who has committed murder is a murderer, summarizing all of the man in terms of the single fact with which we are impressed. We thus seem to transfuse the one act which we do not like into all of the man, who may, apart from that one act, be a very lovable person, and we place him in a category distinctly outside the pale of common association and consideration. He is different. Not only different, but he is worse. Any treatment which would seem unfair and unjust for people 'like ourselves' seems, even to the best of us, less unfair, less unjust, for him whom we have classified as different from and worse than ourselves.

To this, may be added three other and closely related influences which tend to strengthen the feeling of difference, and to justify methods of approach which are not in common use for people not so classified. The first of these three influences is undoubtedly the feeling that the man who is in himself bad is socially undesirable. A criminal is not only a bad man in moral evaluation, but he is a bad man socially. He is not fit, to put it in colloquial terms, to associate with other people better than himself, because he may make them bad; or, in other words, he is felt to be unsocial and deserving of some method of exclusion from the community of 'good' people who may suffer from contamination if he is lot loose.

The second, and, to some people, a very important consideration is the fact that a man who is a criminal is not only bad, not only unsocial, but also a man who has broken the law. This may not only involve a very strong emotional reaction for people to whom the law generally is a rather vague and sacred summary of all things forbidden, but it is undoubtedly a forceful fact in the life and the emotional reactions of officials, whose habitual business is centered about the enforcement of the law. A crime to them may, in fact, primarily be a violation of the law. In other words, apart from any 'badness' or 'unsociability' in the official immediately concerned, the breaking of the law may in itself create an emotional bias sufficient to carry a condemnation which, to ordinary people, is carried by 'badness' and 'social undesirability.

There is yet a third element, which, in a measure differing in different groups, contributes materially to the general conviction that the criminal is a sinful and vicious person. I refer to the general confusion in the minds of religious people between crime and sin. While not all crimes are considered sins, and not all sins are recognized as crimes, yet for most purposes there is a sufficient overlapping to add the flavor of sin and its consequences to the act of the criminal.

A criminal, to the ordinary person, is thus bad, unsocial, a violator of law, and a sinner as well. Provision is made in these four categories for the possibility of condemnation by almost every member of the community.

I have placed these considerations first, not because they are first in importance, but because they tend to define the approach toward the criminal, on the part of the officials who are to care for him during the period of punishment, expiation, or reform, or whatever you choose to consider the purpose of confinement. I say the purpose of confinement, because in ordinary criminal procedure confinement comes first and is the basis for punishment or reform.

Presented by

Frank Tannenbaum

Ross Douthat joined the Atlantic staff as a reporter/researcher in 2002. Now an associate editor, he edits the letters section of the magazine, oversees "Primary Sources," and writes on topics ranging from higher education to national politics to celebrities' religious conversions.

Ross is 2002 graduate of Harvard University, and his Ivy League experience inspired his 2005 book Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class, which Booklist called a "withering indictment of Harvard's institutional culture," and The Wall Street Journal praised for its "rare lyricism." He has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, National Review, Policy Review, and Details, and he blogs, intermittently, at A native of New Haven, Connecticut, he now lives in Washington, D.C.

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