Prison Cruelty

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

The function of the prison is to keep the men confined. The function of the warden is to make sure that the purpose of the prison is fulfilled. He is primarily a jailer. That is his business. Reform, punishment, expiation for sin--these are social policies determined by social motives of which he, as jailer, becomes the agent. He is a jailer first; a reform­er, a guardian, a disciplinarian, or anything else, second. Anyone who has been in prison, or who knows the prison regime, through personal contact, will corroborate this fact. The whole administrative organization of the jail is centered on keeping the men inside the walls. Men in prison are always counted. They are counted morning, noon and night. They are counted when they rise, when they eat, when they work, and when they sleep. Like a miser hovering over his jingling coins, the warden and the keepers are con­stantly on edge about the safety of their charges---a safety of numbers first, of well-being afterwards.

This leads to some very important consequences. It is the core of the development of prison brutality. It feeding basis upon which a number of other important elements tending in the direction of brutality depend. The warden is human. Being human, he is strongly inclined to follow the path of least resistance. And the path of least resistance, in the light of the ordinary understanding of a prison warden, is to make jail-breaking hard, by making the individual prisoner helpless.

One of the ways of making it easy for the warden to keep the prisoner safely, is to prevent all possibilities of collusion among the criminals. He knows them to be dangerous and bad men, whose interests are diametrically an opposed to his. They are interested in freedom. He is interested in keeping them confined. Collusion is the greatest danger to the warden's programme. Collusion may be the means toward escape—this is the great fear of the warden. So he does what administrative interests direct under the circumstances. He attempts to isolate the individual from the group. It is easier to deal with one individual criminal than with a whole prison of criminals. And so the warden tries to achieve all the benefits of isolation, of solitary confinement, in fact, if not in form.

That this is the warden's purpose is made evident by a consideration of the facts. At Blackwell's Island, for instance, we were not allowed to have pencils or paper or thread in our cells, because these might become the instruments of communication with other prisoners. The rule of silence is another illustration of the general insistence upon isolation for the individual prisoner. I am not forgetting that isolation was at one time considered a reform; that the good Quakers who introduced it were convinced of the benefits of silent communion with one's self and of meditation upon one's place and fortunes in the world. Be the cause that brought isolation into prison what it may, to the warden it is a method of administrative efficiency which has little relation to the original purpose which made isolation an ideal. But isolation, suppression, the denial of association, of communication, of friendships, are things that men cannot accept in their completeness without resistance. Men resist isolation as men resist death, because isolation, complete denial of social relations with the group, is a kind of death. It leads to a gradual disintegration of self, a distortion of the mind, and to the deterioration of all that one hold valuable in personality. Sociability becomes to the prisoner the means of sustaining a semblance of normality in an abnormal environment. It is an instinctive adjustment, and is vividly insistent just in the degree in which it is suppressed. There is no room for compromise in that issue between the warden and the prisoner. The warden wants isolation. The men must have group-life. This fact has interesting results: it makes for the growth of a definitely two-sided social organization. There is routine, discipline, the formal, methodical aspect of the prison life which centers about isolation and safety of confinement for the prisoner; and its opposite—insistent, ingenious group organization and group—life within the sphere of isolation controlled by the administrative machine in the prison.

A visitor entering the prison sees one side—the formal, stiff, and disciplinary side of the prison. The prisoner knows the other. To the visitor there exists nothing but what is apparent. And what is apparent is formality, uniformity, evenness, and lack of variation. Everything looks alike.

And everything runs by the clock, the bell, and the command of the keeper. The rest is silence. It is the disciplinarian's ideal.

But inside of this formal organization there exists a humming life—a life of ingenuity and association. Right under the eye of the authorities, in spite of all the restriction imposed, in spite of the constant watchfulness, in spite of the insistence upon isolation, the men manage to find a means and method of achieving cooperation. Anyone who has been in prison can recall a thousand, ways of associating with the other prisoners. The prisoners break every rule in the prison. They talk, they communicate with each other, they exchange articles, and they even publish newspapers, in spite of all the attempts at isolation. They do it because they must. Never yet has there been a prison régime that successfully suppressed association. Not even solitary confinement does that.

In my own prison experience there are hundreds of instances which illustrate this constant violation of the rules, and the irresistible insistence upon association in some form. We were not allowed to communicate with each other, or to possess pencil or paper in our cells. But he was a poor-prisoner, indeed, who had not a little pencil and a scrap of paper hidden in some crevice of the wall. As for communication, the methods are as varied as the day. For instance, one of the boys would steal a colorless ball of thread from the shops, and when stepping 'Into the cell for the night, would slip an end to the man behind him, and that man would pass it on until it reached the end of the gallery; thrown on the floor, drawn against the wall, and tied inside a cell at each end of the gallery, it would serve as a successful means of communication throughout the night. All one had to do was to tie a slip of paper with the cell-number to the thread and give it a few jerks, and it would be passed on until it reached the designated cell.

Another instance illustrative of the insuppressible sociability of prison life is to be found in the following personal experience. Having been placed in solitary confinement and kept there for some weeks, and being denied the right to smoke, I was regularly supplied with tobacco in spite of all rules, and in spite of all watchfulness. But more striking than this is the story of a piece of pie that was sent to my cell. One of the boys working in the keepers' mess-hall decided that I ought to have a piece of pie. Pie was served only twice a year in that prison, on very special occasions. I had the two legal pieces of pie and one illegal piece, the piece of pie stolen from the officers' mess-hall by a prisoner. He placed it in a bag and put my cell number on it. As I was in solitary confinement and he was working outside the prison proper, the piece of pie must have traveled some three days and gone through many different hands; and yet it reached me without mishap, though in a rather dried and crushed form. As pie it tasted very good; but it tasted better still because it illustrated the intense social character that is characteristic of a prison group. It must be remembered that pie was rare to all the men, and that it would have tasted equally sweet to any one of them, and yet they passed it on without eating it.

The breaking of the rules is constant, discovery frequent, and punishment follows discovery. To the warden discovery spells lack of discipline, lack of isolation, danger of collusion. It means that there are not enough rules and that there ought to be greater strictness. It means that the danger of collusion is serious and must be prevented. It does not mean to him that there must be association. So the rules are made more numerous, the discipline stricter, and the punishment more severe upon each hatred on the part of the prison group discovery of a new violation. But to the more constant, and irritation more prisoner punishment only intensifies the need for association. Punishment takes the form of a greater isolation, of more suppression, and for the prisoner has the result of greater discontent, more bitterness, and the greater need for friendship, for communication, and the very pleasures of attempted association, in spite of opposition. This simply means that the more rules there are, the more violations there are bound to be; and the greater the number of violations, the more numerous the rules. The greater the number of violations, the more brutal the punishments; for variety of the punishments and their intensification become, in the mind the warden, the sole means of achieving the intimidation of the prisoner by which he rules.

Brutality leads to brutality. It hardens official and inmate alike, and makes it the ordinary and habitual, method of dealing with the criminal. It adds hatred to the prisoner’s reaction against the individual official, and makes the individual official more fearful, more suspicious, more constantly alert, and develops in him a reaction of hatred against the prisoner, making the need for brutality the greater and its use more natural. This general consequence holds true for the whole prison. The punishment of the individual prisoner develops with in the whole prison a feeling of discontent and hatred because of the natural sympathy which the prisoners feel for one who they know t be mo more guilty than themselves; and particularly because solidarity of feeling is in proposition to individual physical helplessness. This adds to the tensity of the situation in the prison, adds fuel to the discontent, and makes the need for isolation in the light of the warden's disciplinary measures more justified, brutality more normal, hatred on the part of the prison group more constant, and irritation more general.

The use of brutality on the part of the warden comes as a comparatively natural process. It becomes a matter of administrative procedure and a normal expectation on the part of the prisoner. If the warden is to punish the man for violating the rules, his field of operations in very limited

The rules being numerous, the violations corresponding to their number, the bitterness increasing with the rules and their violations, all tax the ingenuity of the prison officials in meting out punishments that  will fit the crimes. The men in prison are already deprived of most of the privileges and rights which are ordinarily possessed by the free man. They cannot be taken away as punishment, for they are not there. The only thing at hand for the prison officials upon which to exercise their authority is the prisoner’s flesh and bones. They cannot deprive him of his property, for stone walls do a prison make. They cannot deprive of his property. In prison most men are equally propertyless. The privileges are few, and not sufficient to satisfy the need for punishment, Nor is there that dignity and social status which among free men may be used for purposes of control. Men in prison are not sensitive about their social standing. They have a social status all their own, it is true. But this is increased by punishment; for the punishment gives the prisoner a standing and honor in a prison community which is enjoyed among free men by a martyr in a good cause. The man must be punished. And this being the situation for which procedure must find a method—the dark cell, starvation for days at a time, beating, strait-jacketing, handcuffing, hanging to a door, or lifting from the floor becomes the immediate, instruments at hand. They become so through the limitation of the field of punishment. The habitual use of physical manhandling requires intensification to carry out the purpose of intimidation by which the prison authorities operate. In addition, the physical manhandling of the human body tends to develop an indifference to human. suffering and a craving for the imposition of cruelty, which increases with the exercise of brutality.

This is the general setting for the development of other phases of cruelty and brutality. A prison, just because it centers on keeping the prisoner from escaping, succeeds not only in keeping the prisoner inside the walls, but in keeping the sun out. A prison is a dark, damp, and cheerless place.

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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