Prison Cruelty

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

The harshness, silence, twilight, discipline hold true, not only for the prisoner, but also for the keeper. The keeper, too, is a prisoner. He is there all day long, in this atmosphere of tense emotional suppression and military discipline, and, in addition, he is generally there at least two nights a week when on special duty. He is a prisoner. For him there is little beyond the exercise of power. This exercise is a means of escape and outlet, but it is not a sufficient means. It does not make the keeper a happy person. It makes him a harsh and brutal one. The keeper subjects the prisoners to military organization, but he himself is subjected to a rule. In the prison as he is all the time, in constant contact with the prisoners, of whom he sees more than of his own wife and children, his contact is chiefly physical. He has no social relations with them. The military discipline which he is subjected makes that a primary rule of procedure on the part of the keeper. The warden is not only afraid of collusion among the prisoners, but he is also afraid of collusion between the prisoners and the keepers. The general rule is that a keeper must not speak to a prisoner except on strictly official business, and then the words must be few and to the point. This is the ordinary rule, and the violation of it in the more strictly disciplinary prisons is followed by immediate and summary punishment.

There is, however, another reason why the keeper does not associate with the prisoner. After all he is a keeper, an official, a good man (at least in his own judgment). Whereas a convict is a criminal. For his own clear conscience' sake the keeper must, and does instinctively, make a sharp distinction between himself and the man whom he guards. This distinction in the mind of the keeper is absolutely essential. It is essential because we cannot brutally impose our will upon our equals and betters. We can do it only to those whom we believe to be inferior,—different,—and not as good as ourselves. In particular, it is helpful if to this feeling there is added a personal element of hatred. It all tends to make brutality there at least two nights a week when easier and more natural.

The keeper, of course, does not know all this. He does not see that his hatred power. The keeper, of course, does not know all this. He does not see that his hatred and contempt for the prisoner is a shield for his own conscience and a cover for his own morality. He believes the prisoner to be worse, just because he is a prisoner. This makes association between the prisoner and the keepers almost impossible, except as it expresses itself in dominance. The keeper succeeds in making a gap between himself and the prisoner, and the gap is filled by contempt.

But the prisoner is not at all ready to make the concession of inferiority. In fact, the prisoner feels that he is much better than the keeper and certainly as good as most other people in the community. This is the prisoner’s morality. To him—and within his experience there is room for reasonable conviction that all people are crooked, and that the chief distinction between himself and the others is that he has been caught and the rest are still to be caught. For if a man is not a thief he is a fool, or a poor 'simp' like the keeper, who cannot make a living at anything except torturing better and smarter men than himself.

I say this feeling on the part of the prisoner is understandable in the light of his experiences. The people with whom he has associated, the police who have hounded him, the lawyers who have prosecuted or defended him, the courts instrumental in jailing him, and the keepers who guard him are, as he well knows, and have been on occasion, subject to proper influence--'proper' meaning safe and remunerative approach. That being the case, the prisoner is convinced, generally speaking, that his conviction and sentence are unjust and unfair; that he is in a way a martyr; that justice and decency are on his side; and that the poor ignorant and simple-minded 'screw' knows nothing but brutality, is simply a person beneath his own class and worthy of nothing but contempt. The gap which the keeper fills on his side is on the other side filled to its limit by the prisoner.

It is necessary fully to understand what all this means to the keeper, and its consequence upon his mental- development. Most keepers enter prison as young men, long before maturity and experience have given them that larger and more sympathetic insight and understanding which come to most men as they grow older. They become the keepers of other men when they themselves are still immature and undeveloped. They are thrown into an atmosphere that tends to stifle initiative and personal activity of any kind. They are pressed from the bottom by their charges, and from the top by their superiors. They are in a vise that stifles, cramps, and destroys all spontaneity in their being, long before it has reached its full growth. Not being free men, in the sense that men are free in their work; not being able to play and laugh and associate humanly with the people with whom they are in the most constant companionship, they are not likely to be social. The suppression and the lack of personal freedom, the monotony of their existence, the constant atmosphere of hatred, suspicion, and contempt, tend to contort, to twist, and to make bitter the attitude of the keeper toward his charges. The only relation he can have with them is that of dominance, and the only pleasure and play he can get, the only exercise of initiative at his disposal, comes through the imposition of authority. He needs pleasures, because all men need pleasures; but his pleasures become, through the prison machine, the exercise of brutality for him and pain for others.

These two elements—the exercise of authority and the resulting enjoyment of brutality—are the keynote to an understanding of the psychology of the keeper. They are both the result of the prison organization, and both feed upon suppression. The exercise of authority has a very peculiar influence on most men. It tends to make them domineering, abrupt, harsh, inconsiderate, and terribly opinionated. This is true to the nth degree in prison. In the outside world, authority is limited by the freedom of the subject. In the army, the soldier can always desert; in the factory, he can always quit his job. Both of these have obvious limitations, but they are not limitations that are absolute. They can be overcome in despair, in anger, or in disgust. But in prison there is no escape from authority. The authority of the keeper and the warden is absolute, and the weakness and helplessness of the prisoners are absolute. What this means is that the influence of authority tends to show itself more quickly and more conspicuously and more effectively in the prison than it does in any other organized community. The influence of domination upon those who exercise power is apparently proportioned to the weakness of. those on whom the power is exercised.

Let me illustrate: I remember one day a young Irish lad was brought as a keeper into our prison. He was a small, thin-faced lad of about twenty-one. He had a coat some three sizes too large for him and a cap that reached down over his eyes. When he first made his appearance inside the walls, standing beside a long row of marching men in gray, he made a very pitiful sight. His face was a little pale, his shoulders stooping, his coat slipping down (because it was top large), his feet drawn together, a club hanging limply between the legs, his head down, his eyes on the ground. He seemed very much frightened, indeed, apparently fearing that these terrible men in gray would jump at him and bite him. But in time, as the boys who marched by smiled rather humorously at his obviously frightened appearance, he began to straighten out, to raise his eyes, to move his cap slightly upward. This change of appearance was visible from day to day. The cap moved just a little higher and he raised his eyes a little farther off the ground, his feet were a little more apart, his shoulder’s a little straighter, and his limp club began to swing a little more everyday.

In two months young Kelly was a new man. He strutted like a peacock in his morning glory. His shy, rather frightened expression had been replaced by a harsh, domineering, rather cynical one, with just a little curl of the lower lip to the right of his mouth. He became the worst guard we had in prison. He was the youngest guard we had there. They all become a little more cautious when they become older, because they find that a prisoner may on rare occasions have a 'come back'; but it takes time to learn that, and Kelly had not learned it. He became the most hated man in prison, and actually drove a gang under his charge into mutiny, so that they nearly killed him. After that Kelly was a little more cautious. He exercised his brutality on the isolated individual and was more circumspect with the group.

I have gone to this length to describe a change which took place in that boy, because I am convinced, both from observation and from what I know of prisons, that this is a fairly characteristic consequence due to the exercise of dominance within prison walls.

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.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open for 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In