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Understanding the Human Cost of Imprisonment

Even in the absence of acute abuses, imprisonment’s cumulative effects still constitute cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment.

The problem is not just that "prison conditions" are abusive, but that the cumulative effects of imprisonment itself constitute cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment. (Image: Lauren Walker / Truthout)

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No one who spends time in prison leaves unscathed. I have been incarcerated for more than 20 years in Michigan state prisons, where I remain today. I know from experience that prison is so much more than confinement to a cell.

Prison disposes of and makes invisible a growing underclass, prison’s majority clientele. It also incapacitates those who have shown – through their imagination, audacity and defiance – that they possess what it takes to push and pull something bigger than themselves, such as a social justice movement. Prison functions to expel self-determination, exacerbate weaknesses, exhaust strength and suppress expressions of intelligence, in an aim to produce a robot-like mass that will follow the rules of prison.

It is a tragedy of the first magnitude that millions of people have been subordinated to the will of others; reduced to dependence on these authorities for the most basic services; isolated from the rest of the world’s population; confined to a fixed habitat; coerced to work for little or no compensation; and subjected to a prison culture that breeds a profound sense of psychological depression, personal worthlessness and social despair – all in the name of justice, law and order, or whatever justification is fashionable at the time.

Considering the ways in which prison functions, I’m hesitant to say – or even imply – that caging people for part or all of their lives serves any worthwhile purpose at all.

Most people reading this are probably aware that being in prison is not the best of all possible lives, but few people understand the true human cost of imprisonment. To begin to understand the magnitude of incarceration’s impact upon the minds and bodies of incarcerated people, it is important to realize that most people who exit prison do so more emotionally and psychologically traumatized than they were when they entered.

Before people are incarcerated, they possess a conception of themselves – a conception that is built in relation to their home and community. Upon entrance to prison, they are immediately stripped of the conditions that made that conception possible. In the language of the penologist, they begin a series of abasements, degradations, humiliations and profanations of self. They become subject to a systematic attempt to extinguish their unique identity. Everyone goes to bed and wakes up at the exact same time; everyone wears the same prison-issued clothing; everyone eats the same food; everyone receives the same paucity of information; and everyone is punished for the actions of an individual or small group.

With many of their previous bases for self-identification gone, incarcerated people often experience radical curtailments in how they see themselves, others and the larger society. Prison admission procedures might better be called “trimming” or “programming,” because the new arrival is shaped and coded into an object that can be fed into the administrative machinery of the prison, to be worked on smoothly by routine operations.

Because prison deals with so many aspects of a person’s life – all phases of the day’s activities are tightly scheduled – there is a special need for administrators and guards to obtain cooperativeness from incarcerated people. In their initial face-to-face encounters with an incarcerated person, guards look for extreme deference, evaluating people based on how well they assume the role of the routinely pliant prisoner. On the other hand, an incarcerated person who shows defiance receives immediate, visible punishment, which increases until he or she openly cries “uncle.” It is demoralizing, to say the least.

Can you imagine what it must be like to have your identity assaulted on a daily basis? When you attempt to express yourself, you are told it is against the rules. When you attempt to challenge rules that denigrate you as a human you are told that is against the rules. You are told that the rules are, in effect, more important than you are – and until you accept the cruelest and most vile treatment as right and justified, the rules will be used as a weapon against you.

Just as incarcerated people can be required to prostrate themselves in order to mitigate the punishment inflicted on them, they are also often required to beg authorities for little things, such as toiletries, a drink of water, or permission to sit down or speak. Of course, there is no guarantee that permission will be granted. Instead, it is likely the person will be teased, denied, questioned at length or simply ignored. In this context, people in prison often must reorganize their lives around being able to cut to the head of the line, grab two milks instead of one and obtain other “luxuries” – a process that promotes an extremely demeaning brand of “individualism.”

Incarcerated people are forced to engage in activity whose symbolic implications are incompatible with being a human being, resulting in stress, loss of meaning, loss of inner peace, loss of space for personal and family relationships, loss of self-esteem, and loss of self-confidence and efficacy. Where is the social benefit in that?

Of course, many people have been conditioned by popular culture and formal institutions to believe prison “shouldn’t be a picnic,” and are probably wondering what I expect the institution of incarceration to be like. But that’s just it – the problem is not just that “prison conditions” are abusive, but that the cumulative effects of imprisonment itself, particularly imposed for a prolonged or indefinite period, constitute cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment.

Also, in responding to people who say, “prison shouldn’t be a picnic,” we must shift conceptions of the humanity of the incarcerated. To understand the human cost of prison within the context of a still-developing prison industrial complex means, in the words of prison abolitionist Angela Davis, incarcerated people have to be conceptually severed from the seemingly indissoluble link with crime; they must be seen as people.

Is “crime” innate in a person? How does crime happen, and what role does the impact of incarceration play there? Well, we know from research that if a person has an abusive parent, the likelihood that he or she will grow to be abusive is greater than if that same person came from a safe and supportive home. We know that if a person comes from a violent home, there is a greater likelihood they will grow to be violent. We know that if a person comes from a home in which one or both parents went to college, there is a greater likelihood that person will go to college. We know that for better or worse, people are generally shaped by their environments. And imprisonment, as a form of social control, shapes people for the worse.

Modern history conditions us to see “justice” in simplistic opposition to “crime,” rather than in terms that address human need. The solution to “crime” is not incarceration. No one is incarceration-deficient. Solutions must begin with acknowledging that structures and behavior are inseparable, and that there is an urgent need for us to build structures that promote wholeness and well-being, not isolation and institutionalized abuse.

In closing, I admit that before I began to deeply reflect on my experiences as a prisoner – and before I consulted others and more fully understood the importance of serving the communities we live and work in – I used to refer to US criminal legal policy as “broken.” I have changed my mind. This country’s consistent policy of subjecting vast numbers of people to the emotional and psychological harm of being caged offers sad testimony not to a broken system, but to one that is ruthlessly effective.

The prison system as it stands now is working. And by working, I mean perpetrating structural violence, including racial and economic violence. Recognizing this is only a first step toward building a connection between justice and human rights. This reality calls for personal re-examination and profound structural changes that will meet the legitimate needs of society. It calls for us to understand the social cost of imprisonment.

It is my hope that by understanding the human cost of incarceration, we can more clearly see the big and small ways that we are able to transform society and the criminal legal system. Only then can we effectively combat the vicious cycles of societal abuse and victimization. Transformation can happen – and we can all be part of it.

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