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Under Lock and Key: The after life of a prisoner

Imagine yourself in a quiet, empty room. You can hear distant, white noises but nothing of great significance. You can also hear your breath, the blood rushing in your ears and if it’s quiet enough, even your heartbeat. In a room like this, with nothing to distract you, all you can do is reflect-reflect on your past, the possibilities of the future or maybe a whole other hypothetical world.

The primary reason for incarceration of prisoners is to create that sense of introspection, to have the punishment for a crime be one that benefits both the society and the offender. Placing the criminal in a confined space with no alternatives should ideally lead them to question their actions and feel repentance or paenitentia, which is also the origin of the word ‘penitentiary’. However, the tense and threatening environment of prisons rarely allows its inhabitants to do just that-introspect. Why is it that a place primarily made to act as a rehabilitation centre fails to fulfill its purpose? Is this a result of the general outlook and associated biases of society?

The Stanford Prison Experiment

To quote Philip Zimbardo, “Human behavior is incredibly pliable, plastic”. His study initially started off as a college research experiment at Stanford to explore the postulation of power, but later turned out to be the most criticised and controversial experiment in history. The purpose of the Stanford prison experiment was to determine whether situations, roles and rules affect the behaviour of an individual. Influenced by the Milgram experiment of obedience, Zimbardo assigned roles to the participants of “prisoners” and “guards.” However, this later took an atrocious turn and put an untimely halt on the experiment. While some “guards” were humane in their treatment towards the prisoners, there were some who adopted rather barbarous ways. All of this while all the participants were fully aware of being observed by Zimbardo and his colleagues, knowing they had their permission to act in the said manner. The power abuse by the said “guards” was so psychologically impaling that the said “prisoners” suffered severe negative emotions, submissiveness and depression. The dehumanizing treatment led to depersonalization as the “prisoners” had no real control over the situation. Such drastic effects of an experiment in a short span of six days had shook the world.

What was the actual cause of this outcome? We’ve always unknowingly been a part of an authoritarian society. This could be traced back to our school days where there was always a “class monitor” or a “student body” present in a hierarchical form. As adults, we’re dominated by the government. All our life we give those authorities the power to protect us, but once one of the pack commits some act that goes against the beliefs of this system, they are often subject to the aggressions of the innate human desire to dominate. Age also plays a very crucial role as usually authority correlates to age. Being ordered around or talked down to by someone younger than you in a position of authority may seem humiliating. On the flip side, the figure of authority also sometimes misuses their power to hide their insecurities. Zimbardo’s own conclusion stated that people would readily conform to the social roles they are expected to play. The stereotypes of violent and crass guards in the media contribute to the social image of ‘what it means to be a guard’, influencing their threatening demeanor.

Bentham’s surveillance theory

It is important to note that abuse in prisons is not just a result of power play and handler aggression, but that of a whole system, and the importance it places on the control over its misfits rather than their rehabilitation. Millbank penitentiary serves as the perfect example for this case. It was designed on the concept of a panopticon conceived by the famous philosopher Jeremy Bentham. It was architectured by William Williams and eventually completed almost twenty-one years later by Robert Smirke. Once finished, it resembled a six petalled hexagonal flower with an observation deck in the centre, towering over the rest of the blocks with an icy ditch surrounding the entire structure.

(Aerial structure of millbank prison)

This somewhat peculiar construction of the prison tested Bentham’s theory of conformity and surveillance. With the placement of the panopticon, or watch tower, it was impossible for the prisoners to see when they were being observed or if they were even being observed at a given point of time. The general idea behind such a set up was that the prisoners would be forced to assume that they were under constant vigilance and keep on their best behaviour. Bentham believed that this would eventually permanently change their mechanisms to the proper standards of society. However, this seriously infringed on their privacy, placing them under the ceaseless watch of strangers and creating a generally unpleasant environment.

Along with that, the strange and confusing structure of the prison meant that many of the inmates often got lost, the corridors being a literal maze that could not be navigated without the help of a guard. The ditch around the prison became a breeding ground for cholera. Besides diseases, many prisoner deaths reported were caused by starvation or violent beatings. Evidently, once the initial construction was funded, there wasn’t much interest in the upkeep of viable living conditions of the prisoners. This eventually led to its closure and ultimate demolition in 1890.

Millbank, however, is just one example. Many prisons incorporate the same tactics but the cruelty remains unrecognised by the government. Conformity and pliance are seen as the obvious answers to eradicating illegal behaviour but they eat up a large amount of the funds appointed to a prison for its upkeep.

Is this behaviour justified?

Immanuel Kant would posit that criminals must be punished for the sole fact that they have gone against their morals and caused harm. They deserve to be punished. However, what is the degree of punishment that can be inflicted on a criminal? Who gets to dole out this punishment and in doing so, does it not also damage the punisher’s morality?

Abuse in prison considerably increases the chances of reoffense to around 70% after reintroduction in the society, which would lead to a repeated cycle of the same punishments, ultimately hardening the criminal and leading them to commit more severe crimes. The most optimistic view of punishment remains to be the reformative theory, in which the ethics of both the punisher and the offender remain intact. The punishment of the offender is to be away from their loved ones and the state is assured that at the end of the ordeal, the criminal is taken back to society as a new and better man. While optimistic, this approach is not unreal.

One such instance is the Bastøy Prison in Norway which allows its inmates to engage in various activities to keep them focused during the day. Reoffending rates have dropped to 17%. This proves that there is a possibility of striking a balance between rehabilitation of prisoners and providing habitable conditions for the same. If the state funds globally were used to create more sanitary and healthy environments and to provide social and professional opportunities to the inmates, their outlook of the future would seem less bleak and encourage them to work through their mistakes. Compared to Norway, nations like India and the United States have a greater population and other social issues. Is it possible to have such an engaging and reformative system in larger nations? Or will encouraging this result in the compromise and breach of more pressing problems?

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