On the surface, custodial officers appear to have infinite power, but in reality it is not an easy task for them to convert regulations into actions
It has been recorded in numerous literary texts, that early mankind was known for its development of small communities that featured structure and rule. These barbaric, yet effective communities, were a tool whereby to a large extent, control over the environment could be sustained. This grouping allowed for protection of individuals, from hostile factors, by the sharing of knowledge and the strength of many. Progression saw the establishment of hierarchies and set laws that were designed to best serve the interests of members, by allowing to a large degree, stability, certainty, support, mutual protection, as well as providing a source of cultural identity which created self worth.
Even in today’s society, the development of communities such as these continue to flourish. And prisoners are by no means an exception to this. This community’s ‘official’ culture and structure has been developed and governed by laws and regulations produced by the commonwealth, and other government appointed bodies that exist outside the cold blue stone walls. Unfortunately, these ‘officially’ set rules that are meant to give infinite power to custodial officers tend to fail somewhat in their objectives. One of many reasons for this can be simply attributed to the fact that these guidelines have been written by people that have little or no experience, nor a clear understanding of the dynamics confronting both prisoners and officers alike, nor the pains of adaptation that go on within this confined environment.
The text book objectives and responsibilities of prison institutions, and that of its staff are only three. The safekeeping of all inmates; maintaining and improving the welfare of all confined within it; and the performance of these objectives with the maximum of efficiency and economy. Safe keeping generally comprises of keeping inmates incessantly locked away, counted, and controlled whilst allowing isolated moments of welfare activity to satisfy needs through recreation, education and counseling. Unfortunately, "the welfare of the individual inmate, to say nothing of his psychological freedom and dignity, does not importantly depend on how much education, recreation, and counseling he receives but rather, on how he manages to live and relate with the others inmates who constitute his crucial and only meaningful world. It is what the prisoner experiences in this world; how they attain satisfaction" and how they avoid its detrimental effects through adjustment that ultimately decides how, if ever, they will emerge. It has also been recognised, through simulations of prison environments, that lockups have the habit of "dehumanize prisoners, and making them feel anonymous". This outcome works in accordance with programs designed to mold them into objects that can be easily fed into the administrative machinery. Such techniques include corporal punishment and severe repression, or modern sophisticated social controls, under the guise of training and treatment. In turn, this molding generally tends to cause responses of hostility and violence with the inmate population, and continued isolation breeds more ill feelings within prisoners over their rejection and condemnation by society as a whole. Additionally, it must be remembered that offenders have "been drawn from a society in which personal possessions….are closely linked with concepts of personal worth by numerous cultural definitions. In the prison, however, the inmate finds himself reduced to a level of living near bare subsistence, and whatever physical discomforts this deprivation may entail, it apparently has deeper psychological significance as a basic attack on the prisoner’s conception of his own personal adequacy" (possessions that contribute to self worth include sexual relations and partnerships).
In an attempt to maintain the institutional objective of ‘maximum efficiency’, prisoners are also faced with inhuman levels of overcrowding. The American ACC (Assembly Correctional Committee) stated in its 1996 annual report that "prisons are filled to more than 130 percent of their capacity, with 1,600 inmates" faced to sleep in areas never intended for that purpose In California alone, during 1990, the prison population was noted to be at 180 percent of it’s normal capacity. The worst part for the prisoner about this situation is the lack of security and certainty they experience when forced to live with so many who have sorted records that include both physical assault and thievery. Even those who are the most successful at exploiting others find it dangerous and nerve wracking, for they cannot escape the company of their victims, nor the continued threat of retaliation or unprovoked attack.
In an attempt to confront and thus survive within such forced conditions, whilst maintaining some form of self dignity, prisoners resorted to their instinctual community development methods and created their own culture. "Juxtaposed with the official organisation of the prison is the unofficial social system (subculture)….regulating inmate conduct with respect to focal issues, such as.…relations among prisoners, and contacts with staff members….This unofficial system contrary to the administrative rules and regulations, does not demand uniformity of behaviour. Rather, it recognises alternative roles that inmates may play with respect to each of the focal issues" and thus attempt to crush their oppressors. This subculture being greatly anti social and anti administrative in nature (Sykes), becomes one of the more prominent reasons for prisoner conflict and the struggle for supremacy between inmates and guards. On the other hand, within women’s prisons the subculture has one more function, and that is to provide for emotional support through the existence of extended ‘play families’.
Much of this subculture is developed and imported by each offender from their external lives, and is then combined with the already existent attitudes and behaviours sculptured by the uniquely limited environment of prison. The major function of this new way of life and its "normative system is to prevent social rejection from being internalised and converted into self-rejection. The presence of an inmate subculture permits the inmate to reject his rejecter rather than himself". Sykes and Sheldon (1960) proposed that inmates seek to neutralise the consequences of imprisonment by a state of solidarity. By moving towards this, the pains of imprisonment become less severe. By taking on the identity, folkways, dogma, customs, and the general culture of the penitentiary, prisoners mold themselves into a state otherwise known as prisonization, which for the most part is a method for adaptation (Prisonization has been noted to be more prominent amongst inmates possessing certain characteristics, including long sentences, unstable personalities originating prior to imprisonment, the inability to pertain normal relations with members of non prison society, a readiness or desire to integrate into the subculture, and a close proximity to other individuals that are already integrated).
Within this subculture, even smaller competitive sects emerge largely based on race and ethnicity. Some of these sects include the Muslims (a black nationalist group pledged to ethnic solidarity, self-discipline, avoidance of drugs, tobacco and pork in accordance with religious precepts), The Panthers and Young Lords. Two prominent gang types that operate within prisons include, "street gangs that are carried into the prison from the outside world, and prison gangs established for mutual protection and control over various things within the system". These gangs protect each of their members by making the individual’s problems that of the whole. Officers who single out an inmate for discipline, tend to find themselves confronted by intimidating, and hostile inmates. This is one of many forceful methods that subcultures use to control their environment, and struggle to maintain power in order to better control their own lives. Some instances have seen entire cell blocks being taken over by gang members, and the officers being at their mercy. The reason for this stems from the prison officials who believe that if you let the gangs run the prison - not formally, but informally - they stand a chance of reduced internal problems. As to the chance of this occurring, they are uncertain, simply because there exist a tendency for rival gangs to continuously battling each other . Even though the inmate code is still quite dominant, inmate relationships have become far less predictable because of the increasing fragmentation of these prison gangs brought on by such things as racial tensions and the lack of traditional control by elder gang members.
Furthermore, the degradation in predictability of prisoners can be associated to the ever increasing surge of new, and potently addictive drugs that have become available throughout society. This problem is not solely a factor to be found only in prison life, but instead one that extends onto a global scale that occurs even more frequently outside. By making a contrast with the high level of violent drug related crime outside prison, it is possible to make the presumption that similar incidences occur within the penitentiary walls, through the earlier mentioned method of importing addictions, habits, ideologies and behaviours entering prison. The use and maintenance of drugs within the prison is well documented, and proves a valuable commodity, allowing users to dull their pains, satisfy addictions, as well as achieve financial success.
All events within prison revolve around the continuous struggle for power and supremacy. The struggle itself takes place in varied forms. "Since the inmates have been victims of power by the judicial system and its total authoritarian regime of imprisonment, they tend to regard the possession of power as the highest personal value", which within itself acclaims them prestige among other prisoners whilst allowing for their regeneration of self worth. This need for power will make unproductive all attempts by prison staff to break down the authoritarian character of inmate relationships through increased programs of permissiveness. The inmate social system yields much more authority over individual inmates than do the members of staff, simply because inmate groups are "capable of inflicting far more physical and psychological damage on their fellow inmates than any type of punishment that staff can administer. In fact, punishment by staff may have a self defeating purpose in that it may be regarded as a further source of statues for the inmates".
Another prime example of power dynamics, can be witnessed through the observation of sexual assaults within the prison environment. "The penis becomes a weapon of control that provides prisoners with a means to assert themselves and show others that they are unassailable". This type of assault - though noted as being a maladaptive expression by psychologists - is the inmates legitimate way of expressing their manhood and brutal desire for power. Their actions are not seen as those of homosexuals simply because they do rarely act for sexual satisfaction, and in most cases only on rare occasions do they even orgasm whilst performing these acts (female prisoner are generally an exception because their sexual encounters for the most part are voluntary homosexual liaisons). "The focus is not on who is your sexual partner so much as ‘who is’ in charge, that is who is doing….the penetrating…. In short, who is ‘normal’".
In September of 1996, Donny Donaldson, an individual who refused to pay the sum $10 for bail, ended up in prison for a short duration. During this time, he was pack raped by 45 inmates consecutively, and then urinated on. No guards intervened, despite cries for help. Recorded averages of sexual assaults within New South Wales alone averages at 25% of the entire prison population. And these figures may in fact be a lot higher because most assaults are rarely reported on the grounds that it would break the code of prisoner practice, which would is likely to lead to more trouble, and on the other hand, little if anything would ever be done.
The lack of minimum security prisons adds to the sexual assault problem because the majority of inmates are housed within maximum security prisons regardless of the severity of their crimes (due to the limited space available in low security facilities), where they confront hardened criminals who tend to stalk them, start fights on a regular basis that quite often lead to some form of sexual assaults and psychological trauma. The four most commonly noted short term effects to the victim from these ongoing pressure are guilt, shame, the fear of becoming homosexual and even suicidal tendencies. The only possible safeguard, would be to become more dominant than the possible attackers, by either belonging to a gang or simply attacking your offenders before they have the opportunity to attack you. And thus the struggle continues.
A further characteristic of prison is the large number of inmates who suffer from mental illnesses. This together with the need and desire for power, is definitely a dangerous combination because their lack of control can lead to serious injuries of many inmates as well as prison officers. It has been estimated that 20 percent of inmates are seriously deficient in their mental states, and in need of psychiatric treatment. Whilst another 5 percent are acutely psychotic. Estimations have been made that over 15,000 New York Prisoners alone are schizophrenic.
Prison riots are a collective attempt by inmates to seize control over part or all of a prison as a form of protest, and again try to over power their oppressors by forcing their ways upon them. Throughout the years, the causes of riots are almost as numerous as the riots themselves, but remarkably the majority of them had the same reasoning behind them (Prison revolts within America during 1971, had the same grievances as those recorded during the 1816 Philadelphia uprisings). These reasons range from inadequate and unwholesome food; overcrowding in filthy cells; racism; outside agitation; poor health care; lack of fresh air, exercise and recreation programs; cruel disciplinary actions, right through to inadequate channels for complaints to be heard. The first of two theories for this causation is known as the ‘conflict theory’. It suggests "that in prisons, as in other social settings, riots are a result of unsolved conflicts. This conflict is generated when one person wants another to exercise power in a specified manner, but the other person, for what ever reason, does not. The second theory is that of ‘Collective behaviour’ identifying casual processes in social conflict. It maintains that several necessary conditions must be present for collective action to occur. The combination of these conditions, in sequence, increase the probability of a riot. These six conditions are structural conduciveness, strain or tension, growth and the spread of a generalised belief, precipitation factors, mobilisation and organisation for action, and finally, operation of mechanisms for social control". In having these social conflicts develop into riots, inmates accomplish at least three essential psychological objectives. The first is a sort of outlet for expressing hostility originally generated by failure in human relations, in particular their resentment at confinement. Secondly, the reinforcement of a self picture in the role of a martyred victim of superior force, with attendant justification and satisfaction at the ‘heroic counteract. And thirdly, absolution of any personal sense of guilt or responsibility for offenses against society by emphasising and concentrating on society’s real or fancied offenses against the individual".
The responsibility of the prison officers is as confining, in many ways, as is the imprisonment of those confined by them. By the time of retirement for custodial officers, they will have spent between eight and fifteen years totally within prison walls. "During this time they will have individually been…responsible for the custody and discipline of thousands of inmates. During….this time they will have been continuously outnumbered and under threat of being outwitted by inmates whose obedience to them is protected only by their statues as a symbol of power….One of the hazards of his situation paradoxically is the ease with which officers can be lulled into forgetfulness of hazards". Once an officer’s guard is let down, the possibility for more violence and ill actions is unlimited, and the chance of an officer regaining power again is extremely difficult. If a relationship develops between keeper and inmate, that does not abide by the official guidelines on prison interaction, the "dependency and vulnerability of the custodian become apparent. ‘Obeying orders’ becomes ‘doing the guard a favour’. When obedience undergoes this transformation, reciprocity becomes operative, ‘one favour deserves another’. Should a keeper refuse to return a favour, the inmate may feel it within his right to become hostile because of the keeper’s ‘ingratitude’". By understanding this intricate interaction between staff and prisoners, it is possible to see the dangers and violence that may arise sooner or later within such an unstable and antagonistic environment. In fact, the result is a good deal of deviant behaviour or non compliance within the social system, where the rulers at first glance seem to posses almost infinite power, but in moments of crisis, is doubtful . This defect continues even further, right to the point where some guards are willing to forego their obligations, to reap the rewards of obedience, by ignoring violations that take place. The reason behind this is the guards "dependence on inmates for the satisfactory performance of his duties, and like many individuals in positions of power, the guard is evaluated in terms of the conduct of the men he controls. A troublesome, noisy, dirty cell block reflects on the guard’s ability to handle prisoners. This ability forms an important component of the merit rating which is used as the basis for pay raises and promotions". In short, some officers give up their official power of corrections to prisoners in return for monetary gain.
Within prison there are two major forces that coexist, and each is in continual battle with the other. The prison staff have the legitimate power and support of society to incapacitate offenders. Whilst prisoners on the other hand, are meant to posses none. This is the theory, that prisons are designed and based upon. Unfortunately, theory and reality seldom agree, and in all actual fact, prisoners posses just as much power within their environment, as do the guards who watch over them. This power that prisoners have, is self developed to allow them to fight back at their oppressors and to take as much as possible from their environment, to maintain their self worth that characterises them as humans not worthless animals or trash to be discarded. Because of the lack of education correctional service staff have in these issues, they are confronted in prisons by a reality that does not match their perceptions, and their ability to coerce captives into paths of compliance is something of an illusion.
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