Prison Environments Influence Prison Guards

By · Thursday, March 12th, 2009

Sarah Dooley asked me whether I thought the prison environment influenced the behavior and attitudes of those who staff prisons. My answer is yes. Administrators at every prison establish the culture that exists within the prison boundaries. When they admonish staff members for interacting with the prisoners on human being to human being level, they foster us-versus-them environments. Such a culture leads to the high recidivism rates that plague our society today.

Phillip Zimbardo was a professor at Stanford University. In the 1970s he conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment which created a mock prison for the purpose of studying how the culture of the prison influenced the behavior of both prisoners and guards. The experiment showed that many guards became tyrannical and abusive while many prisoners adjusted poorly. Dr. Zimbardo had to abort the experiment early because of the chilling results. Volumes of literature have discussed the findings of the academic study, though prisons remain oppressive environments that don’t seem well equipped to prepare offenders for law-abiding lives upon release.

I believe that prison staff members begin their careers with aspirations of making a real contribution to society. They seek stability and an honorable trade through which they can support their families. The prison culture, however, has a pernicious influence not only on prisoners, but on staff members as well. The emphasis on control results in the dehumanization of prisoners. It is abnormal in our society, and it frequently leads to resentment, hostility, anger. Prisons become tense. Years of exposure influence the psyche, diminishing the propensity for happiness and replacing it with cynicism.

I don’t know the personnel statistics, though I would not be surprised to learn that those who build careers in corrections suffer from higher rates of divorce and depression and alcoholism. Such results would follow years of exposure to the negative, hopeless environment of the prison. It seems a culture that by its nature is the antithesis of all we stand for in America, including liberty, family, and each man’s inalienable right to pursue happiness.

My perspective, of course, comes from having served more than 21 years in prison. I have lived with ceaseless pressure that comes with confinement. Clearly, anyone who asks my perspective understands that as a prisoner, I see these cultures differently from those who have not had their ties to family, community, education, careers, and liberty cut.

To change the prison culture, and to foster more fulfillment for those who staff prisons, I would think that administrators would have to create atmospheres of hope rather than oppression. I am not optimistic, though I do expect prison reforms may come soon that will bring improvements to these caged communities.

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