The Pervasiveness of Prison Apathy

By · Thursday, March 19th, 2009

An old maxim holds that power corrupts, and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. The prison culture is one that imbues staff members with an inordinate amount of power, while simultaneously stripping prisoners of a sense of efficacy. Consequences follow from such a culture.

In the 1960s, Professor Milgram conducted an experiment at Yale University that measured the power of authority. Later, in the 1970s, Professor Zimbardo found similar results through his Stanford Prison Experiment. When cultures essentially subjugate segments of a population, an oppressive environment cannot help but follow. I think the prison must be a difficult culture for an individual to build a fulfilling career. The reason I say that is because of the cynicism that is so pervasive. It is extremely negative, with a high and seemingly unhealthy degree of distrust. That seems to be the opposite of what I have read about successful corporate cultures, which operate on the principle of transparency and encourages all individuals to strive toward their highest potential.

I have been a prisoner for more than 21 years. I’ve not had any experience in working as a prison staff member. In responding to Christine Allanson’s question about the reason for staff apathy, I can only offer conjecture that the prison culture breeds a sense of distrust. The prison is an us-versus-them environment.

Christine also asked me about the concept of good time and asked whether it would fall into the category of earning freedom that I write about. The answer is no. Rather than awarding good time for merit, or for clearly measurable efforts that prisoners make to prepare for law abiding lives upon release, good time is issued automatically to those who avoid breaking prison rules. In other words, administrators do not distinguish the prisoner who works toward educating himself and preparing for a contributing life; that person who adjusts positively receives no distinction from the prisoner who plays cards all day. In my opinion, it is inequitable and a fundamental flaw in the system.

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