Tracing a Duty Based System From Prison
There are three approaches to change in prison that I have discovered. The first and most common approach is staying out of trouble. The second approach involves engaging in positive behaviors merely as an escape from or avoidance of negative behaviors. The first approach is a passive state towards the environment. The second approach is a passive state towards oneself. The third approach is the least common; it consists of intellectual and moral development that allows for understanding the value in building positive qualities and pursuing goals for self-development and self-realization.
The first approach (staying out of trouble) provides a sense of accomplishment by simply following rules, avoiding punishment when breaking them, engaging in activities that pose little intellectual challenges, and by priding oneself on suppressing negative traits. It is an attitude of resignation to an environment and state of being that cannot be changed, with adaptation as the only requirement and tool for coping. The Department Of Corrections promotes this passivity by holding low expectations and standards, by creating a culture of discipline that a correctional officer called in 1848 ‘mechanical and physical rather than moral and intellectual’, and by basing a reward system on what is not being done rather than on what is or should be done.
The problem with this approach is that passivity does not produce anything. No matter how much trouble an inmate may avoid, it will not provide him with any skills to produce, or with any intelligence to think or to live effectively. Only by being active can anyone acquire virtues. Another problem with this approach is due to the leading inmates to measure progress according to this immature idea of staying out of trouble. Since the rules are not theirs, and since officers arbitrarily choose what rules to enforce and to what degree, this means that the only reality that matters is compliance and submission.
The second approach- engaging in positive behaviors as an escape from or avoidance of negative behaviors- is a consequence of the first approach. It retains the principle of staying out of trouble and uses it as an incentive to engage in productive behaviors. The motivation is therefore a negative one and I have termed it the Sisyphean Incentive. Like Sisyphus, The inmate believe that he is condemned to his vices and carries them like pushing a rock up a hill that eventually rolls down again, leaving him no other alternative but his vices when he fails to succeed. What is driving the inmate are not positive values, i.e., an understanding and appreciation for living productively, but negative or defensive values, avoidance of a life of crime and returning to prison.
Hence, his ideas of living responsibly have little to do with a commitment to his well being, and more to do with a commitment to escaping the worst in his character and its consequences, leaving him to view his place in the world in the negative sense, by way of false alternatives. He must get a job or return to prison. He must remain sober or commit crimes. He must live responsibly or violate his parole. These false alternatives define success in a very narrow and dangerous way, leaving inmates to exhaust one option when they "Fail"-crime. The opposite of success, however, is not necessarily crime nor prison. There are many options available when one does not accomplish a goal. But since the Department Of Corrections does not regard goal-oriented mentalities as a value, where ends are chosen and necessary means are explored to achieve them, inmates are deprived of learning and practicing what living responsibly truly consists of, condemning them to roll that "Rock" up a hill that continues to roll down every time it nears the top.
In comparison to citizens who pursue education, employment, or success as positive values, taking pleasure in the effort required; inmates with the false-alternative approach view responsible living as a dictate imposed on them by society, perceiving themselves as trying to qualify into a world they don't belong in by struggling against vices rather than by acquiring virtues.
This is created by the Department Of Corrections attempt to raise passivity into a virtue which leads inmates to adopt a dangerous policy in their mind, whereas virtue consist of being active- active in a particular way, inmates reverse this by finding that what they are not doing is more valuable than what they are doing and consequently measure their progress against their flaws rather than against their potential for good.
This means that obtaining employment is less significant than not commiting a crime or not returning to prison. No matter what his achievements may be, they are achieved within the confines of a negative bubble that will not allow for appreciation of goal-oriented actions, which leads him unable to appreciate his freedom. This is a set-up that creates a vicious cycle of incarceration and recidivism. Requiring men to merely obey, conform and comply is a duty-system that chips away at their sense of agency. It is impossible to create a sense of appreciation for freedom, and all of its responsibilities without respect for freedom of the mind.
Rules and regualtions are important for maintaining order and discipline, but not as an end in itself. A duty-based system is anathema to reform and rehabilitation because in practice, its end is always to subdue, and this subduing gives the impression that passivity produces or effects change. An impression that satisfies those in power at a great cost to the rest of the world. To be productive, to be responsible, to live with purpose requires one to be active mentally.
But a system predicated on rules and regulations, without moral and intellectual or moral development, does not generate the kind of activity that fosters character building, it destroys it. Ayn Rand calls the concept "Duty" a psychological killer, writing that it destroys the concepts of reality, reason, values and self-esteem "Since it is the moral necessity to perform certain actions for no reason other than obedience to some higher authority, without regard to any personal goal, motive, desire or interest."
The question then is how rehabilitation supposed to take place when duty does away with the very self that requires rehabilitating? If there is no self, then there are no personal goals and "In the absence of personal goals, any task, such as earning a living, becomes a senseless drudgery... He regards it as a "Duty"- and regards compliance with the requirements of reality as a "Duty", then, in blind rebellion against duty, it is reality that he begins to resent and ultimately, to escape, in search of some realm where wishes are granted automatically and ends are achieved without means." This captures the unexpressed notion of many inmates. Does this duty-based approach not have the engendering of false alternatives written all over it?
The third approach to change is the most rare, and sadly, the most punished but it is the most revealing of the department's duty-based system. Since it is not designed to promote or reward intellectual or moral development, any inmate attempting to engage in building positive qualities and pursuing goals for self-development and self-realization is opposed, intellectually and morally.
And where do we find punishment and indignation for people trying to educate, understand and improve? SLAVERY. A duty-based system is a slave system; reducing an incarcerated class to a status of slaves, and fracturing the humanity of those willing to debase themselves in carrying out its operations. When enforcing rules becomes an end in itself, only behavior matters, and since rules are enforced by those in power, the worth of inmates is measured according to the dictates of any particular demand. Dignity and respect, nor understanding are required when the threat of punishment empowers one human being at the expense of the other. This is a relationship between master and slave.
If we look at the policies of 1840 in Auburn State Penitentiary we get an explicit account of this master and slave dynamic. In his book, THE! LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF A HAUNTED CONVICT, Austin Reed discribes his fifteen years of incarceration in that prison. There was a silent system that required inmates to never speak, share food, eat until told; while in their cell they could not sit or lie on their bed until eight PM; they could not have pencils, paper or any reading material except for a bible. Violation of any of the rules would result in brutal beatings with a whip referred to as the cat of nine tails, leaving their backs deeply lacerated. Inmates would also be subjected to the "Showering Bath", a form of torture similar to water boarding that Reed referred to as "The Conquerer."
These punishments were savage, but one must not lose sight of the cemented rules and regulations that were used as a yardstick for measuring reform, providing justification for abusing any "Hardened Convict" that did not consistently follow them. This meant that obedience was enough to consider an inmate truly rehabilitated (human enough), and any deviation from the rules served to prove the inherent bestiality in every inmate. "I see...that you don't try nor mean to get along here without suffering under the lash every day. What to do with you I know not, without it is to whip you to death right on the spot." These was the conviction of a guard toward Reed for simply having found him laughing and talking on separate occasions.
After almost two-hundred years of the policies and practices in Americas' prisons, the evolution of correctional practices has not let go of the demoralizing insistence on gauging reform based on compliance. In his memoir, THE MASTER PLAN, MY JOURNEY FROM A LIFE IN PRISON TO A LIFE OF PURPOSE, Chris Wilson describes how he was sentenced to a life-term at the age of seventeen in Maryland, serving his time productively in Patuxent prison. He created his own program, earned an associates degree, and, accomplished so many other things that a judge reduced his sentence to twenty-four years. And yet after all of this, he writes "The last thing I want for you is to read this far and think that the system works. The system doesn't work". Wilson surpassed all expectations while being subjected to mistreatment, "Understand, I wasn't a fool. I knew how it worked. The system was cruel. Every rule, every physical space, every interaction with staff was designed to humiliate. Their goal, every day, was to prove that you were nothing, and that by being in here we'd given up, in the name of discipline and punishment, every right-privacy, respect, property, safety from physical harm-except the basic rights to not be starved, murdered, or left outside to die." Anyone who agrees to treat those under their authority with such inhumanity can only do so at the price of their very own.
This duty-based system and its effects in prison parallel actual accounts of slaves. In THE NARRATIVE OF THE LIFE OF FREDERICK DOUGLASS, AN AMERICAN SLAVE, there are many passages that stand out: Page 30, Douglass writes "they never knew when they were safe from punishment. They were frequently whipped when least deserving, and escaped whipping when most deserving...No matter how unjust, the slave must answer never a word." This is the same moral high-ground that superiors assume over inmates no matter their own hypocrisy. Once an order is issued, there is no other reality but to obey. Reasoning can and will be held against you.
Another passage is found on page 45; Douglass expresses the moral decline of his master's wife, a woman that was forbidden to teach Douglass how to read, "She at first-lacked the depravity indispensable to shutting me up in mental darkness. It was at least necessary for her to have some training in the exercise of irresponsible power to treat me as if I were a brute,... Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me." When human beings are deprived of the right to treat each other according to their humanity, both are debased and stagnated. Dignity and respect cannot be commanded. They must be earned. This is due to the fact that dignity and respect are effects and not causes.
This law of cause of effect creates a heavy moral dilemma for anyone assuming superiority over others, if he wants his "Inferiors" to understand that he is better, he must do so by appealing to their minds, and this appeal grants an intellectual and moral power that assumes they are his equal. If he tries to force that understanding on them, then he is the brute; the animal.
On page 92, he continues, " I have found that to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision; and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason. He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right, and he can be bought to that only when he ceases to be a man." In duty-based systems, there is no regard for the mind, except to deprive it of any enlightenment. Challenges to moral and intellectual development are embedded in any system that rules by force, no matter the intentions of reform efforts. Education has always been a controversial issue in prisons, with a prevailing bias that is rooted in racism, depriving a presumed inferior class to maintain another's presumed superiority.
In Solomon Northup, we continue to find parallels in book TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE. In the introduction, Irma Berlin writes "He demonstrates how slavery subverted the work ethic and undermined the values of self-improvement that white northeners believed central to the creation of the good society." I can personally say that as a fifteen year old, I was sentenced to forty-five years in prison without any prior work experience and every job I have ever been employed in throughout twenty-two years of incarceration has served to deprive inmates of any pride related to being productive. Supervisors are often arbitrary in their demands and expectations; most run their shops without structure, through fear and intimidation, and, rewarding workers based on convenience, creating a culture of hostility and resentment which leads to a general negativity toward labor.
On page 135, Northup writes, " The existence of slavery in its most cruel form among them has a tendency to brutalize the humane and finer feelings of their nature...It is not the fault of the slave owner that he is cruel, so much as it is the system under which he lives. He cannot withstand the influences of habits and associations that surround him." I have met officers who struggle against being corroded by this system, and others that have given up and become abusers of their power; while others, in order to preserve their humanity, become indifferent to their job obligations.
Northup continues, "The influence of the iniquitous system necessarily fosters an unfeeling and cruel spirit, even in the bosoms of those who, among their equals, are regarded as humane and generous." I have often been dismayed and disheartened when overhearing officers and other staff speak fondly of their loved ones while knowing how cruelly they behave toward inmates.
The most powerful parallel of the memoir is found on page 179, "These niggers are human beings. If they don't know as much as their masters, whose fault is it? They are not allowed to know anything. You have books and papers and can go anywhere you please, and gather intelligence in a thousand ways. But your slaves have no privileges. You'd whip one of them if caught reading a book. THey are held in bondage, generation after generation, deprived of mental improvement, and who can expect them to possess much knowledge?" These were the words of Samuel Bass, a white man who helped Northup gain his freedom.
The effects of a duty-based system go beyond prison. Even our police departments are imbued with them. In his article ON POLICE UNIONS: OBSTACLES TO CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM AND ACCOUNTABILITY, Douglas Ankney writes: "Police administrators tend to be preoccupied with control and conformity of the rank-and-file. But police work requires discretionary judgment on the part of officers. And this means that rules cannot always be followed. Often general rules do not provide meaningful guidance. This opens the door to rules not being consistently enforced. One officer is punished for violating a rule while another is not. Rank-and-file officers see this as arbitrary and discriminatory. This is the primary reason the relationship between the rank-and-file and management is dominated by feelings of mistrust and uncertainty... To many rank-and-file officers, upper management is illegitimate." The evidence is damning. Any institution that disregards moral and intellectual development, exalting obedience and compliance over understanding, will result in abuses of power and degradation of all. This reality is also exemplified in other institutions like the army and the catholic church, where sexual assault and other abuses are prevalent.
In 1971 Phillip Zimbardo conducted a prison experiment in one of the basements of the Stanford University, where twenty-five students assumed roles of prisoners and guards. Within five days Zimbardo stopped the experiment due to extreme abuses by the guards. IN his article THE 1971 STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT SHOWING AUTHORITARIAN ABUSE STILL RELEVANT TODAY, Michael Fortino, Ph.D, writes "Zimbardo's findings suggest that it is the role given to student "guards" that changed their personality and relaxed their sense of conscience. The title of "jailer", in and of itself seems to have inspired a larger than lie, more authoritarian role, and one that seemed to permit them to believe they could act with impunity."
Fortino further writes about a "Structural Violence", that is "borne out of an authoritarian regime or a culture of punitive rules and laws." While I agree, what is missing in his idea of structural violence is the force that is imposed on the minds of those who require the freedom to do the most of any human thing-think, evaluate, reason, and, understand. Where ever this is denied in any interaction, it is an assault on one's huamnity. Parents and teachers, as well as officers and judges and many other officials play an authoritarian role, imposing rules and laws that serve an important purpose in instruction, discipline, guidance and even punishment. But when they do so as an end in itself, for the mere exertion of power, they are attacking rather than instructing us.
Fortino concludes his article by acknowledging that although Zimbardo's experiment was only an experiment, he knew when to "pull-the-plug, and that that is the same thing that may be needed today in order to "snap everybody back to the reality-a reality that we are all on the same side’ This is the exact sentiment that has been used as a call to end slavery. And here we find and reach a stunning revelation: the cause, the root, the plug of our duty-based system that needs to be pulled is the exception to slavery in our thirteenth amendment, where it allows slavery for those convicted of a crime; which means anyone can be stripped of their humanity, which means human rights are in the gaze of those in power.
To understand what this really means, let us take whatever examples you may like to fill in the blank: Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a [insert here] shall exist within the United States. You tell me where such an exception can lead a country "except" to moral bankruptcy; "except" to a course of inhumanity that it persisted on before the "exception."" It has infected our criminal justice system and corrodes our democracy at an agonizing pace. Not only does it provide moral sanction to those in power to abuse it, but it also prevents the humanity of those willing to wield such abuse and also those who are willing to stand by and watch while it is wielded. "WHAT TO THE SLAVE IS THE FOURTH OF JULY" can be asked by society's prison population, its families, those suspected of crime, those subjected to the law-even you. Frederick Douglass' speech still echoes to this day "The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretence, and your Christianity as a lie. It destroys your moral authority abroad; it corrupts your politicians at home. It saps the foundation of religion; it makes your name a hissing, and a bye-word to a mocking earth. It is the antagonistic force in your government, the only thing that seriously disturbs and endangers your union. It fetters your progress; it is the enemy of improvement, the deadly foe of education, it fosters pride; it breeds insolence, it promotes vice; it shelters crime; it is a curse to the earth that supports it, and yet you cling to it, as if it were the sheet anchor of all of your hopes."
What then, would it mean for the United States to rid itself of the exception to slavery? It would mean to refuse to risk your humanity by stooping so low as to purchase, own, or oversee a slave through your tax dollars and duty-based systems. It would mean to turn your "Correctional" institutions into what they are supposed to be-educational institutions; appealing to the mind for change rather than to bodies and behavior for control. It would mean reckoning with the history of slavery and its continuing affront to our most basic means of survival-reason. Without it, all that is left is to command and obey.
It would mean a complete implementation of an intellectual and moral system in our Departments of Justice, down to Police departments that arrest, investigate and interact with men and women whom are presumed innocent until proven guilty, implying that the dignity and humanity of every citizen should remain intact during any alleged crime. It would mean raising ourselves to a moral standard that allows us to punish without risking the humanity of those in power, victims, or defendants.
Presently, there is a resolution in Congress to amend the exception to slavery, suggesting that by paying fair wages for labor would solve the inhumanity. It would not. The degradation of slavery is not that you are not paid for your labor, it is that you are owned. You are not human. No raise in minimum wage rates will rectify that degradation. I would rather be human, than spend the rest of my life in prison being paid a fair wage. So let us not miss the true purpose and significance of what it would mean to abolish slavery for good. Your humanity depends on it, and so does the nation's.
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