Wednesday, October 10, 2007

How Prison Affects Inmates

I heard a story on CBC recently about long waiting lists for treatment in prison resulting in prisoners having parole delayed or getting let out without any treatment for the problem that made them do the crime. Here's the link. Long waiting lists for treatment is a major issue in Canada and there's a lot of discussion about that, but that's not what my post is about. Here is what my post is about:

"And the longer someone spends in prison, the more difficult it becomes for them to reintegrate into society when released."

Trying not to extend their sentences unnecessarily is only a band-aid solution. We have to look at 'why do lengthy prison stays have this effect?'
The most common explanation I've heard is blaming the other prisoners. The psychological/teacherese term for it is 'association with deviant peers'. For example, a petty criminal gets in jail, and while in there, he befriends a guy who gives him advice to make him a better criminal, or he recruits him for a gang, or something. Or they both hook up when out of jail and get into more trouble together than either would have alone, because they spur each other on.
And that is an important thing to consider, but they're really missing something. Way back in 1971, a psychologist recruited a group of college students for a study. Randomly, he divided them into two groups. One group was informed that they were to be prison guards and told to come to begin work at a specified time. The other group were surprised to find the police come to their doors, looking to arrest them.
They spent only six days in the prison, instead of the planned two weeks. In that time, 5 prisoners, a substantial proportion of them, had serious breakdowns and had to be released, one the day after it started! The rest of them all were seriously disturbed. After only a short time, 6 days at the most, each were profoundly affected by the prison. How would it be if they were in there for 6 months or more? How would it be if the guards had 'self-selected', so those who were most uncomfortable being guards (who'd generally been the nicest ones) were less likely to actually be there?
Why is it that 36 years later, people still don't understand this dynamic? Is it that it's too inconvenient, that recognizing this forces us to ask painful questions about what to do about it? What do we do to deal with criminals? Or to help people who pose a danger to themselves? If we recognize that the system currently in place is unethical and counterproductive, we must think of what to replace it with. And that is a big question, one that no one has an easy answer for, so many people shy away from asking it. But we must ask it, because what we've got now is not working.
PS: The Lucifer Effect, by Philip Zimbardo, was used to help put together this post.



Blogger elmindreda said...

Yup. Just had a friend spend a few months in prison and got to see this second hand.

I think punishment is far too seductive for most people to want to consider working alternatives, a bit like it's too seductive to feel superior to "the freaks" to want to think of everyone as having equal value.

11:26 AM  

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