The American Prison Experiment
Last year, when I read that TYT fired reporter Jordan Chariton, I had a visceral reaction. I dropped my subscription to The Young Turks and subscribed to The Real News Network. I thought Chariton had used poor judgment in sleeping with one of his interns (who was young, married and ambitious), but I also realized that I had become increasingly dissatisfied with TYT’s “shtick” if you will. I liked Jimmy Dore on Aggressive Progressives, and thought Emma Vigeland and Michael Tracy were promising, but except for Chariton, the show seemed like a rehash of other peoples’ reporting, regurgitated for hip, young viewers. TRNN was about as sober as Democracy Now! and even featured Aaron Maté, whose name I remembered from Amy Goodman quickly reciting the DN credits. TRNN also seemed devoted to local reporting in Baltimore.
A few months ago, TRNN brought on liberal radio stalwart Marc Steiner and his first interview was with Chelsea Manning. I had heard a lot about Bradley Manning alerting us to military abuses in Iraq, languishing in prison, changing his gender to become Chelsea, surprisingly being pardoned by President Obama, and now running for the Senate here in Maryland. Before watching that interview, she was a cipher in a uniform, but afterwards she seemed credible as a candidate.
I ran across a notice that Manning was going to be in town at a place called The Impact Hub, and was thinking it would be interesting to attend. I got an email from Penny, who runs Light Street Cycles, where I go for all my bike needs, and sometimes just to chat. I was already a customer when Penny and I ran into each other at an Occupy Baltimore event, and realized we were on the same political wavelength. Manning is one of her heroes, and she had signed me up for the Circles of Voices discussion of Mass Incarceration that featured Manning. Cool.
So I took light rail to North Avenue Station and walked over the Hub, which is part of the renovated Centre Theatre, in what was once a prewar car dealership near the intersection of North Avenue and Charles Street. The door was supposed to be locked, but they opened for a fellow delivering pizza so I came in, too. The Hub appears casual inside with lots of techie design flourishes contrasted with rough concrete, rusted steel and sliding fire doors. I was half an hour early and happened to ask JC Faulk, who runs the sessions, if I was in the right room, and he had me sign in and fill out a name tag. I poked around and noticed very small signs for wayfinding to restrooms, which after several turns, corridors and doors turned out to be inside the Centre Theatre. On my way back, I found Manning looking a bit confused and led her back to the Hub. I tried introducing myself but she didn’t respond.
Back in the Hub more people were showing up. I’m tall so I always sit towards the back in flat spaces. I started speaking to a young teacher named Erin about Lies My Teacher Told Me, and a former teacher named Jason joined in. Eventually Penny showed up. I introduced her as the mother of a teacher, so they all chatted away while I people-watched. JC was fine with us hobnobbing, but asked us to find a person we didn’t know and tell them something that wasn’t obvious about ourselves. Birte turned around and told me she was German, but had lived in the Netherlands for several years. She was a few weeks from obtaining her PhD in the US, and returning to the Netherlands. I said, “dankuwel,” and she smiled, which reminded me of Angelique Kerber’s toothy head shot on the WTA site. I told her I used to sing and act on stage. She had been brought along by her friend, a tall, blonde girl named Rachel. My hound dog days are long past, but there were a lot of pretty young women in that room.
JC settled the crowd of about sixty and laid out the ground rules, such as Attack the ideas, not the person. One would think that rule was fairly obvious but last week a firefighter throttled a city planner during a public discussion of whether separated bike lanes were crowding out fire lanes. Right here in Baltimore. Another rule was Immunity. Another was Don’t Interrupt. Another was Know When to Step Up and Step Back. Another was No Recording or Filming, but JC pointed out that CoV staff was filming this event. He also told us that the door was locked to keep out a white supremacist that was trying to use the available office facilities.
JC told us that he started this effort after seeing his community in turmoil after the death of Freddie Gray. He introduced Tawanda Jones, the sister of Tyrone West who was killed during a struggle with police some months before the Freddie Gray riots.
JC said he wasn’t interested in promoting candidates and hadn’t much use for the sly talk of most politicians but felt that Manning had been honest and forthright in her campaign. Manning said she was running for Senate, but wanted to set that aside for the evening’s discussion. She told us some of the ins and outs of being incarcerated, and it occurred to me that being alone in a corridor with a large stranger like me would probably be intimidating for a rather small person like her who had been in prison for seven years.
Manning talked about the guards “losing” the request forms that prisoners had to submit for toiletries, and prisoners looking out for one another by stockpiling those items for anyone that got screwed over. My mind turned to the infamous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, in which a researcher named Philip Zimbardo randomly assigned nine male students each as guards and inmates, dressed them accordingly, and let them loose against each other in a few basement rooms on campus. Despite the crude simulation, all parties seemed to conform to their roles with utmost seriousness:
There were three types of guards. First, there were tough but fair guards who followed prison rules. Second, there were “good guys” who did little favors for the prisoners and never punished them. And finally, about a third of the guards were hostile, arbitrary, and inventive in their forms of prisoner humiliation. These guards appeared to thoroughly enjoy the power they wielded, yet none of our preliminary personality tests were able to predict this behavior. The only link between personality and prison behavior was a finding that prisoners with a high degree of authoritarianism endured our authoritarian prison environment longer than did other prisoners.
The two-week experiment ended after only six days at the urging of Zimbardo’s girlfriend, a psychologist named Christina Maslach, who was appalled by what she saw. One “prisoner” had been in solitary confinement for several hours, and was interviewed two months later:
I began to feel that I was losing my identity, that the person that I called Clay, the person who put me in this place, the person who volunteered to go into this prison – because it was a prison to me; it still is a prison to me. I don’t regard it as an experiment or a simulation because it was a prison run by psychologists instead of run by the state. I began to feel that that identity, the person that I was that had decided to go to prison was distant from me – was remote until finally I wasn’t that, I was 416. I was really my number.
Manning was under Prevention of Injury isolation, essentially solitary, for about ten months. BTW, Zimbardo and Maslach later married, and each has had a successful career in psychology.
Manning said that after three years in prison she had accepted, like most prisoners, that she would be serving her full 35 year term. (Though she would have been eligible for parole after about a third of the sentence.) She was initially in denial that all but four months of her remaining sentence had been commuted by President Obama – a charitable act for which I forgive many of his neoliberal transgressions – except drone strikes on innocent civilians.
After she had finished, JC broke us into circles. After some negotiation we settled on three groups: those who had been incarcerated, those who knew someone incarcerated, and my group, those who had not been and did not know anyone who had been incarcerated. A big fellow named Mike began to collect our group, describing himself as a natural extravert who was trying to step back. I told him I was a reformed introvert. IIRC there were only about eleven of us. Mike, Peter, me, Asia, a woman without a tag, A woman with very short hair, another woman, a man, Maria, an older woman, and Magda. I said I was surprised we had even one person of color, and then hoped I wasn’t offending her. She seemed OK.
JC told us to begin, so I brought up the Stanford Prison Experiment, which most had heard about. I suggested that it was very easy to fall into the assigned roles in prison and in society. As if to verify that, someone suggested that prison was a necessary evil. Others objected and felt the entire prison system should be dismantled. I pointed out that many outlets credited the increase in incarceration with a corresponding decrease in crime. I recounted surveying Mecklenburg Correctional Center, a medium security facility in Southern Virginia in the late 1970s, which seemed like a relatively civilized place.
I asked if anyone felt that American prison was restorative rather than punitive. They all laughed and said punitive. Someone brought up the Nordic prison system as much less abusive to prisoners, but someone else observed that it worked well but in a very homogenous society. JC had told us that the US had 25% of the world’s prisoners but only 5% of its population. The US has 655 prisoners per 100,000 citizens, depending on how it is calculated. Seychelles has 735, but their total population is only 92,000. I thought Russia was next, but Cuba has 510, while Russia has 450 and Thailand has 445. Norway has 70, Denmark has 61 and Sweden has 53. CoV staff were roaming with boom mikes and cameras.
Several people pointed out that increasing prison population was a result of the War on Drugs, which was intended as an extension of slavery and Jim Crow oppression. Hence we had non-violent offenders thrown in with serious criminals. Maria talked about being from an immigrant family and always being afraid of dealing with the police. Someone asked if being in jail counted. We realized that while we had not been incarcerated in prison, several of us had been arrested and held for some short period of time. I asked if anyone expected that they would be able to stay away from incarceration the way things were going. The older woman foresaw having to be arrested for protesting.
JC asked the different groups to sum up. The incarcerated groups had been extremely in favor of dismantling the prison system, and had covered many of the same issues we discussed. Penny added that while our group self-selected and were against mass incarceration, she knew lots of people that considered it a sensible response to crime.
JC closed by asking us to speak one-on-one with someone answering the question, What happens if I ignore someone in pain? Peter and I paired up, and we each had to speak to the other for three minutes while the other listened intently. He talked about trying to be more empathetic as a mental health professional, and I spoke about what had happened in personal relationships.
Many thanks to Penny for including me, and for giving me a ride home.
Update 20180528: AP reports that Chelsea Manning was literally on the ledge.
[Friend and Campaign Communications Director Kelly] Wright said that Manning’s adjustment to life outside prison has been “extremely difficult.”
“I have seen firsthand and up close the violence inflicted on her by years of imprisonment, solitary confinement and torture,” Wright said. “This is made worse by the impossibly high expectations our society sets for public figures, especially on social media.”