Last modified: 7:58 AM Saturday, 14 January 2017

The Stanford Experiment writ large

No man has ever existed who does not contain within him the capacity to be both angel and demon; and which he shall be is seldom determined by his choice, often by his circumstances. Those whom we condemn to our “supermax” prison facilities are surely no angels, for they are sent there when they commit crimes of such violence that they must be removed not only from contact with society but also from the general prison population. But too often, those whom we place in authority over them become corrupted by power and a culture of contempt: It is then that the demons emerge, free to maraud with impunity.

Prisoner abuse

Prisoner abuse during a cell extraction in Maine: more rule
than exception.
[ Image Source ]

Far worse in many cases than any crimes committed by the prisoners under their care are the punishments these guards and wardens visit upon their charges. As the infamous Stanford Experiment showed us, “guards” need not be set to watch real criminals: Merely to instruct one group that it is to act as “prisoners” and the other as “guards” is sufficient to assure that the latter will severely and progressively abuse the former; we have seen this repeatedly, and not merely in such exotic settings as Abu Ghraib.

Unsurprisingly, it is far easier to assert abuse than to prove it. What goes on in prisons is mostly not done in front of photographers, and we are left with only post-facto evidence, such as the photo below. This is no accident, for it provides the abusers with what is necessary for their behavior to go unchecked: deniability. Yes, we have an inmate with horrific injuries, but while he says they resulted from abuse, the guards are at liberty to say they were self-inflicted, or that the inmate was so dangerous that only extreme methods would subdue him. In the end, it is only the number and internal consistency of the abuse claims that imparts enough credibility to get anyone to pay attention. Meanwhile, behind locked doors, the abuse goes on, and healthy prisoners are reduced to haunted lunatics who pace their cells, making animal noises, lost in catatonia; or they attempt suicide and are then returned to the same cell, suicide weapon still on hand along with the blood spilled in the last attempt, to attempt it all over again; or they are beaten during a transfer and left to die, vomiting, in a cell caked with feces and littered with days’ accumulation of moldy, uneaten trays of food, their bodies removed by other inmates when prison staff refuse.

And then there are the suicides: men like Jose Martin Vega, a murderer brought to Florence, Colorado’s Supermax prison in 2003 after an incident in his previous prison, as described in The Atlantic:

On March 13, 2003, while at the federal prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, Vega attacked an associate warden with a razor blade at the late-morning meal. Vega was subdued after a struggle, given an injection to render him defenseless, stripped naked, and then “assaulted by prison staff for a duration of at least one hour,” according to an unpublished federal trial court ruling.

The Lewisburg prison health officials who saw Vega after the incident neither treated him properly nor adequately recorded his injuries. That same day, Vega was transferred to the nearby Allenwood federal prison facility, where authorities saw fit to place him on “suicide status.” Soon thereafter, Vega was sent to the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners, located in Springfield, Missouri (the same place where the Tucson shooter, Jared Loughner, was more recently sent for pre-trial competency tests).

Vega was convicted of assault on the warden and sentenced to an additional 188 months, and his complaint about his treatment was rejected. Then Vega was transferred to Supermax, where he was refused treatment for his severe and worsening mental illnesses, including depression, anti-social personality disorder and paranoid schizophrenia. Six days later, he hanged himself with a bedsheet. Supermax was held legally responsible for his death because he was left unmonitored and (contrary to prison policy) unshackled, despite his having been deemed potentially suicidal.

Guards re-shackled Jose Martin Vega after his suicide.

Shackling the dead: Although Vega’s shackles were off when he hanged himself, guards put them back on after
finding him unconscious.
[ Image Source ]

But there are those among us who need not be brutalized by guarding prisoners, real or simulated, to stimulate their inner psychopaths. These are the pathocrats who find their path to the top of a profoundly corrupt society smoothed by their lack of a conscience to inhibit them. Once in positions of power, these individuals no longer concern themselves only with self-advancement; they are now free to unleash the full range of callous cruelties that characterizes their kind.

The psychopathic personality is a strange one: There was a time not long ago when it would have been called simply and unequivocally “evil.”

Subject to congenital underarousal, the psychopath is easily bored, and invariably he will act on this boredom by inflicting misery and injury on whomever he can reach without undue risk to himself. For this reason, “successful” psychopaths will seek power, that they may the more easily harm with impunity: Even those who never achieve real authority may often be found in positions of petty ascendancy over others, and particularly over the defenseless; therefore, many of them will be found in jobs that allow them to impose their will on the poor, the pariah, the prisoner.

One need seldom think long to predict what a psychopath will do: It will be precisely the worst aggression at his disposal, and almost invariably the one that is hardest to prove or directed against the most despised members of society; not infrequently, he will so arrange and explain his assaults that he will appear a hero acting in defense of the common good, and his victims will seem brutish thugs in need of suppression. Gaslighting is a specialty, the casting of aspersions of mental derangement among his favorite defenses when his victims dare complain. So ghastly — and often so diabolically well coordinated — are the strategems the psychopath employs that they all appear directed from a single central source: The psychopath may impress those aware of his behavior patterns as a sort of “satanic robot.”

But perhaps the worst aspect of psychopaths is their influence on impressionable others. Making up no more than one to four percent of the population, depending on who’s doing the counting and by what measures, psychopaths wield much power over others thanks to their uninhibited charm, which certain kinds of personalities can be easily brought to envy and emulate. Anecdotally, up to forty percent of the U.S.’ population falls into this category. These are the people who accept psychopathic reasoning and creeds, and callously dismiss proofs of unspeakable torture as somehow justified by the character of the victims, whom, in common with the true psychopath, they are thus able to regard as less than human and therefore without rights.

I gravely suspect the moral and psychological stability of anyone who can defend or condone torture under any circumstances, and I believe that the conditions in which supermax prisons keep their inmates satisfy the definition of torture.

Originally published as a review of a bostonreview.net article on supermax prisons. As of 24 March 2015, the site has been reorganized;
the page can now be found here.

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