Sunday, March 12, 2006

Correcting Corrections

Driving around the state gives me a chance to catch up on the news. Last week I heard a number of stories – some good and some bad- about New Hampshire. One of the disturbing stories concerned the abuse of prisoners and prison employees. In the past 6 years, NH has paid out more than $700,000 to settle lawsuits or honor jury awards in at least 8 cases alleging rape and sexual harassment. Most disturbing was the fact that a 2002 state audit warned prison officials that they needed to “drastically” improve the way they treated sexual misconduct, or the lawsuits and complaints would continue.

One case involved a $140,000 settlement in the case of a female inmate who was raped by a corrections officer at the women’s prison in Goffstown. She was serving a 30 day sentence for DWI. The other cases involved employees alleging harassment or assault on the job. In one case, the family of a former corrections officer was awarded $99,000, after he committed suicide. Before he died, he’d filed a lawsuit alleging he had become suicidal after being sexually assaulted by his supervisor.

Last week, a new claim was filed against former Sgt. Douglas Tower, accusing Tower of sexually assaulting 3 women at the Shea Farm halfway house in Concord. The week before Tower was arrested on charges that he raped 4 female inmates. That’s a total of 7 charges against Tower so far – and authorities say there may be additional charges. Tower says that women at Shea Farm flirted with him, and dressed provocatively. His lawyer argued that these allegations are made by felons, and therefore unreliable. One woman said Tower raped her in his office, after signing papers granting her a visit with her children, telling her “she owed him one,” and she better not say anything or she’d get sent back to the women’s prison. He also told her that investigators hadn’t believed a female corrections officer who accused him of inappropriate behavior, so if they didn’t believe an officer, they were not going to believe an inmate.

It’s an old story, unfortunately. As long as there have been prisons there have been abusers. Some gravitate to the work, and some are changed by the situation. In prison, corrections officer have complete power over inmates. That kind of power, combined with the dehumanization of prisoners can lead to ugly behavior.

In 1971 an experiment was done at Stanford University, by Professor Phillip Zimbardo. Zimbardo ran an ad asking for volunteers for a study that would last 2 weeks, and paid $15 a day. Over 70 men answered the ad. After interviews and psychological tests, the two dozen most average and healthy men were chosen. They were randomly assigned to be guards or prisoners. The prisoners were “arrested” at their homes, booked at a real jail, then blindfolded and taken to a makeshift prison in the basement of Jordan Hall at Stanford.
Those assigned to be guards were given uniforms, and told that they were not to use violence, but their job was to maintain control of the prison. On the second day of the experiment, the prisoners staged a rebellion. After it was successfully quelled by the guards, according to Zimbardo, “they steadily increased their coercive aggression tactics, humiliation, and dehumanization of the prisoners. Staff had to frequently remind the guards to refrain from such tactics.” The worst instances occurred in the middle of the night when the guards thought no one was watching. Prisoners were forced to clean out toilet bowls with their bare hands or act out degrading scenarios. (Naked human pyramids anyone?)
The experiment came to a halt on the fifth day, when Christina Maslach came in. Maslach had just received her doctorate in psychology, and was dating Zimbardo. She had agreed to do subject interviews. When she saw “guards” leading prisoners with paper bags over their heads to the bathrooms, she was horrified. She told Zimbardo that what they were doing was wrong – and he eventually agreed that he and all of the others had been corrupted by the experiment. Maslach’s career led her into researching the process of dehumanization, how people responsible for the care and treatment of others can come to view them as objects. It surely didn’t take long in the Stanford experiment.
The first “prisoner” released from the experiment went on to become a prison psychologist. Zimbardo studies the social psychology of madness in groups and cults. He has mixed feelings about the ethics of his experiment. He’s also disappointed that the study didn’t bring about the kind of changes he’d hoped for in prisons. If anything, US prisons have become even less humane in the last 25 years.

Without clear guidelines, careful supervision, and ongoing training and education, corrections officers can come to regard their charges as objects deserving of degradation and humiliation. They can revel in their own power over those entrusted to their care. The 2002 audit done in NH revealed that sexual harassment investigators received little training and took longer than average to respond to complaints; the record keeping was extremely poor and made tracking complaints nearly impossible; and that inmate prison manuals did not sufficiently explain how inmates could make reports or complaints. The employee manual prohibited sex with other employees, but not with inmates.

This is an ugly situation, and one that the NH Corrections Dept. must clean up at once. It’s time to get out the big broom and sweep out the predators and deviates that may still be working in NH prisons. It’s long past time to question the concept of having male corrections officers in female prisons. It’s time to make policy and personnel changes. It’s time for all of this to see the light of day. We are as sick as our secrets.
A day or so after I first heard this story, I heard another – that an additional 500 beds need to be added to the NH state prison system. We should all be asking what, exactly we are building, and why.

“Evil is knowing better, but willingly doing worse.” Phillip Zimbardo

This ran on January 27, 2006 in the Conway Daily Sun.

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