Social Justice Matters: Who Watches the Watchers?

One of the most appalling depredations and abuses in the United States prison system is the violence inflicted on prisoners by prison guards and other prison officials. It is systemic, it is often racially motivated, it is horrific, and it can be deadly. Prison guarding is often presented as a dangerous occupation fraught with potential hazards, but what a lot of people don’t talk about is the fact that it’s more dangerous for the prisoners than the guards.

As the Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrated, it does not take much to turn ordinary human beings into monsters. Putting on a guard’s uniform, being handed tools like pepperspray and night sticks, being given the keys to the lives of others, seems to be all it takes to push some people into inhabiting a space I can’t even imagine in my worst nightmares. We’ve seen the photographs from Abu Ghraib, we’ve seen the abuses at Guantanamo, but what about the things that happen on US soil, in US prisons, every day?

Prison guards have complete control over the prisoners in their blocks. They decide when people are allowed to leave their cells, to eat, to exercise. They decide when people get medical care. They are given broad latitude in their work because the people they work with are deemed ‘dangerous’ and, more importantly, because society has collectively indicated that it doesn’t care about the welfare of people in prisons. Human rights are not deemed important for the prison population, which is why you end up with endlessly repeated stories about abuses in US prisons, so many that sometimes I think I’m reading a story over again by accident, but I realise the name of the state is different or the number of guards have changed or the prisoners are a different gender.

Physical abuse, including head wounds so severe that surgical stapling was required to close them. Sexual abuse. Rapes committed by prison guards are often not reported because of a culture of intimidation and abuse. You cannot report a rape when your rapist controls your ability to move around, to eat, to see the outside world. You cannot report a rape when you live in full awareness that your rapist controls your access to medical treatment.

Prisoners are severely beaten for burping. For looking at a guard the wrong way. For not looking at a guard. For failing to respond to questions they don’t hear. For existing. For talking to other prisoners. For chewing too loudly. Prison guards can engage in things like rampant taser abuse and cover it up on the grounds that prisoners were posing a threat to others, or that there were safety concerns. To be a prison guard is to have a blank cheque, essentially, since no one will check up on what you do.

It’s difficult for prisoners to report abuse. While prisons do have medical personnel who should theoretically be able to identify signs of abuse like cuts, bruises, broken limbs, missing teeth, access to those people is controlled by the guards. While prisoners can contact the outside world, contact is monitored and redacted at will by the prison. While people can visit prisoners, visits are also carefully watched. People who attempt to report abuse in prisons will have no access to evidentiary support, and it’s impossible to bring suit without anything to prove the case.

Social justice organisations working in prisons attempt to document abuse where and when they spot it, and to bring cases to court, when possible. Sometimes, prison guards do the documenting for us; earlier this year, prison guards were suspended for proudly posting comments about prisoner abuse on Facebook (sound familiar?). Yet, the focus of the case was on ‘inappropriate Internet postings.’ Not the fact that guards were talking about bashing prisoner’s heads into the ground, but the fact that they thought it would be good to write about it, to provide documentation on what they were doing in their workplaces.

Again, we are told that people are imprisoned ‘for safety’ and that people need to be locked up in the interests of the common good. Yet, we cannot protect the people we are imprisoning from abuse, from violence, from death. We say that we fear rape, violence, murder from prisoners, yet we don’t think they deserve the right to live without rape, violence, and murder themselves, evidently. We don’t think that prisoners deserve human rights, that atrocities committed in prisons are a problem; the bigger problem is hearing about them, not that they happen.

Who watches the watchers? The culture of prison guarding is such that even guards attempting to behave ethically, inasmuch as restricting freedom of movement and association for fellow human beings is ‘ethical,’ are pressured by the culture. They are encouraged not to report. People who do choose to follow up on abuse, to discuss issues with the warden, will be victims of workplace harassment and abuse. Prison guards claim that they need to be tight-knit to protect each other, to watch each other’s backs, to provide support during emergencies. Those same tight connections make it impossible to challenge the cultural values of the prison environment, to become a whistleblower.

Prison guards dehumanise prisoners to distance themselves from what they do and to justify it to themselves and to each other. Violence is ‘discipline,’ abuse is ‘necessary for safety,’ leaving prisoners to die is ‘not enough staff to safely transport the prisoner,’ rape is…I don’t even know what rape is. I don’t want to know.

Prisoners are members of the public too. Surely they deserve the same protections from abuse, sexual violence, and physical harm that we believe it’s important to extend to people who are not in prison.