Proponents of the prison system argue that it is put in place for a number of reasons. To provide a mechanism for getting unsafe people out of the community. For punishing people who commit crimes. To warn people who are contemplating similar crimes about the consequences. Most of those proponents aren’t concerned about the civil and human rights abuses that take place in prisons; those seem to be the concern both of prison abolitionists and people on the fence, who think that there might be some function to prisons, but that society still has a moral obligation to take care of prisoners.
Something many people on the fence do not understand is that the entire prison system is structured in a way to make it impossible to meet this supposed moral obligation. Documenting abuses in the prison system, I’m often told that ‘reform’ will solve things; that, for example, conditions for transgender prisoners can be made safer, thus resolving the issue of rape, murder, and abuse of trans people in prison by fellow prisoners and guards. Or that a better judiciary system, where racial disparities will magically be addressed, will reduce the prison population.
Prison is dehumanising. I do not mean just in the literal sense of incarcerating people; here in the United States, where the ability to move and associate freely is a treasured right enshrined in the very core of our national beliefs, prison could be considered a violation just on those grounds alone. Prisoners are denied freedom of movement, freedom of association, and freedom of expression. This is definitely dehumanising.
But there’s more than that. The way prisons are set up, the goal is to dehumanise prisoners as much as possible. Prison guards are not dealing with human beings; they are dealing with ‘inmates’ and numbers and abstract matters that can be pushed around on a chess board. This sets up a situation ripe for human rights abuses, because if the people you are interacting with are not human, then it follows that they do not have human rights. They do not have the right to access health care, to not be raped, to be safe in their beds. Because they are not human beings.
This often starts in training, where people who learn to become prison guards are taught in a way that minimises the humanity of the people they are working with. Their training is about power and control and maintaining both; it’s in the very name, they are ‘guards’ who must be there to protect someone from something. If you’re a ‘guard’ in a facility where some people are behind bars, well, those must be the people you’re supposed to be protecting the world from.
The guard-prisoner interaction has been studied extensively and numerous studies have demonstrated the capacity to become abusive very rapidly as a direct consequence of dehumanisation. Prisoners are dressed alike, or in very similar garments. Prisons use tools like colour-coded scrubs, supposedly to make it easier to identify and separate prisoners by level of security and other categories, but this also creates a sense of prisoners as an amorphous mass without personality or individuality. Joe Arpaio famously dresses prisoners in pink as an emasculating method of ‘punishment,’ but it also has the effect of dehumanising them. Uniforms are dehumanising. There’s a reason they are used in institutional settings.
Prisoners have numbers and these are widely used. Guards handling large numbers of prisoners may, in fact, know them primarily as numbers. Another tool in the name of organisation and increased efficiency and functionality. But also a good way to strip people of their humanity. Ignoring a rape complaint filed by prisoner #398176 is much easier than ignoring a rape complaint from someone with a name. Likewise with denying medical care; prisoner #918431 isn’t a pregnant woman named Jane incarcerated for a relatively minor crime because she’s Black and she couldn’t afford legal representation. So it doesn’t matter if you refuse to authorise a transfer to a medical facility when she goes into labour.
The regimentation of prison life also has a dehumanising effect. Again, people are told that this is necessary to keep conditions in the prison orderly and functional. Especially when large numbers of people are involved. It’s necessary to have people eat, sleep, and exercise on a schedule, to shuffle them between activities to keep them occupied (‘to prevent prison riots and unrest,’ or ‘to prevent prisoners from associating and uniting’?). Again, human beings are reduced to a mass of objects to be moved, processed, and dealt with. Prisoners are no longer viewed as individuals when they are part of a huge group of people being moved through an orderly schedule. And prisoners who violate that schedule—a prisoner who needs medical care, for example—become nuisances and problems. They still aren’t human beings, they are just interruptions in the schedule. Waiting to deal with them ‘until it’s convenient’ will allow guards to get their work done. All in the name of efficiency.
People may argue that prison reform could change this, that the dehumanising setup of prisons could be altered to make them functional. Some may point to models such as facilities where small numbers of prisoners live relatively independently in mixed housing, set up more like a halfway house than a prison, where prisoners are allowed possessions, can dress how they please, and have increased freedom of movement and association. These are expensive, they are not cost effective, and they are based on very different ideas about prison and penal reform; they come from a philosophy where, for example, prisoners are provided with psychiatric care on the grounds that they might need it.
And they are still rooted in the fundamental idea that incarceration is morally justifiable. No matter how much it is dressed up with privileges and pleasant surroundings, incarceration itself is fundamentally dehumanising. It strips people of agency. The prison system is part of a much larger and very broken system where people who fail are set up to fail again, where certain classes of people are far more likely to end up in the talons of the system than others, where inequalities at every level of society feed inequality and create more. The dehumanisation starts long before the prison gate. Prison reform isn’t just about reform or abolition, depending on a person’s views. It is about a fundamental rethinking on how we do ‘justice’ and ‘punishment.’