Of prisons and prisoners

Rahul Upadhyay
Four decades ago, Philip Zimbardo, Psychology Professor at Stanford University set out to test the effects of placing normal people in an evil environment by experimentally simulating prison conditions in what would go on to become one of the classics (and controversial) studies in the history of modern psychology. On the basis of extensive psychological tests, 24 respondents were judged as clinically most sane and mature and randomly assigned to the roles of ‘Prisoners’ (were given a baton and wore whistles around their necks) and ‘Guards’ (were issued prisoner uniforms and ID numbers) in a hall at the basement of the Stanford Psychology building which was converted to a ‘Prison’ for the purpose of the experiment with three very small cells and even a solitary confinement cell.
Though specifically prohibited from using physical punishment, the ‘guards’ were nevertheless told to maintain reasonable degree of order for the smooth functioning of the Prison. Zimbardo was taken aback to find that subjects quickly stepped into their assigned roles of ‘prisoners’ and ‘guards’ with the latter becoming increasingly sadistic giving in to hurling verbal abuses, arbitrarily administering punishments (e.g. push-ups), stripping the rebellious inmates naked and putting them in solitary confinement, and reducing basic privileges (e.g. showers) and the former submitting to a passive and depressive response mode. The overall nature of encounter between the two groups was one of hostility, insult, and dehumanization despite the fact that the experimenter had not denied them the right to engage in any form of interaction. Of such intensity was the emotional trauma of the ‘prisoners’ and sadistic tendencies of the ‘guards’ that the experiment which was to last at least for two weeks was suspended on the sixth day itself. Zimbardo concluded that situational pressures of the prison environment are too hard to resist. Notwithstanding the criticisms that the Prison experiment faced by a number of psychologists, it nevertheless drew home the point that ordinary, nice guys can, and usually do turn into monsters when the situation expects them to- a fact evinced quite often in cases of prison abuses reported (and many unreported) in media, sometimes pronouncedly as in Abu Gharib and Guantanamo Bay excesses.
The presence of prisons is centuries old. It was widely held in ancient times that retribution in the form of rigorous imprisonment, isolation, and punishment was the only way of dealing with these dangerous elements. Gradually, however, with increasing influence of behavioral sciences like criminology, psychology, and sociology there has been an attitudinal shift whereby emphasis is laid on reformation as decades of research has led social scientists to aver that far from reforming the offenders, detention may instead lead to quite the contrary i.e. in hardening the inmates beyond the point where they can lead normal lives becoming productive members of the society once they’re done with their confinement period.  In India, though provisions for basic amenities such as food, clothing and medical care, educational and vocational training, and parole do exist, there is undoubtedly a considerable gulf between theory and practice. There is overcrowding in prisons, particularly of under trial prisoners which gets aggravated by inadequate staff – a fact reiterated by courts lately. Pitiably stocked libraries and equally pitiable vocational and educational programs for want of financial wherewithal are the telltale signs of horrible conditions of country’s prisons. Add to that the fact that inmates hardly have regular excess to newspapers, television, or radio-sources which can serve for them a means of contact with the outside world thereby restoring a sense of connectivity with the external world, and we are reminded of the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky’s famous quote “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
Amidst this frightening scenario, though, there is some glimmer of hope as many officials charged with guarding the inmates have shown commendable initiative in making the prison experience as humane as possible for the prisoners. One such noteworthy instance was that of the introduction of vipassana meditation course at Tihar jail in New Delhi, the largest prison in the country way back in 1994. The course proved to be highly effective in creating harmonious prison environment besides facilitating prisoner’s successful return to society. The award winning film, “Doing Time. Doing Vipassana” documents the story behind the initiative.
It must be borne in mind that criminality doesn’t arise in a social vacuum. The chasm between the haves and have-nots provoke some susceptible ones to engage in short-cuts to get hold of the riches and lifestyles which characterize society’s elites- a propensity that only gets exacerbated what with the display of manifestations of materialism on the idiot box 24 by 7 in one or the other way implicitly conveying that you have to be a part of the in-crowd any which way. In addition to these income inequalities, a large body of research, carried across cultures has found a strong positive correlation between poverty and incidents of criminal behavior. Another learning factor in crimes is observation of violence on television as it has been reported that being exposed continuously to high degrees of violent imagery has the effect of making viewers, especially adolescents and teenagers aggressive by a number of pathways e.g. making them learn novel techniques of aggressing, conveying the message that violence is an accepted way of handling difficulties, and most of all by desensitization such that little emotional reaction or pain is produced on the suffering of others as a result of repeated bombardment of violent imagery. Insofar as this learning, in many cases, actualizes into violence and subsequent trial and imprisonment, it is ironical that no regulation is put in place to check the high levels of violence on T.V.  Social theorists have posited yet another important psychological variable linked with crimes viz. apathy on part of the criminals i.e. diminished ability to be affected by their criminals in spite of their cognitive awareness thereof- they know how their victims feel but don’t feel how they feel. And this apathy, these psychologists suggest, can be traced to their upbringing as infants and toddlers because it is at this point of time that the capacity to feel for others is firmly developed provided the caregivers fulfill the basic emotional needs of those they’re caring for. Unfortunately, though, many caregivers consider apathetic child care as virtuous believing that it adds to the child’s repertoire skills necessary for surviving in a tough, mean world right from the beginning thus inadvertently sowing seeds for potential criminality. Other studies have pointed out weak family ties, insufficient parental monitoring, excessive permissiveness, and above all, a history of being the recipient of abuse themselves as factors strongly linked to criminal behavior.
Given that much of the crime has largely to do with our regrettable social structures, simply branding prisoners as somewhat of an aberration to be dealt with barbarically without an aim to bring systemic changes in the very structures which serve as fertile breeding grounds for crime smacks of an uninformed, nescient standpoint grounded more on hearsay than on scientifically documented research evidence.
(The author is Research Scholar, Deptt. Of Psychology, University of Jammu)


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