No parcels for prisoners

Recent outcry from authors about the new stricter rules on what prisoners can receive in jail, highlighted that prisoners would no longer be able to be sent books. This is, of course, outrageous, but in my mind just as outrageous is that there is a blanket ban on all parcels, including birthday presents.

The change to policy came about in November last year, when the Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme was altered to mean that prisoners could no longer receive any parcels, without a prison governor granting exceptional circumstances, e.g. saying that the parcel was necessary for treating an illness or fulfilling a religious need.

Not being able to receive books is really bad. The prison population are likely to uniquely benefit from books. Firstly, reading can be a mind-expanding form of escapism that prisoners probably need. Secondly, increasing literacy has a knock-on effect of reducing vulnerability to reoffending. But equally outrageous as not being able to receive books is that someone in prison can’t receive a birthday present, or a mundane package of a small but pleasurable token of comfort. As one of the authors involved in the protest argues, why not create jobs for those currently unemployed in checking parcels to make sure they are safe.

It made me think of the famous prison experiment carried out by Zimbardo at Stanford University in the 1970s. Zimbardo got 24 students to pretend to be prisoners and guards in a mock prison (12 prisoners and 12 guards). He had to stop the experiment early, after only six days, because the behaviour of the “guards” was so cruel towards their fellow student “inmates”. In an article reflecting on the experiment, Zimbardo wrote: “I wanted to explore the fictional notion from William Golding’s Lord of the Flies about the power of anonymity to unleash violent behavior.”

On day two of the prison experiment the prisoners tried to rebel and the guards started to use psychological punishment to control them. These quotations are extracts from the prison log from night 5 of the experiment, the day before it was terminated:

The prisoners, who have not broken down emotionally under the incessant stress the guards have been subjecting them to since their aborted rebellion on Day 2, wearily line up against the wall to recite their ID numbers and to demonstrate that they remember all 17 prisoner rules of engagement. It is the 1 a.m. count, the last one of the night before the morning shift comes on at 2 a.m. No matter how well the prisoners do, one of them gets singled out for punishment. They are yelled at, cursed out, and made to say abusive things to each other. “Tell him he’s a prick,” yells one guard. And each prisoner says that to the next guy in line. Then the sexual harassment that had started to bubble up the night before resumes…”

“See that hole in the ground? Now do 25 push-ups [expletive] that hole! You hear me!” One after another, the prisoners obey like automatons as the guard shoves them down.”

The guards go on to devise a sexually humiliating game for three of the prisoners to do whilst the others watch.

Zimbardo called an end to the experiment when a former doctoral student of his, whom he was dating at the time, saw what was happening in the prison and became upset, telling him it was his fault that the abuses were occurring. In subsequent interviews Zimbardo has said that he should have stopped the experiment sooner.

Whilst I am not suggesting that banning prisoner parcels is at this level of abuse, I would argue that it is dehumanising and perhaps related to a similar psychological driver.

Zimbardo concluded of the prison experiment that it was:
“One of a host of studies in psychology that reveal the extent to which our behavior can be transformed from its usual set point to deviate in unimaginable ways, even to readily accepting a dehumanized conception of others, as “animals,” and to accepting spurious rationales for why pain will be good for them.”

It is easy to see a group of “others” as very different to us (see previous blog post). But in dehumanising prisoners are we reducing their likelihood of reoffending? I doubt it. Evidence suggests that interventions which help prisoners to see their victims as more human and help them to understand the negative effects of their crime are useful. This restorative justice model aims for perpetrators to be able to see the person in the victim. I think that it is also important to continue to see the person in the prisoner.

People in prisons are already being punished: they have had their freedom taken away. Do we really need to take access to parcels away too? Whether or not there is a book in there.

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