I am going to talk about a highly controversial topic, correctional officer abuse of authority.

I spend an extraordinary amount of effort humanizing correction officials. I don’t want to leave prison in 4 months with the lasting impression that authorities are untrustworthy or “bad” so I don’t practice that mentality now. Correctional employees have a job to do and make no mistake it’s a complicated job. Maintaining the imprisonment of humans is not something to be taken lightly and anyone who does is a very scary individual indeed. That goes both ways, for sure.

I think that an unhealthy (or, if possible, healthy) environment, in prison, is a mutually created space. There are 2 parties involved in the creation of that space and the same 2 parties are responsible for the maintaining thereof: prisoners and corrections officials.

We can look to research from individuals like Robert Rosenthal on concepts such as the Pygmalion Effect (when a teacher’s internal belief about a pupil effects the pupils performance, negatively and positively) to understand that authorities in any situation set the tone of an environment. Make no mistake, correction officers specifically are tacit, if not direct, examples of appropriate and law abiding behavior. When an officer becomes abusive, even passively (although, I’m not entirely sure it’s possible to be passively abusive, perhaps accidentally is a more appropriate word?), it can have deep impacts on the environment in which they oversee.

An example of what I’m talking about is group punishments. Group punishment was stopped decades ago because it was found to create a more dangerous environment. Group punishment collected inmates into groupings to self-manage and that had dire consequences as it all but required the unionization of prisoners, that unionization became prison gangs. (**as a side note** I believe prison gangs to be the biggest threat to American security to date and that all gangs should be listed as domestic terrorists and the activities they practice terrorism, just so we are clear about my thoughts) Prison gangs are detrimental to any type of rehabilitation or correction and produce more dangerous communities, people, and environments. In times past, officers would punish whole groups of prisoners for the actions of a few resulting in prisoner on prisoner violence.

While traditional group punishments have been eradicated in most prisons, other forms of group punishment persist unchecked that leave inmates in the same predicament of believing that inmates must police inmates. Let me give a specific example.

In 2020 masks became a mandate for inmates to wear in all Washington State prisons for the safety of everyone. Masks are to be worn at all times when out of our cells which is about 16 (potentially) hours a day. Most civilians do not have to wear masks for this length of time and if they do, do not have to do so in spaces wear various forms of human intimacy occur, like your living room or dining room (because our cells are used as punishment, prisoners tend to gravitate towards common areas, like a day room or yard to avoid the feeling of being “punished”, a common punishment in Washington prisons is to be “celled in” for a period). Because prisoners are in close proximity to one another, we tend to hold private conversations in public spaces and the result is a natural pulling down of our masks so the other party can see our lips move to help them hear one another better. It is an act done thoughtlessly, without malice (I contend I will NEVER grow accustomed to face coverings).

Our prison system is equipped with an overhead intercom system. We are given directives over this intercom system aimed at entire groups about when we can move from our living spaces to other spaces such as education and recreation. Some officers use the intercom to administer correction. Now, this seems minor, but imagine every time a mask comes down, a person steps out of bounds, a door is left open too long, etc someone screams into that intercom at one person, subjecting everyone in that space to the same correction. That’s the very epitome of group punishment, subjecting all for the actions of a few or one. Now imagine this happening for years.

Lately, some officers don’t even speak into the microphone, they simply click a button making a noise. No direction is given, not unlike how dogs are trained. In fact, it’s called click training and is used on primitive species for specialized training, like assistance dogs. When an inmate is treated like a primitive species, this is no longer bordering on abuse, it’s directly and explicitly abusive.

The abuse becomes deeply psychological when we attempt to ask the officer to not perform such acts and the response we are given is:

“Then you shouldn’t have come to prison, it’s not suppose to be easy or fun”

What they are saying is that the more abusive they get, the more I’ll hate this place and never want to come back. The problem with this thought is that it doesn’t work that way, that’s why we don’t practice corporal punishment or perform torture as punishment (openly, being clicked trained like an animal is ABSOLUTELY AND CERTAINLY human torture), because it didn’t deter future crime…if it did, criminal activity would have ended thousands of years ago.

Just wanted to spark some conversational thought.

I’d love to hear any thoughts on this.

With Love
Ruth Utnage