Today I attended a compelling lecture by Dr. Craig Haney of UC-Santa Cruz on the individual psychological consequences of imprisonment in California. His talk was especially well-timed after Dr. Haney was cited six times by the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision in Brown v Plata. You may also recognize Dr. Haney as the lead author of the famous Stanford prison study from 1973, in which twenty healthy males, evenly divided into groups of "inmates" and "guards," acted so brutally that the 2-week experiment was suspended after 6 days.
Since then, Dr. Haney has spent over 30 years touring and studying prisons and prisoners. He began with an overview of the recent expansion of the U.S. prison system, because overincarceration has led to Plata and "prisonization" (stay with me here). The U.S. rate of imprisonment stayed stable around 200,000 from World War I to the mid-1970s, when the War on Drugs sentencing mentality started. From 1973-1993, the CA crime rate hovered around 100 per 100,000, but the incarceration rate increased from 100/100,000 to 350/100,000.
Dr. Haney pointed out that, being a generation older than me, he could still remember a time when prisoners had their own cells. Cellmates, or double-celling, was still seen as an abomination in the mid-1970s. His archives include letters from the prison wardens of 40 years ago, decrying this inhumane practice. Now, of course, prison cells house at least two inmates as a matter of course.
Prison used to aim to rehabilitate prisoners. Through work assignments, education, and other programs, inmates were taught useful skills or conditioned for better lives. In the mid-1970s, states began to veer away from this century-old aim: Haney referred us to Cal. Penal Code § 1170(a)(1), passed in 1976, which begins: "The Legislature finds and declares that the purpose of imprisonment for crime is punishment." Half of CA prisoners released in 2006 had had no assignment whatsoever: no program, no job, no education. All those years, wasted. In 1973, prisoners averaged a 6th-grade reading level, and this is still the same today.
As recently as the 1970s, people suffering from serious mental health conditions were usually committed to mental hospitals for in-patient treatment. Nowadays, mental health patients are more commonly imprisoned. In the U.S., the rate of hospitalization of mental health patients has fallen from 450 per 100,000 residents over 15 years old in 1950, to only 50/100,000 in 1990. People who would be hospitalized in 1950-1980 are more commonly incarcerated in 1980-2010.
Dr. Haney used this background to discuss institutional history as social history. By taking over so many people's lives, for so long, commonly at such young ages, the state has become not only a parent, but an abusive parent. Imprisonment retraumatizes inmates who have already experienced the trauma that led to their incarceration in the first place. Prisoners suffer tremendous institutional risk factors: abuse, maltreatment, neglect, an impoverished environment, diminished opportunities, exposure to violence, abandonment, instability, and exposure to criminogenic role models.
Haney's last slide explained "prisonization" as a set of normal psychological responses to abnormal situations. Prisons create dependence on institutional structures and procedures: newly-released people may suffer a lack of volition and independence as they are separated from these strict regimens. Prisons damage interpersonal skills or even prevent future relationships, by engendering interpersonal distrust, "hypervigilance," suspicion, emotional overcontrol, alienation, psychological distancing, social withdrawal, and isolation. Prisons diminish self-worth and personal value, and can result in Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder -- PTSD inflicted by slow, continuing trauma as opposed to a discrete event.