To the Editor:
As a child, I was curious about why my Father experienced repeated periods of incarceration and was never rehabilitated. This curiosity evolved into a 15+ year educational and professional career working within the intersections of mental health and criminal justice systems. I have witnessed a multitude of evil acts committed against incarcerated people contributing to my resignation from New Haven Correctional Center in 2019.
The biggest factors contributing to recidivism and poor treatment of incarcerated people are the dehumanizing environment, abuse of power, and toxic group conformity. Accountability, external oversight, and transparency are necessary to create correctional facilities that truly address the needs of incarcerated people and correctional staff.
Abuse of Power
The abuse of power is influenced by correctional facilities’ norms, group pressure, and military-like training. In 1971, Dr. Zimbardo conducted The Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE); a 2-week experiment that ended in 6 days due to the psychological harm shown by participants. SPE is one of the most cited experimental research studies highlighting; that institutional abuse of power, group conformity, and a dehumanizing environment contribute to evil acts. The study has been praised by legal, military, and correctional personnel for its implications for best practices in secured residential environments. The lessons learned from the Stanford
Prison Experiment should be a guide to implementing necessary changes in Senate Bill 459 also known as The Protect Act, 2022 law.
A Dehumanizing Environment
Dehumanization is the process of making a person or group feel less human by denying basic human rights. Correctional institution; the infrastructure, admissions and processing, and immoral policies that make up an environment psychologically detrimental to one’s health. It is embedded into normal operations of correctional facilities; public strip searches, replacing names with numbers, poor medical care, and the assumptions of malingering. The public strip searches reminded me of slave auction blocks. My experiences include men being stripped in open areas, with no privacy where staff and incarcerated people frequently passed.
The Abuse of Power
The power of correctional staff must be acknowledged in the context of a toxic environment. People are not innately born evil and the SPE concludes that situational factors can make anyone engage in immoral acts that are upheld by policy and culture. Incarcerated people are at high risk for abuse and neglect because the correctional staff has complete control over one’s day-to-day living. DOC cultivates a culture where incarcerated people are viewed as inhumane, unworthy, and dangerous. The military-style training ensued with defensive and restraint techniques that perpetuated dominance, power, and aggression. This is an important factor because it creates a safety valve and rationale for immoral policies and treatment.
The combination of military-style training, complete control, and a code of silence emphasizes the urgent need to pass Senate Bill 459 as law to establish external oversight for a system that cares for vulnerable populations. In my experience working at New Haven Correctional Center, abuse of power caused a significant amount of stress for people experiencing incarceration. I still struggle with flashback memories and images of men being; beaten, pepper-sprayed, chained, and tortured. The most traumatizing story of the abuse of power is the homicide of Robbie Talbot in March 2019. The tragic result of military-style training and punitive policies led to the loss of Robbie’s life.
The Loss of Self
The negative consequences of losing one’s self-identity are group cohesion and conformity. Correctional group cohesion is influenced by staff uniforms, symbols of power, and close proximity due to limited workspace. The SPE indicates group cohesion increases the likely hood that staff will engage in immoral and abusive acts.
My loss of self was a violation of my ethical duty to do no harm. During a counseling session, an incarcerated man said to me, “I never wanted to kill myself until you put me in that room for 3 days.” The room he mentioned was a form of solitary confinement, known in DOC as a “Mental Health Observation.” I was reminded of how my role as a mental health counselor in DOC was a contradiction to my values and professional ethics. My experiences of group conformity were magnified by frequently being the only mental health provider in the facility, heightening feelings of isolation.
The lessons learned from the Stanford Prison experiment draw important implications for changes for Connecticut’s Department of Correction. The dehumanizing environment, abuse of power, and group conformity make passage of Senate Bill 459 urgent. The Protect Act is the foundation for the state to reimagine correctional institutions. Hundreds of people have testified to the irreversible harm caused by solitary confinement, and research concludes the environment is destructive, not the people. The answer is clear, Senate Bill 459, The Protect Act 2022 must become law.
Boyd is a Licensed Professional Counselor