Friday, 8 February 2008

Violence in Jail and in Society

Violence in Jail and in Society

Violence in Daily Life in Jail

A few days ago some of the inmates were watching a blood-and-guts, shoot-em-up film on TV featuring a constant barrage of people shouting, threatening each other, cursing each other out, and otherwise verbally abusing one another, as well as people beating, kicking, and shooting each other.

At the same moment, in the hall outside our unit’s window, a guard was verbally abusing a young inmate with an intensity equal to that of the spoken violence on the TV show. Fortunately this scene did not lead to physical harm, since the inmate controlled himself. I don’t know what the inmate, who lives in the neighboring unit, had done to provoke the guard’s wrath.

Perhaps the young man had been watching the same shoot-em-up and responded to some conflict situation (e.g., another inmate turning the channel) with the same methods he saw exemplified and glorified by Hollywood. After he is released, will the guard be an additional role model for him?
In the evening some inmates watched two hours of fake but ostensibly very brutal wrestling, following by real boxing.

The next morning began with a heavy-set guard bellowing at us that it was time for our twice-weekly change of jail shirt and pants. This particular officer seems incapable of telling us anything except in a loud, abusive manner.

As we filed past the clothes bin, some inmates were trying to indicate to another guard the approximate size they needed. All of a sudden the heavy-set guard shouted: "They don’t tell you what they want, you just give them the clothes. They’re just damn inmates. Shit!" I figured the last word was used as an expletive rather than a noun describing us, but who knows?

Discussing this with other inmates, we agreed that the guard’s behavior and mood is more his problem than ours -- perhaps he gets no respect or love at home, someone opined. A cellmate who has a background in police work and psychology said: "I won’t let his dysfunctional attitude take away the joy in my heart" -- wisdom for many conflict situations in life.

Later an inmate told me that the bellowing guard had been beaten up by an inmate a few months ago for his abusive manner. The inmate reportedly was charged with assault; I don’t know what else happened to him. The cycle of violence continues.

That afternoon a tall, blond, nice-looking female guard opened the door of our unit to announce something. "Jones, get your shit together and get out here now," she shouted. I chuckled at the incongruity, but no one else seemed to notice it.

Sister Carol Gilbert, O.P., serving a sentence in federal prison for a Plowshares anti-nuclear action, wrote in a letter to friends this month: "I had extra cleaning duty a few days into the new year because I thought 4:15 p.m. stand-up count had cleared and sat on my bed. Two of us were screamed at, as this is the method used here."

Violence on TV

Yesterday afternoon I spent a few hours watching the tube, wanting to give full attention to some shows I had only heard from a distance. The first two were courtroom dramas -- "Judge Mathis" and "People’s Court." Probably among the cheapest of TV productions, these consisted of men and women shouting at each other, interrupting each other as they expressed intimate secrets of relationships gone sour, and the judge finally shouting them all down!

Then came the blockbuster -- the Jerry Springer show. With a scantily-clad woman standing on the sidelines, men and women display their disputes on stage, screaming the most abusive language they can find. Words are bleeped out every few seconds.

Then, with the audience wildly cheering them on, they try to attack each other physically as the stage police grab them in various body places to keep them apart. Meanwhile Jerry strolls around the stage, occasionally asking the fighters about some detail of their relationship.
The final phase begins with the men and women gratuitously disrobing as they continue to shout and fight. Now the colosseum gets into a frenzy. But for the TV audience, the gladiators’ private parts are blocked out. (My fellow inmates tell me that the program sells videos which impede neither sound nor sight.)

This show features not only sex and violence, but sex in violence. Of course, the live audience and TV viewers are laughing and howling throughout. But in spite of their light-heartedness about it, I think this kind of TV fare, every day, has some serious impact -- perhaps making physical and verbal violence seem ordinary in the minds of some, or confirming its acceptability in the minds of others.

From the other units near ours, late at night, emanate scary sounds of inmates shouting at and threatening one another at full volume. Inmates who have lived in those units report that fighting erupts with some frequency, usually resulting in minor injuries. Are they acting out what they view on TV?

But fighting in jail is just a small part of societal violence. It seems that one day an inmate had the dubious distinction of receiving visits from his two girlfriends at the same moment. When they saw each other at the front door of the jail, a serious fight broke out between them, with the mother of one helping her daughter against the other. Perhaps they had been watching too much Jerry Springer, or too much nightly news.

Does Media Violence Promote Violent Behavior?

How, and to what extent, the pervasive violence in the media affects viewers and listeners is a complex psychological question which deserves more exploration. Magazines sent to inmates must come directly from the publisher, but articles can be clipped out and mailed in to us.

According to TIME ("Does Kindergarten Need Cops?" Dec. 15, 2003) experts on child behavior agree that "aggressive behavior in children has been irrefutably linked to exposure to violence on TV and in movies, video games and other media." The article cites psychologist Jerome Singer, co-director of the Yale University Family Television Research and Consultation Center: "Dozens of studies have shown this link. Probably hundreds."

The TIME article reports an alarming increase in violent behavior in kindergartners and first-grade pupils. For instance, the Philadelphia school district had 19 reports of weapons possession and 42 assaults by kids in kindergarten or first grade in the first 3 months of the 2003-2004 school year. A psychologist in the Ft. Worth, TX, school district said: "We’re talking about serious talking back to teachers, profanity, even biting, kicking and hitting adults, and we’re seeing it in 5-year-olds."
In addition to media violence, other factors mentioned are "lack of lap time" and excessive pressure to pass academic tests.

In "Voting Democracy off the Island" (Harper’s Magazine, March 2004), Francine Prose analyzes the message and impact of "reality-based" TV programs. After describing various scenes and situations, she identifies a set of "guiding principles" of these reality shows: "flinty individualism, the vision of a zero-sum society in which no one can win unless someone else loses, the conviction that altruism and compassion are signs of folly and weakness, the exaltation of solitary striving above the illusory benefits of cooperative mutual aid, the belief that certain circumstances justify secrecy and deception, the invocation of a reviled common enemy to solidify group loyalty" (p. 60). (The author notes that these are "the exact same themes that underlie the rhetoric we have been hearing and continue to hear from the Republican Congress and our current administration.")

The message is that people will do anything for money, no matter how treacherous or hurtful. If reality TV programs last long enough, "they will produce an entire generation that has grown up watching them and may consequently have some trouble distinguishing between reality TV and reality.... Watching a nightly Darwinian free-for-all cannot help but have a desensitizing effect.

Once you’re absorbed and assimilated the idea that civility is, at best, a frill, you may find yourself less inclined to suppress an eruption of road rage or the urge to ridicule the homely Average Joe who dares to approach a pretty girl.... After all, it’s the way the world works; it’s how people behave" (p. 64).

The media’s influence on behavior is evident not only in relation to violence. "Smoking in movies is responsible for addicting 1,080 U.S. adolescents to tobacco every day," according to a June 10, 2003 editorial in the British medical journal The Lancet, as reported in the National Catholic Reporter, Feb. 6, 2004. The NCR reported that "watching popular movies is the No. 1 factor in leading teens to light up, say researchers from New Hampshire’s Dartmouth Medical School in a landmark 2003 study published in The Lancet.

Governmental Violence

It is important to distinguish between media violence which is recognized as being fictional and real-life violence reported in the news.
In the latter category we find the very real and pervasive violence of various kinds (domestic and foreign) committed by governments, acting with the authority invested in them by their people. I feel that official, governmental violence influences citizens’ values and behavior in a significant way -- more profoundly than the fictional violence in the media.

Unfortunately the violence of the U.S. government at least matches that of the blood-and-guts shoot-em-ups. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called his country "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today," pointing to a consistent history of violence within and beyond our borders. Focusing on the war in Vietnam in 1967, he said he could not effectively preach non-violence in the ghettos of America while this country was using the most extreme forms of violence in Southeast Asia.

On the domestic front, the death penalty, as an exercise of official violence by states and occasionally by the federal government, is counterproductive because it teaches the population that people can be killed in a cold, public, and premeditated way when that is deemed "necessary."

Other forms of governmental violence -- e.g., causing harm to the poor whether in the U.S. or the Third World, ruining the environment, accepting the possibility of nuclear warfare -- also teach powerfully by example.

A Consultation in Jail

A fellow inmate, "Paul," told me that violence in the media conditions people to use or accept it in real life. In his opinion fantasy shows, featuring the violence of werewolves and monsters, do not have this effect. Some songs, too, contribute to the development of a self-centered personality; as an example he mentioned a big hit with the title "Fuck the world."

He stated emphatically that the demonstration and glorification of sex on TV reinforces an obsession with sex in many people, and that a similar depiction of the world of drug consumption -- without showing the human degradation, the withdrawal symptoms, the ruin of families and friendships and careers, and other ugly aspects -- lures many into it. Film and TV viewers see the glamorous clothes and flashy cars of the pushers, the excitement of the addicts, the fast life -- but rarely the tragic end of the addict or the severe punishment of the pusher. He strongly recommended New Jack City as very true to life and as a rare example of a popular film which does show the destructive aspects of the drug culture both for addicts and pushers; I will try to find it after release.1

Footnote 1

Having seen the film in July 2004, I am grateful for Paul’s recommendation. New Jack City (1991) is a captivating movie which brings out the hard realities of the drug business. Nino Brown (played by Wesley Snipes), a gang leader who is on his way to monopolizing crack in New York City, considers violence a necessary part of his enterprise. "It’s all business, nothing personal," he observes several times in relation to his and his gang’s use of deadly force. A CEO or board chairman of a corporation polluting the environment or producing unsafe vehicles or running a hazardous sweatshop or selling cigarettes would say the same thing, as would the international vice-president of a company calculating the profits it will make in war-ravaged, occupied, "free-market" Iraq.
Such leaders of society would also say, with Nino, "It’s mine, all mine," referring either to their enterprise as their private property with no societal obligations or responsibilities, or to the physical and human resources of the world as their global market for their galloping self-enrichment.
"You gotta rob in the Reagan era to get rich," another of Nino’s memorable remarks, would be asserted with more conviction and enthusiasm today by insiders in the George W. Bush administration as well as by overtly criminal entrepreneurs like drug kings and bank robbers. Get rich -- by any means necessary.


My conversation partner believes that 90% of jail inmates have serious addiction problems -- 70% if alcohol and marijuana are not considered. I can only report a little anecdote: when, as newly arrived inmates here, we went for a brief consultation with the doctor, the five young men ahead of me all answered "yes" when the nurse asked whether they use marijuana.

I also asked my fellow inmate/interviewee about police officers who work in drug enforcement: "approximately what percentage are crooked or corrupt?" Between 30 and 40 percent, he replied.

According to a Human Rights Watch report of April 2003, "Incarcerated America," more than two million men and women "are now behind bars in the United States. The country that holds itself out as the ‘land of freedom’ incarcerates a higher percentage of its people than any other country. The human costs – wasted lives, wrecked families, troubled children – are incalculable, as are the adverse social, economic and political consequences of weakened communities, diminished opportunities for economic mobility, and extensive disenfranchisement.

"Contrary to popular perception, violent crime is not responsible for the quadrupling of the incarcerated population in the United States since 1980. In fact, violent crime rates have been relatively constant or declining over the past two decades. The exploding prison population has been propelled by public policy changes that have increased the use of prison sentences as well as the length of time served, e.g. through mandatory minimum sentencing, ‘three strikes’ laws, and reductions in the availability of parole or early release.

"Although these policies were championed as protecting the public from serious and violent offenders, they have instead yielded high rates of confinement of nonviolent offenders. Nearly three quarters of new admissions to state prison were convicted of nonviolent crimes. Only 49 percent of sentenced state inmates are held for violent offenses.

"Perhaps the single greatest force behind the growth of the prison population has been the national ‘war on drugs.’ The number of incarcerated drug offenders has increased twelvefold since 1980. In 2000, 22 percent of those in federal and state prisons were convicted on drug charges.

"Even more troubling than the absolute number of persons in jail or prison is the extent to which those men and women are African-American. Although blacks account for only 12 percent of the U.S. population, 44 percent of all prisoners in the United States are black.

"Census data for 2000, which included a count of the number and race of all individuals incarcerated in the United States, reveals the dramatic racial disproportion of the incarcerated population in each state: the proportion of blacks in prison populations exceeds the proportion among state residents in every single state. In twenty states, the percent of blacks incarcerated is at least five times greater than their share of resident population."2


Footnote 2
For footnotes in this report, and to see the entire document, go to


Structural Violence

Thomas Merton situates violence in its broad, global context: "The population of the affluent world is nourished on a steady diet of brutal mythology and hallucination, kept at a constant pitch of high tension by a life that is intrinsically violent in that it forces a large part of the population to submit to an existence which is humanly intolerable. Hence, murder, mugging, rape, crime, corruption."

For Merton "the crime that breaks out of the ghetto is only the fruit of a greater and more pervasive violence: the injustice which forces people to live in the ghetto in the first place. The problem of violence, then, is not the problem of a few rioters and rebels, but the problem of a whole structure which is outwardly ordered and respectable, and inwardly ridden by psychopathic obsessions and delusions."

Merton recognizes that violence must at times be restrained by force, "but a convenient mythology which simply legalizes the use of force by big criminals against little criminals -- whose small-scale criminality is largely caused by the large-scale injustice under which they live -- only perpetuates the disorder.

"Pope John XXIII in Pacem in Terris quoted, with approval, a famous saying of St. Augustine: `What are kingdoms without justice but large bands of robbers?´" Merton emphasizes that the problem of violence today must be traced to its root: "not the small-time murders but the massively organized bands of murderers whose operations are global."3

Footnote 3
Thomas Merton: Essential Writings, selected with an introduction by Christine M. Bochen (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000), p. 118.


In their social clubs, churches, and country resorts, these global criminals socialize pleasantly among themselves, carefully avoiding any mention of the environmental lawsuit against corporation X, the charges against CEO Y of illegal anti-union tactics, the accusation against international counsel Z of bribing foreign officials. No one would be so rude as to ask an international sales representative whether his or her oil giant or global construction firm or weapons factory is profiting from the war in Iraq and from government contracts awarded without competitive bidding. Thus conversation remains amicable, with no one feeling uneasy.4


Footnote 4
Shortly after my release from jail, I read Inequality and Violence in the United States: Casualties of Capitalism, by Barbara H. Chasin (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1998). Using a class analysis of American society, the author describes two major types of violence: interpersonal and structural. "Interpersonal violence is what many experts and most of us mean when we use the word -- identifiable persons injure others and are usually aware that they have done so. Structural violence, on the other hand, is a consequence of the routine workings of a society, especially of its stratification system. Structural violence occurs when people’s lives are made demonstrably worse by their lack of access to resources. If identifiable groups are suffering physically from conditions that could be changed given the existing state of knowledge, while other groups are not, then there is structural violence" (p. 4). The author provides many telling examples and a clear analysis of "structural violence."


In prison among small-time criminals, the same pattern of socializing holds. Most prisoners get along remarkably well with one another, in conditions of crowdedness, scarcity, and personal tension and insecurity unimagined by our wealthy and prestigious counterparts in their clubs and suburbs. Here, as there, one’s "business" on the outside is not usually an issue. Those who have written bad checks would not generally promise something to the neighbor in the next cell which could not be delivered, just as an Enron executive unloading his stock would probably not sell it to a golf partner.

The CEO selling millions of dollars’ worth of lethal weapons to a repressive dictatorship or to both sides in the same war would not sell an UZI submachine gun to the child of his church choir director; nor would the average gun-runner pass along a razor to an immature and perhaps angry fellow prisoner.

Thus in their private lives and immediate social circles, the white-collar global criminals and the lower-class, smaller-scale criminals can seem like "nice people," except of course to their victims. Here I am part of one of these groups; I would feel no more secure, and no more comfortable socially, in the church gatherings and country clubs of the other group.


Thankfully, not everyone takes the lesson of violence taught by Jerry Springer and Pres. Bush and his corporate cronies to heart. In courts and jails, as well as in other areas of American life, there is some relief from meanness and nastiness. Most guards and marshals seem to be "just doing their job," with no special need to affirm their authority or their self-worth by abusing prisoners either physically or psychologically.

One young guard begins his announcements or orders to us by addressing us as "gentlemen" and speaks in a normal tone. Another had the thoughtfulness and good sense to get a wheelchair in which to transport an inmate who could hardly walk because of his arthritis and gout; by contrast, another guard the next day made the man walk to the infirmary.

Today a notice is posted on the inside of the door of our unit -- a Memo from the Accounts Clerk advising all inmates that next week peanut butter and strawberry cookies will not be available for purchase in commissary but that the following week larger packs of cookies, including vanilla ones, will be available. Thanks, Accounts Clerk, for this thoughtful and considerate gesture. It wasn’t necessary, but this inmate appreciates the courtesy (even though, since I’m fasting, I have no personal interest in the matter!).

True, notified in advance, some inmates may order items which are available, to their own benefit and to that of the commissary. (We hand in the order forms two days before the goods are delivered to us.) And as one seasoned inmate put it: "If they want to avoid a lot of trouble, there are three things they don’t mess with: mail, visits, and commissary."

During our trial the marshals minutely enforced the courtroom rules, ejecting several spectators for minor infractions of the required decorum. One marshal, however, ever vigilant, noticed that some folks were having trouble hearing the proceedings up front, so he invited the hard of hearing to take the front benches.

When I expressed my appreciation and gratitude for his thoughtfulness to our friends, the marshal exclaimed: "Everybody thinks I’m a bad guy, especially for putting a few people out, but I’m just doing my job." I thanked him again.