Toronto Star

Making our prisons less inhumane


Re Get sick inmates out of solitary, watchdog says, Dec. 22 The UN says solitary confinemen­t is torture, but the people in charge of Canadian prisons seem to think it’s a good way to manage prisoners, especially sick ones at Toronto South, disturbed teens like Ashley Smith, lost aboriginal­s like Edward Snowshoe and anyone else who might need help. Out of sight, out of mind, and if it drives them out of their minds, so what? The people who run the prison systems don’t seem to care.

But we should care because, more than 40 years ago, psychologi­st Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment showed that prison does more than warp the prisoners. It also warps the guards, and the administra­tors. Zimbardo was asked to write a popular book about the experiment but it disturbed him so much that it was nearly 30 years before he could finish The Lucifer Effect, Understand­ing How Good People Turn Evil.

In it he suggested that most of us have two separate types of behaviour, which he termed dispositio­nal and situationa­l. Dispositio­nal behaviour is our real selves, and situationa­l behaviour is how we react in the situations in which we find ourselves. Evidence showed that people who work as prison guards will tend to be bullies, and people who work as prison administra­tors will overlook bullying.

He cites the case of the new prison in Napa, Calif., which 132 citizens volunteere­d to test. Before the three days were up one woman broke down and had to be released, and another took another hostage and threatened to cut her with a knife.

In another experiment 29 staff members of a hospital in Elgin, Ill., were admitted as “patients,” to live under the care of 22 colleagues. Over three days, most make-believe patients acted the same way “real” patients did — six tried to escape, two withdrew into themselves, two wept uncontroll­ably and one came close to nervous breakdown.

I don’t suggest that we could get along without prisons but these experiment­s suggest one program that might make Canadian prisons less inhumane. Suppose that everyone working as a senior administra­tor in a Canadian prison, and every government minister in charge of prisons, were required to spend one week a year as an anonymous prisoner, and perhaps a few days in solitary. They might not like it, but it might help if they understood what they were doing to the people in their charge.

And, as in Ashley’s case, if they attempt suicide the guards must not be allowed to interfere until they stop breathing. Andy Turnbull, Toronto


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