Putting Out Fires
Deviants against deviants
Like Andy Dufresne in the Shawshank Redemption, I sat quietly in the last cell. As I tried to make sense of the unreality of this new reality all around me, old timers were yelling out to catch some “fish.” An especially troubled man was falling for the game.
“There’s a secret passage way to your cell,” my unseen neighbor yelled. “And we’re going to rush into your cell any minute!”
“No, no, please, don’t,” the troubled man pitifully cried. The others simply laughed. He obviously had a fragile grip on reality, and the others exploited it for their amusement.
As the din grew louder and the man more terrified, his defenses kicked in. His idea of putting up a fight was to set his cell on fire. Certainly this would keep them from rushing up into his cell.
What it actually did was force the brusque guard on duty to rush to his cell door. While berating him for damaging state property, she doused him and the fire with the nearest fire extinguisher, blaming him for everything. And she never once expressed any concern to his fragile wellbeing.
Normalizing deviance from collective wellness
This begs the question: Who here presented the most dysfunctional wellness deficits? The apparent “fire bug” (as such arsonists are labeled in prison)? The others who incited him? The self-absorbed guard on duty? The administration that hires violent prone babysitters to act out on society’s most troubled individuals?
Or the policymakers and politicians who have more to gain politically and sometimes personally from this self-fulfilling prophecy of clinical resignation? Or us, for repeatedly voting in those who believe with us that everyone is individually responsible for all of their behaviors no matter how hostile their socio-environments? Or anyone who presumes biopsychosocial wellness must occur if we would just accept personal responsibility for all the psychological parts?
It’s widely discerned that prison is full of “nut cases” and “crazy” people. Some of them carry keys and go home at night. Sex offenders act out when preying upon more docile inmates, calling them “tree jumpers” and “baby rapers.” In trying to prove themselves worthy of their valued pecking order, they betray their own sexual obsessions.
Just when I thought the psychodynamic construct of “projection” was an increasingly outdated defense mechanism, I found myself amidst a sea of textbook examples. Which did make it easier to know who not to trust, and who to avoid.
Deviating from state violence
As each of us built their “rep”—their managed reputation for getting some respect—mine was basically: you can play your prison games but count me out, thank you. At first, this engendered me few allies. But eventually in this fish bowl others observed an unshakeable spirit in me and gave me their respect. Some even idealized themselves as not being so easily manipulated by this fake environment.
After all, it’s a manmade cage. Those who went along with it I labeled “state side,” as taking sides with the very people who were oppressing us. I was uninterested in their pecking order, because atop a heap of garbage (in my thinking at the time) you are still in a heap of garbage. My aspirations ran much deeper. When you find yourself so low and flat on your back, you may find perspective when looking up.
The words “you shall love me as yourself” spoke to me about our need for psychosocial wellness. The more generous we are to others the more we empower others to be generous in return, or pay it forward. Prison appeared as a repository for where natural psychosocial development was clearly disrupted in these valuable lives. And became visible in their individual acts of violence.
Normalizing state violence
Violence is internal weakness externalized. The criminal justice system is based upon the reification of interpersonal violence, vainly trying to erase our collective violence. The more we rely upon law enforcement to impose this cultural value of individual responsibility, the easier it is to not see our collective violence against the most vulnerable in society.
There are few if any accountabilities for our psychosocial development. In our highly individualized society, we presume everyone has needed access to basic resources for a good life. And this should be enough to pull themselves up by their bootstraps to reach their full potential.
Meanwhile, we question little this ethos of interpersonal competition that tends to compromise our social needs. We struggle and gain our individual prizes, while alienating others in the process. And punish those who alienated us the most.
Then it dawned on me what the criminal justice system is truly for. It is for putting out our psychosocial fires. While we resign to our lack of effective fire prevention.