Context Matters

Tell me who you walk with, and I’ll tell you who you are. Esmeralda Santiago

Shane Bauer, senior reporter at Mother Jones, worked undercover as a correctional officer for four months in 2014-2015 at Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, Louisiana. The Corrections Corporation of America runs the prison.

Read his story here.

Bauer wrote:

Studies have shown that personalities can change dramatically when people find themselves in prison environments. In 1971, psychologist Philip Zimbardo conducted the now-famous Stanford Prison Experiment, in which he randomly assigned college students to the roles of prisoners and guards in a makeshift basement “prison.” The experiment was intended to study how people respond to authority, but it quickly became clear that some of the most profound changes were happening to the guards. Some became sadistic, forcing the prisoners to sleep on concrete, sing and dance, defecate into buckets, and strip naked. The situation became so extreme that the two-week study was cut short after just six days. When it was over, many “guards” were ashamed at what they had done and some “prisoners” were traumatized for years. “We all want to believe in our inner power, our sense of personal agency, to resist external situational forces of the kinds operating in this Stanford Prison Experiment,” Zimbardo reflected. “For many, that belief of personal power to resist powerful situational and systemic forces is little more than a reassuring illusion of invulnerability.”

UPDATE: The Justice Department announced on August 18, 2016 that they would discontinue using privately owned prisons.

The Dalai Lama wrote: “We are all capable of cruelty and hatred.”

Later in the article, Bauer wrote of his own behavior changes while a guard:

Like I do every night when I get off work, I take a breath and try to remember who I am. Miss Carter is right. It is getting in my blood. The boundary between pleasure and anger is blurring. To shout makes me feel alive. I take pleasure in saying “no” to prisoners. I like to hear them complain about my write-ups. I like to ignore them when they ask me to cut them a break. When they hang their clothes to dry in the TV room, an unauthorized area, I confiscate the laundry and get a thrill when they shout from down the tier as I take it away. During the lockdown, when Ash threatened to riot, I hoped the SORT team would come in and gas the whole unit. Everyone would be coughing and gasping, including me, and it would be good because it would be action. All that matters anymore is action.

Until I leave. When I drive home, I wonder who I am becoming. I feel ashamed of my lack of self-control, my growing thirst for punishment and vengeance. I’m getting afraid of the expanding distance between the person I am at home and the one behind the wire. My glass of wine with dinner regularly becomes three. I hear the sounds of Ash unit as I fall asleep. I dream of monsters and men behind bars.”

Dysfunctional families and workplaces can have similar anti-human impacts on us. Occasionally I observe a person who can stand true to themselves against the forces of compliance to negative norms. They are courageous people who, as my friend Eleanor Velarde wrote me “…develop a secure relationship with the best within ourselves.” How does the world we choose to live and work in affect us?

The Dalai Lama wrote in Ethics for a New Millennium: “…when we mix with those who clearly indulge in negative behavior, seeking only their own benefit and ignoring others, we risk losing our own sense of direction.” He wrote of such behavior in all areas of life, not just in the most negative of places, like a prison.

A Tibetan proverb says when we lie on a mountain of gold, some of it rubs off on us; the same happens if we lie on a mountain of dirt.

The context we choose to live in will do much to decide who we become.

Choose wisely.

6 thoughts on “Context Matters

  1. I imagine what you have written here (and what Mr. Bauer wrote about his experience) has some connection to the upcoming political scene as well.
    I’m also thinking that we don’t have to succumb to the worst that is around us, if we can develop a secure relationship with the best within ourselves.
    In my experience, a lot of the choices I make are not necessarily from my full consciousness until I can stop, take a good breath, and assess the circumstances before I speak/act. So even if I haven’t been able to choose my surroundings or my companions in that moment, I can still be responsible for my behaviour. That is what I want to believe, and it has been my experience more often than not (but I can also find myself in the (k)not!!!
    In loving spirit, Eleanor


    • Thanks for the insightful comment Eleanor.

      I agree with your thoughts. I believe that the more conscious we become and the more mature we grow and the more we develop “a secure relationship with the best within us” the more we can stand alone and authentic against the pressures to conform to the worst around us. Frankly, I think many are not able to resist the pressures to conform to negative influences because perhaps they lack that “secure relationship with the best within us.”

      As you know, Frankl taught that we can choose how we react within ourselves to even the worst of conditions around us. I believe his message. I decided to not write about this capability in the blog piece to keep it as short as possible. Perhaps I will edit it and add something to it.

      Yes, I think this applies to the political scene as well.



  2. I read this story in Mother Jones a while back.  I knew that these private for profit prisons were bad, and the CC one of the worst, but I was blown away.  There are just some things that should not have a profit placed on them, and our prison system is one as is our health system where sick people are considered profit.  We are living in a very sick society right now where money is more important than human life.  The Republican pro life stance is a joke as far as I’m concerned,, nothing more than a political tool to get votes.I just finished watching a two part series on the History channel about The Third Reich and there were parts of Hitler’s rise and the way the German people reacted and accepted him that reminds me of what’s happening here, especially now with Trump.  Everyone should watch that and then look themselves in the mirror.  Gave me the chills. Judy

    From: Toms Thoughts To: Sent: Friday, August 5, 2016 8:04 AM Subject: [New post] Context Matters #yiv2673319974 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv2673319974 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv2673319974 a.yiv2673319974primaryactionlink:link, #yiv2673319974 a.yiv2673319974primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv2673319974 a.yiv2673319974primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv2673319974 a.yiv2673319974primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv2673319974 | Tom Heuerman posted: “Tell me who you walk with, and I’ll tell you who you are. Esmeralda SantiagoShane Bauer, senior reporter at Mother Jones, worked undercover as a correctional officer for four months in 2014-2015 at Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, Louisiana. The C” | | Respond to this post by replying above this line |

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    | New post on Tom’s Thoughts | |

    | | | | Context Matters by Tom Heuerman |

    Tell me who you walk with, and I’ll tell you who you are. Esmeralda Santiago Shane Bauer, senior reporter


  3. The most distressing thing to me is that we have about 35% of the population who are mini-Trumps. This needs to be addressed to stem the tide of such bigotry and hatred. The Republican Party is leaderless; Trump is the hollow-man of all time. There is nothing inside him but an out of control and destructive ego: no love, no values, no caring, no compassion and no coherent thoughts. If you didn’t see David Brooks column last Friday in the NY Times, go and read it. Same day, same paper also read Mike Morrell’s (ex CIA Director) commentary and endorsement of Clinton and scathing rebuke of Trump as commander-in-chief..


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