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.