I recently remembered a conversation that I had with someone a few years ago regarding the psychological tactics prison staff use to make their own lives more bearable.
The first of these tactics is humour. I recall one particular officer who used to tell some of the sickest jokes you may ever have heard. Jokes that really made even the prisoners treat him cautiously. One day we challenged him about one of these. Not aggressively. We just said, “Come on, that’s a bit much.” And he instantly got serious. He dropped all humour out of his voice and said, “All right. Take a look around.” He gestured out across the wing. “Look at some of the people I have to work with,” he said. “If I didn’t make jokes about some of the things they did, how would I be able to face working with them every day?”
And that isn’t a trait exclusive to prison officers either. I know a nurse who’s told me that hospitals are much the same. The trauma of what you have to deal with can only be dealt with by humour. If you can’t laugh about it, you start to crack up.
But that’s just the start. Once you start laughing at the type of things some of the most notorious criminals in the country have done, they begin to think that you’re on the same page as them, or you think they’re a joke. To prevent anyone biting back or getting above their station, the prison officers use the second major tactic in their arsenal: infantilisation. By treating prisoners as infants, not entering into negotiations no matter how reasonable they are, telling them to do things rather than asking, even when this would be more polite and get a better reaction, and forcing them to come to you for whatever they need, whether it’s food, exercise, cleaning materials, or anything else. You begin to enter into a parent/child relationship. Because the child feels like you are the source of their pleasure or their pain (and ultimately the means of their survival) they treat you with more respect and are less likely to try and overthrow you. They are dependent. You are the provider.
But even that is not the end. Once prison officers enter into a parent/child type relationship with prisoners there is a danger that they will start to feel compassion for them. With compassion comes emotional attachment and with emotional attachment comes identification. The risk is that boundaries will be broken down and prison staff will either become conditioned by the prisoners to treat them better, or they will begin to feel empathy for the prisoners and find it difficult to not become emotionally distraught at the thought of the prisoners plight. The solution to this one is dehumanisation. By treating prisoners as something less than human, perhaps even as demons, no amount of dependence will make you feel sorry for them or allow you to get too close.
So, in three easy steps, you are able to transform a fully grown adult human, with all their intrinsic complexities, to something that is neither human nor capable of self sufficiency, and which should be laughed at at all times. Suddenly, you’re surrounded by funny little demon babies. Things that you are entertained rather than traumatised by. Things that know you are the means of their survival so offer you respect. And things that are simply too ugly inside for you to feel sorry for.