Toren, Kevin, and Joe continue discussing Prisons with Riker’s Island, Diyarbakir Prison, Gitarama Central Prison, Camp 22, The Shining Path, For-Profit Prisons and the Kids for Cash Scandal, plus news and pop culture!
Music: “Lonesome Jailhouse Blues” by the Delmore Brothers
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Hey guys, I want to say that you guys did another great episode.
But may I suggest that you guys do an episode specifically about diabetes? As a Type 1 Diabetic myself, I resent the comment that diabetics (both T1 & T2) bring it upon themselves (36:20). That sort of thinking is ableist; it’s a genetic condition that everyone is susceptible to, and no person wants to deliberately contract a disease. Diabetes is something that is gravely misunderstood, which is terrifying to think how many diabetic inmates don’t get the proper care, or they straight-up die because their treatment was withheld. I’ve heard a story, too, where a diabetic was experiencing a hyperglycemic episode while driving, and the police pulled him over assuming he was drunk, and then started beating the shit out of him before they realized there was insulin in his pocket.
I’m not here to pick fights or start a debate, but it is upsetting how many people don’t truly understand how horrific diabetes is to live with, and I wish more people did.
Something I’d like your views on: in this episode and many others you’ve highlighted the fact that many people do horrible, horrible things to their fellow human beings – prison guards here; the Nazi camp guards; various wartime atrocities … In this episode, you talk about guards being ‘bored’ and this is implied as a motive. My main thought is: WTF? What leads a person to have so little human empathy that they actively participate in such unpleasant stuff?
I think it was something that could have had a little more airtime too. One of the main lines of findings from research such as Zimbardo’s (electric shock tests and responses to authority) was that people will end up doing all sorts of horrible things (with variations, of course) sometimes for really simple reasons, such as because an authority figure tells you (the electric shock experiments) or sheer boredom (Stanford Prison experiments). There’s a great deal of variation, of course, but the point is that humans are remarkably capable of great evil and great altruism, so when people say “I can’t imagine myself doing that” it’s a perfectly honest thing to say, but it’s amazing how easily it might be possible for that person to do such things given the right environment and external pressures.
For the reason above I thought it was a pity that Abu Graib and Guantanamo Bay weren’t mentioned. I don’t know the reasoning for that, as they seem topical, especially Abu Graib, but I’m sure they must have been considered (failing that, there’s material for a follow-ups episode, guys!). In Abu Graib in particular, Zimbardo actually came out to provide a defence (not sure if was just in addressing the public or as part of the trial) for Lindy wotshername and the other perpetrators, saying that the environment had a huge influence on the guards actions – they were left unsupervised, they were untrained, they were given very vague instructions like “We need to get info out of these guys, and we’re not watching” (not a direct quote), and they were bored out of their minds. They still did terrible things, so they certainly had to answer for their crimes, but there was (arguably) culpability in the ranks above too, potentially quite high up the ladder. I don’t know if anyone higher up the ladder ever faced any discipline.
It basically boils down to two things: sadism and justification.
Sadism is the simple one- getting pleasure from the suffering of someone else. Let’s be clear here: empathy (the ability to understand others’ emotions) is not the same as sympathy (the ability to relate to the emotions of others.) A sadist is empathic, but not sympathetic. As to the why… well, it might be better to ask why most people _don’t_; after all, your pain doesn’t hurt me. Your hunger doesn’t starve me. Your injuries don’t kill me. It’s more surprising that we do treat other people’s suffering as cognates for our own than the reverse. That said, sadism is virtually always learned (a fact that Torren, Joe, and Keven discussed in one of the Evil Dudes episodes, though I don’t recall which offhand), which plays into #2.
Rationalization is the other half of things- “they deserved it.” Almost everyone has at least a touch of sadism in them- that’s why we take joy in people we don’t like getting their comeuppance, or in schadenfreude, or other such normal human reactions. However, it’s also quite possible to take the part of the mind that allows us to do this and aim it at other targets- especially those that have been dehumanized, degraded, or otherwise lessened in our views. In the context of a prison, this position is exceptionally easy to take- “They wouldn’t be here if they weren’t bad people and they’re here to be punished, so I am justified in inflicting my own punishments on them.” As the dehumanization intensifies, ever more minor offenses become “worthy” of ever more devastating reprisals.
Oh, if you’re interested in some good reading on the subject of violence, how the human mind justifies (or opposes) violence, and the mental mechanisms lying behind it and the shifts in how we view violence in the modern era, I would HIGHLY recommend Stephen Pinker’s book “Better Angels of Our Nature.” He’s a neuroscientist, but does a fantastic job at presenting the findings of his discipline in a way that laypersons can understand and he’s an excellent writer to boot.
How come you didn’t mention Orange is the New Black, though? I thought it might make for some interesting discussion about whether or not it actually represents a realistic picture of prison life, as most people assume it does. Cool episode, though, as always!
These episodes were remarkably timely for me, as after the first one I happened to be spending a week in Hobart, Tasmania, and managed to visit the historic site of Port Arthur, famous not only for the last mass shooting in Australia but for the prison that it ran from the early 1800s onwards. Initially it was just a labour prison designed to supply England’s Empire with new sources of timber, but after a while it became where the worst prisoners were sent and ended up housing a number as “criminally insane”. It was a pretty amazing place to visit, especially the “Asylum” and the cells in which the inmates were kept. There was a real push in the 1800s to essentially squeeze the badness out of people through severe punishment and reading the Bible. The cells might have been 2m by 3m and just pure stone. Amazingly enough only one inmate ever committed suicide, which was by using a rope and a hammock hook fixed in his wall 3 feet up from the ground (!). My friend and I also looked in the “punishment cell”, which was worse than the main cells, in that it was entirely closed off from light. To get to it you had to go through a small tunnel, and then we closed the door (specially designed to not be lockable) and all light disappeared entirely – it was so freaky! What was worse was to think that when people were put in there, it was for a week at a time. Furthermore, when people were sent to prisons like this, it was often directly from England (being sentenced to “transportation” it was called) for periods of 7, 14, or 21 years at a time or simply for life. One poor guy was sentenced to 14 years for stealing a handkerchief. In any case, it ran as an amazingly horrible prison (and asylum) for some decades in the middle of the 1800s but eventually its reputation was so bad that they actually considered razing it to the ground, but eventually decided to rename it (Carnarvon, I think) and turn it into a fishing village. Now it’s a historical site to remind us about what we used to do.
As an aside, I hadn’t realised it at the time, but the large cafe that’s part of the entrance is where Martin Bryant dispatched the largest number of people when he went on his spree.
Anyway, if you’re in Hobart anytime, see if you can get to Port Arthur (about an hour’s drive away) and wander round it for a while (also, as an Art callback – visit MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art – a must for any Sodajerks!).
Louis Theroux did some great specials about life on the inside of jails and prisons.