“There are things which must cause you to lose your reason or you have none to lose.” Gothhold Lessing
As Viktor Frankl discussed in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, psychologists have long recognized that “an abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.” In the philosophy of law class offered by the Georgetown Prison Scholars program, we were given a case from the 1800s in which three men were stranded at sea for weeks without any food, on the brink of dying from starvation. Long story short, under threat of what they believed was sure death, two of the men attacked their weaker shipmate and ate him. They were eventually rescued and charged with murder. At trial, the defendants argued that under the law governing self-defense, they had a legal right to protect themselves and thus were not guilty.
The verdict at the time? They were found guilty and sentenced to six years. However, they only served six months before the king commuted their sentences to time served. As a class assignment, we were tasked with arguing the law and the facts of this case to support our opinion on whether this was indeed legitimate self-defense, thus absolving the defendants. My position was that while the defendants were guilty under the letter of the law, they should have been found not guilty. An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior. We should not judge people until we have “walked in their shoes.”
One of the characteristics that sets humans apart from other mammals is our need to look toward the future to define our lives. This helps us survive traumatic moments and navigate transitions. But what happens when the foreseeable future is only more of the same? What happens when the days, months, years that stretch ahead are only more time in prison, with each day numbingly the same? From where does the motivation come to behave the way society expects?
Now consider: What if you’re also forced to defecate in a cramped cell with another man sharing the same room? What if you’re asked to strip naked and spread your buttocks at any time an officer feels like “checking for contraband”? What happens when you are in perpetual high alert due to constant noise, humiliation by COs or the risk of being stabbed by a fellow inmate?
There’s a gang culture in federal institutions. When I was in Florida, guys from two geographical areas got into an altercation in the yard. It was guys from Florida against guys from D.C. Another guy from D.C. looked out the window and saw the two groups fighting, then went back in and stabbed his cellie, almost killing him. He knew that’s where the altercation was heading, and if he didn’t act first, he’d be next.
The average person on the outside would say, “Why don’t you just stay out of the way? Why get involved?” In our environment, doing the normal thing will get you killed. If everyone else in your group gets sent to the “hole” and you’re left behind, you’ll be outnumbered and the people from the other geographic area will come for you. Or your own homies will get you because you didn’t hold the line.
Life becomes debased to an animal’s instinct for survival. Over time, the abnormal becomes the norm. I get why parole boards look at your behavior in prison to make their decision about release, but they also need to understand that people live differently in the woods than in a mansion.
To stay human when you’re locked up for a long time, you need to find something to live for, to look forward to. My sentence is 30 years to life. What keeps me going? I want to show my mom she wasn’t a failure and be a true father to my son. I made up my mind that life in prison won’t be my legacy. It’s what compelled me to read, take courses, start writing a book, publish this blog.
But honestly, people who can resist being sucked into prison culture are unicorns — that is, unless they have a future to motivate them, like earned release. As Marc Howard writes in his book Unusually Cruel, sentences of more than 20 years are uniquely American. And unlike common perception, early release for good behavior is increasingly rare. In fact, 16 states have abolished or severely curtailed discretionary parole altogether. Although research shows that people convicted of violent crimes are the least likely to reoffend, eligible lifers are almost never paroled at their first hearing, if they are paroled at all. Adam Liptak, Supreme Court correspondent for The New York Times, wrote, “In just the last 30 years, the United States has created something never before seen in history and unheard of around the globe: a booming population of prisoners whose only way out of prison is likely to be inside a coffin.”
Another motivator is conjugal visits. One national study by Yale law students found that conjugal visits not only decreased sexual violence between prisoners, but also acted as “a powerful incentive” for good behavior. Yet their existence is dwindling. According to the Marshall Project, 17 states allowed conjugal visits 20 years ago, but that number has shrunk to four.
What, then, to look forward to? Some men, in the “abnormal as normal” vein, smuggle in and sell drugs so they can send the money to their families and at least somewhat serve as husband and father. (Would that ever occur to a parole board?) Others grow increasingly angry, pessimistic and erratic over time. They chase death.
As American historian Howard Zinn once wrote, “It must surely be a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit that even a small number of those men and women in the hell of the prison system survive it and hold on to their humanity.”