The Power of Systems and Giving In


Like a lot of people, I devoured “Orange is the New Black” when the fourth season came out over the weekend. As a counselor and psychologist, I am fascinated by the studies that Zimbardo has done on prison environments, and it is very apparent to me that the creators of the show are fans as well. One of the scary things about Zimbardo’s findings is that you can put good people in a situation that is dysfunctional and where they have power over others, and they can do horrible things. OITNB offers case study after case study in this phenomena, and this season ended with a punch to the gut that left me crying for thirty minutes and in a deeply contemplative mood.

I have never worked in a prison or a jail, but I have worked with people on parole and probation who are trying to get their life back together. In my previous job, my clients were overwhelmingly compelled to attend substance use treatment, either by their probation officers or Child Protective Services. I had a lot of power. They tended to be impoverished and had none.

What is the purpose of prison? Of parole? Probation? I’d like to think it’s to rehabilitate people so they can get out of the system, but I’ve seen it too closely to hold onto such ideals. The criminal justice system is set up to deprive people of their humanity, not rehabilitate them. Still, I did my best in a messed up system to attempt to help them break the cycle. And to do it, I had to give them respect, even when it was hard. I had to respect them first, because by nature of being a human being they deserved respect.

I also had to give in. Intakes at substance use clinics are hell. People are in withdrawal, they are at a low point in their life, and they often aren’t very nice when they hear they’ll have to do therapy for 10 hours a week. A lot of the times they would vent to me. While I had limits, I didn’t let people threaten me or cuss me out, I let them have their anger. Usually when they started my group therapy and found that it was not the typical recite the 12 steps BS that compromises most treatment programs, they got with the program. But I knew there was little I could say in the intake that would convince them my program was different. I had to show them how the program was different.

Was I perfect? No. Occasionally someone pressed my buttons and I would ask them to leave and come back when they could be respectful. I remember one time when I was 8 months pregnant, miserable (I lost weight during both my pregnancies because I was so sick), warding off constant Braxton Hicks, had had a caseload of over 20 for three solid months (caseloads should be no larger than 15) and was doing intake and assessments and one woman vented big time about qualifying for services. I honestly can’t remember if she was more offensive than others or if it was the hormones and having such a high caseload for so long and not wanting to add someone as difficult as her to it that caused me to be harsher than I typically was, but I did ask her to leave, and then she put up a fight about leaving. Eventually she left, but she never came back as a client, and the opportunity to help her turn things around was lost.

And for me, that is why I was there. To help people turn things around. While logically I know I can’t help everyone, emotionally I spend a lot of time wondering how I could have approached the situation that would have led to a more productive outcome.

What we see far too often in these situations, and what we saw in OITNB, is a battle over power. The guards wanted it. In their view, the prisons had forfeited their rights by committing a crime. And even looking at a guard wrong was cause for swift punishment. In those situations, you may win the battle, and you may get people to fear you, but they won’t respect you, and they won’t have any reason to change. If you treat people like animals, they will take on that identity and wonder why they should bother with changing, and they will try to take you down.

I looked for people’s humanity. Perhaps I was the biggest dupe, but for the three months they were with me, they were inspired to reach higher.

Which goes back to what do we want our prisons to be? Places where dangerous people are kept from society? Well, then why are they filled with non-violent offenders? Places where people are punished so justice is served? All of the research and my experience have shown that punishment is a horrible tool to effect change, so how can justice be served if nothing good comes from it? If people come out of the system filled with hatred and mentally scarred and more broken than when they came in?

To fix it, we’re going to have to spend money on it, which no one ever wants to do for prisoners. But guards and other people who work with prisoners need to be screened for authoritarian and anti-social traits. They need to be educated about the Stanford Prison experiments. They need to learn to work to the larger goal, which I would hope would be getting someone out of the criminal justice system. And we’re going to have to make sure they are fully staffed, so the problem I ran into with dealing with a ridiculously large caseload for too long don’t happen and we can minimize burn out among people who work in prisons.

And, with the themes of OITNB tying into the Black Lives Matters movement, this transcends the prisons. This includes training police officers in non-violent conflict resolution and to avoid power tripping. Same with parole and probation officers.

The horrible truth of the matter is that it’s too easy for people to dismiss headlines and to think that people who die in police custody did something to deserve it. But when shows like OITNB show how systems can be so dysfunctional that the most harmless prisoner can die a senseless death, well, I hope people start to understand.

It starts with education on the influence that systems have in our lives. It starts with letting go of authoritarian, “my way or the highway” thinking. It starts with being aware of the different privileges we have. It starts with seeing everyone’s humanity and respecting it first. And it starts with realizing that to get people to work with you, sometimes, you just have to let go, let the attitude slide, let people have their peaceful protests, and listen.


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