An Obscured World of Punishment

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Craig Haney speaks about his time on the research team for the Stanford prison experiment and how it generated his interest in studying the psychological effects of incarceration. Photo by Alexandra Moskow.
Craig Haney speaks about his time on the research team for the Stanford prison experiment and how it generated his interest in studying the psychological effects of incarceration. Photo by Alexandra Moskow.

Why do we know so little about mass incarceration? What psychological damage is developed in prison as a result of living in confinement? How can we respond to crime in an appropriate, humane way?

These were questions asked and discussed by UC Santa Cruz psychology professor Craig Haney during his lecture, “PrisonWorld: How Mass Incarceration Transformed U.S. Prisons, Impacted Prisoners and Changed American Society” at the 49th annual Faculty Research Lecture on April 7. The lecture brought together about 370 students, staff, faculty and community members.

“In 1971, a time in the U.S. political environment where there was a tremendous amount of hopefulness, change and reform in the air, there was a sense we were making the country a more fair and just place,” Haney said. “But by the mid-1970s and by the late ‘70s, all that began to change. There was a ‘tough on crime’ movement that had overtaken the nation at that point. What had been a moratorium on prisons in the U.S. became a massive prison construction.”

Haney studied the psychological effects of mass incarceration on prisons, prisoners and society. His research and involvement in the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment with Philip Zimbardo and Curtis Banks as a graduate student drove him to pursue his research on U.S. prisons.

While the lecture series is organized by the Committee on Faculty Research Lecture (CFRL) within the UCSC Academic Senate, campus department chairs and deans help choose the lecturer by submitting nominations.

“[CFRL’s goal is to] select a luminary in any research, considering factors such as diversity in his or her credentials,” said J.J. Garcia-Luna-Aceves, CFRL chair and computer engineering department chair. “We strive to have topics audience members can relate to because they see the importance of it in their daily lives or in society at large.”

Drawing from past documentations and firsthand experiences, Haney presented incarceration rates and statistics relating to numbers of prisoners and the disparity of white, Latino and black male prisoners in the system.

Over the last 40 years, Haney witnessed the quadruple increase in incarceration rates. From 1975 until now, imprisonment per 100,000 people increased from 100 to about 480 in the nation.

The “tough on crime” movement and “explosion in the number of prisoners” resulted in a decrease of resources available to inmates. Doctors were hard to come by, medicine wasn’t as readily available, space became limited as prisons began to transition from single cells to triple bunk dormitories and prisons abandoned the commitment of rehabilitation, Haney said.

Due to a lack of funding and critics doubting its effectiveness, among other factors, rehabilitation was abandoned.

“The commitment of rehabilitation is the idea that we should at least try to make the prison experience one in which people were given an opportunity to come out better than they went in and maximize or optimize their chances of reintegrating back into society,” Haney said.

Punishment became an easier alternative and Haney said prison systems have come to depend on it.

Much of Haney’s research focuses on the adverse effects of prisonization, which made him a strong advocate of rehabilitation. Prisonization is the assimilation process of adapting to the lifestyle and culture of prisons.

Through his studies and interviews with prisoners, he witnessed people deteriorate mentally and emotionally in prison, creating social barriers in their ability to communicate in society.

To survive prison, inmates have to quickly adapt to a pressured and dangerous environment. When you live in an environment where you hear nothing but bad things about yourself every day, you develop a “diminished sense of self-worth and have a profoundly disabling experience,” Haney said.

Haney argues prisonization hinders inmates from assimilating back into society.

He looks at understanding what happens to adversely affected inmates after prison, when they “return to the world they very much want to live in, but find it too difficult to adjust to.”

During his lecture, Haney presented several images depicting what the inside of a prison looks like, in both the general population and solitary confinement. Many showed barbed wires, fences, prisoners in small “man cages” and damaged cells.

In recent years, Haney tried to reach out to the public to provide insight on the reality of what one experiences inside prisons, but many people avoid the topic and tolerate the idea of imprisonment.

“Change really only takes place if large numbers of people understand the problem,” Haney said.

As a former public services librarian, Cat Steele was in charge of a jail library program that provided books to people who were incarcerated. She is a longtime social justice advocate and currently works to challenge the prison industrial complex.

“There are way too many people in prison who ought to be in other places or doing other things,” Steele said. “If we put as much money into the education system as we did into prisons, we could change things, but I don’t think it’s simple.”

In his lecture, Haney discussed the difficulty in the last 40 years in bridging the gap between criminal psychologists and politicians. Only recently have politicians realized that current punishment tactics are not economically efficient nor beneficial to society.

Over the last 14 years, Haney has been invited to the White House and called to testify in front of the U.S. Senate. He isn’t used to collaborating with politicians and he is still skeptical of what the future of the prison system is, but this is the first time he has seen a “beginning of a turning point.”

“There’s now a dialogue and discussion that hasn’t happened for 40 years because I’ve been trying to have it for 40 years,” Haney said. “Now it appears to be taking place all across the political spectrum. There’s frank recognition that [current prison tactics] have not worked, that this nation is better than this and that we have to approach these problems in a fair and just way.”