The California Prison System: A Design for Disaster

The California Prison system is a disaster. This is by design, albeit probably unintentional. However, the combination of factors that were the driving force behind the unprecedented expansion of the prison industry left no other possible result. The prime responsible factor being the punitive mind set in California. The politicians, riding the wave of "get tough on crime" to be reelected, passed laws with very long criminal sentences. With little to no incentives for inmates to better themselves and eventually become productive citizens. They passed laws that had no incentive for rehabilitation as well as no provisions for prison rehabilitation. The public, the politicians, the prison authorities, all talk punishment, punishment, punishment.

Because of this omnipresent punitive mind set, correctional system employees tend to carry this pervasive public prescription for punishment to the extreme.  A few abuses and atrocities occassionally become putlic, but the public still demanding punishment after being caught up in the political rhetoric apathetically says, "So be it!" From this attitude, correctional employees begin to believe themselves the designated instrument of this punishment.

To further enhance the problem, there is a tendency for persons who were victimized as children, e.g., the nerd, the fat kid, the weak kid, the generally unpopular types who were picked on or bullied, to gravitate towards law enforcement or corrections careers. This comes from a deep seated psychological, possibly unconscious, desire to be the one in control, to even have revenge against the type of person they perceive to have controlled them as youngsters. A life long psychological need to have power over others. For this reason, there needs to be far better psychological screening of both police and correctional job candidates, and far more training in human relations.

These psychologically unfit correctional employees tend to become sadistic and cruel. However, the problem does not stop with this group. Otherwise normal psychologically stable correctional employees also become caught-up in the corruptive influence one derives from power and the frenzy of the punitive mind set which enables this power corruption. Particularly when this attitude is supported in the ranks of supervision and/or administration. And since prison and jail supervision and administration personnel almost exclusively promote from within, the corruption is throughout the system.

Meaningful reforms will require the taxpayer who pay for this failed system to demand the government set very rigid standards and goals. The public must demand the government, all three branches--executive, legislative, and judicial--stop deferring to the so called "expertise" of correctional officials, officers, and their unions. Not only do these correctional employees and officials have financial and job security incentives to preserve the status quo, but they themselves have the inherent human tendency to become corrupted by the power granted to them through the present unfettered prison industry. That otherwise normal people could thus be corrupted through such unfettered power was shown by a Stanford University experiment conducted more than thirty years ago. Yet the public and their elected politicians of today have ignored history's lessons.

Stanford University psychologist Philip G. Zimbardo conducted a classic study of the problem in what was called "The Stanford Prison Experiment." Whereas Zimbardo subjected normal, decent, intelligent college men to a simulated prison situation. Through a flip of a coin, half of this volunteer group became guards, and were issued uniforms, billy clubs, whistles, mirrored sunglasses so the prisoners could not make eye contact, and a list of rules to enforce. The other half became prisoners who were forced to wear humiliating clothing, and were locked in barren cells.

On the second day of this role playing experiment, the "guards," the "prisoners," and the control experimenters became corrupted. The "guards" implemented degrading and cruel routines. The "prisoners" broke down, rebelled, or became apathetic, and forced the experimenters into working overtime to maintain "prison" security.

Sound familiar? It should! There are extensive parallels to the present California prison system, which with its sole focus on punishment, has attracted a great deal of recent public attention--with essentially the very same problems. In the past, prior to the states budget problems, the public has read in the press about alleged abuses and unjustified shootings of prisoners, but were apathetic or didn't believe the reports. They should have. The taxpayers could have saved themselves billions of dollars had they demanded realistic and effective oversight. 

In November of 2003, a Report was issued by an official state watchdog group, The Little Hoover Commission, who excoriated California's corrections system and its single minded focus on punishment, calling it a $5.2-billion-a-year failure. The State's budget woes caused further public attention and reviews of the failed system. It appears that California's huge prison system has become a giant version of Zimbardo's also failed experiment--but in real life.

Zimbardo reported that in his prison experiment, the role players developed a growing confusion between reality, illusion, and self-identity. "This prison which we had created. . .was absorbing us as creatures of its own identity." The experiment essentially went out of control and was halted well before its planned two week duration.

"At the end of only six days we had to close down our mock prison because what we saw was frightening. It was no longer apparent to us or most of the subjects where they ended and their roles began. The majority had indeed become 'prisoners' or 'guards' no longer able to clearly differentiate between role-playing and self. There were dramatic changes in virtually every aspect of their behavior, thinking and feeling; human values were suspended, self concepts were challenged, and the ugliest, most base, pathological side of human nature surfaced. We were horrified because we saw some [men] ("guards") treat other men as if they were despicable animals, taking pleasure in cruelty, while other [men] ("prisoners") became servile, dehumanized robots who thought only of escape, of their own individual survival, and their mounting hatred of the guards." (See FN 1)

The Stanford Prison Experiment utilized men who were normal people and considered to be similar to intelligent citizens, lawmakers, law enforcers, and prison staff members.

"When such people were randomly selected as prisoners or guards, the power of the situation overwhelmed their root socialization, values, and personality traits. And that's the message--the corrupting power of the prison situation--that we've taken to prison officials, judges, lawyers, and committees of the U.S. Senate and House. That 'good people' could be so vulnerable to the 'evil forces' in a simulated prison environment challenges us to reevaluate assumptions about causes of social and personal pathology." (See FN. 2)

There were many lessons learned in the Stanford Prison Experiment; its study became standard material in college psychology classes. Even the military became interested in the context of enemy brainwashing of Viet Nam POWs. The following decade produced sweeping prison reforms, but, now, thirty years later, history and these lessons have been mostly forgotten. The "get tough on crime" groups have slowly undone the positive reforms, e.g., passed laws which leave no incentives for good behavior and self-betterment, no hope for the future, and the demise of the "Prisoners' Bill of Rights" (California Penal Code §§2600, 2601), which were gutted by the Legislature around 1997. Slowly, educational and vocational classes were discontinued as the prison system shifted further into punishment, higher security, with the ultimate goal of simply warehousing inmates to punish them.

Although the opponents of the Prisoners' Bill of Rights referred to these rights as "coddling" prisoners, these rights, such as the right to media access, to visiting, to correspond, to read books, newspapers and magazines, to possess personal property, and others, were a necessary component of the checks-and-balances which are essential to prevent a real life prison system from becoming the nightmare reported by Zimbardo after his mock prison experiment.

Because of the punitive mind set, the lack of incentive, inadequate oversight, lack of adequate staff training and supervision, and lack of checks and balances, the California prison system became exactly what the experimental findings exposed by The Stanford Experiment predicted. "The corrupting power of the prison situation"--came to be in the real life experience in California--its prison system. The power given prison officials who have been granted a free reign with little to no meaningful oversight, coupled with a bottomless pocket budget, and an essentially closed system where all promotions occur from within, where guards become administrators who then continue to protect guards and their pseudo empires from criticism, resulted in the "corrupting power" reported by Zimbardo. This time however in a real life $5.2- billion-a-year prison system failure affecting hundreds of thousands of people.

Zimbardo reported the power corruption caused the "guards" to "treat the other men as if they were despicable animals." The Little Hoover Commission reported that 95% of the California prison inmates are eventually released. Thus, if a system treats its inmates like animals over a long period of time, and penal sentences in California are very long, these oppressed inmates eventually become that animal as Zimbardo's experiment showed. When these inmates, who thus have been reduced to having only animal instincts are eventually released, they are ill equipped to reenter society as a functioning productive citizen. They have, instead, been made worse than they were prior to their prison experience.

Inmates being paroled in California have no chance. They are kicked out the door with $200 in their pocket, most of which is spent in purchasing the clothes they are wearing from the prison system clothing purveyor, and in purchasing transportation to their county of parole designation ("home"). Then, they are on parole, homeless, with no job skills or prospects, under draconian parole rules and conditions, and most likely angry. They have little if any realistic chance at success as shown by the 67% recidivism rate, which is nearly double the 35% national average. Many critics claim that the power corruption, supported by the all powerful guards union, is the root cause of implementing the draconian conditions that promote recidivism. That this is being done self-servingly to protect their jobs and their power base in the prison industry. It appears that the 33% that succeed on parole are those who have strong family ties and support.

In a desperate attempt to hold on to their beleaguered dynasty, the prisoncrats, and special interest groups, are attempting to limit reforms to "non-violent" inmates. This is mere ephemeral sophistry because 95% of all prisoners are eventually released--not just "non-violent" types. Changes must be for all inmates. Rehabilitation must not be limited only to a group proffered as politically acceptable. This is misguided in a cost and effect analysis.

There is a false public perception of whom is or is not dangerous. For example, the most publicly hated, politically attacked, and perceived dangerous group--are statistically the least dangerous according to a report released in November, 2003, by the United States Department of Justice, (See FN. 3), where released sex offenders had only a 5.3% recidivism rate for new sex offenses. This is a fraction of the recidivism rates for other offenses. Public perception becomes skewed by media sensationalism of a small number of individuals, and this misperception is then applied to the much larger, but factually low overall recidivism group. Therefore, perceived dangerousness and actual dangerousness to the public are not necessarily the same thing. Thus, the perceived dangerousness used for political gain or based on media sensationalism should not be allowed to blindly determine one group is redeemable and another is not.

A far more accurate determination can be achieved through an individual review of a particular prisoner's disciplinary and program participation records. However, present reform proposals are group oriented, concentrating on early release incentives, rehabilitation incentives, and parole diversion programs for non-violent drug offenders only. What the prisoncrats are not revealing is the majority of these non-violent drug offenders are gang associates or members who have a high violence potential even though their criminal offense is a non-violent drug offense. No one can say with any certainty this so-called non-violent class of offenders will, in fact, be any less dangerous to the public than any other class of offenders--violent, serious, or otherwise. No one has ever been able to accurately predict future human behavior, particularly when based on class generalities. Therefore, rehabilitation programs and incentives must be open and available to all classes of inmates, because 95% of them will be released eventually.

The politicians are proposing to cut guard training and thus requirements to save money. This would be a mistake which will cost more money in the long term. The education, training, and psychological screening for prison guards needs tougher requirements lest the human degradation reported by Zimbardo in The Stanford Prison Experiment becomes more pervasive in the real prison system.

Just as in the Stanford Prison Experiment, in the real life prison environment the guards are only one part of the overall problem. There is also the Legislature making laws which have become so draconian they provide no incentives to the majority of the prisoners--the "serious" or "violent" crime prisoners. The prison administration who promulgates oppressive rules, regulations, and procedures. Then there are the prisoners themselves, who in the real life prison fall into the same psychological traps as the volunteer "prisoners" in The Stanford Prison Experiment. They "become servile, dehumanized robots who thought only of escape, of their own individual survival, and their mounting hatred of the guards." Real life prisoners who are similarly oppressed have also been shown to extend this hatred to those in society whom they believe are responsible for or are condoning their oppression.

The fact that power corrupts has been shown by every dictator who has existed throughout history. However, people have generally paid little attention to microcosms of this phenomenon unless it directly effects them or their families. When citizens actually look around themselves, they will see power corruption in many places, e.g., politics, and most recently the corporate scandals which have shaken Wall Street. Saddam Hussein was recently removed from power because the world could no longer tolerate his power corruption. Corporate executives are being prosecuted for what is essentially power corruption. Corrupt politicians are removed from office when caught. It is time to also remove the power corruption from the prison systems. Corruption should not be tolerated anywhere, whether it be corruption based on power, dishonesty, or both.

In California, the present system is broken--a failure. It follows the failure pattern discovered in Zimbardo's empirical study model done over thirty years ago. Positive reforms were subsequently made, but though forgetting history they were later taken away. Those that are known to work need to be reinstated. The known destructive procedures need to be removed. There must be effective public oversight. To accomplish better public awareness, the regulation barring media access to prisoners must be abolished. This is a long term investment. Short term fixes are mere Band-Aids, and should only be part of an overall long term approach towards fixing a presently failed system.


FN. 1. Zimbardo, P.G., (1971) "The psychological power and pathology of imprisonment." A statement prepared for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee No. 3, Hearings on Prison Reform, San Francisco, Calif., October 25, 1971.

FN. 2. Myers, D.G. (1978). "Social Psychology" McGraw Hill, N.Y. (Pg. 197)

FN. 3. U.S. Dept. of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, "Recidivism of Sex Offenders Released from Prison n 1994." Nov. 2003, NCJ 198281, by Patrick A. Langan, Ph.D., Erica L. Schmitt, and Matthew R. Durose.

Inmate Tom Watson
Shasta County Jail
1655 West Street
Redding, CA 96088

 Tom Watson Writings - Index

 Three Strikes Legal - Index