Prisons And Boarding Schools: The Informer Phenomenon

I’ve made note here, on this blog, on some interesting similarities between prisons and boarding schools: the discipline, the regulation of time, the uniforms, the social dynamics. Yet another similarity may be found in the ubiquity of informers: moles, spies, double-agents, leakers, snitches–call them what you will–conduits for the passage for information to administrative and disciplinary authorities on inmate (student) activity.

In my boarding school, where discipline was enforced by schoolboys themselves–the so-called ‘prefects,’ drawn from the ranks of the graduating class, the ‘sixth-form‘–informers were feared and despised alike (as they always are.) Complaints and mutterings about heavy-handed punishment–perhaps via the dreaded punishment drills–all too often, and mysteriously enough, found their way to the ear of the prefects concerned, and reprisals and crackdowns against those who had dared question authority quickly followed. The identities of the informers remained artfully hidden: they never informed carelessly enough to allow their cover to be blown;  “there were only three of us present when we talked about X; you and I were punished, so the informer must be Y.” Instead, these informers only informed when they were sure they had enough obfuscatory cover. (Shades of crypto crackers not making it too obvious that a particular cipher had been cracked by not acting too expeditiously or efficiently on the revealed information.) On one occasion, a large group of students in a classroom made some bitter comments among themselves on how some prefects had been a little too heavy-handed in their dishing out of corporal punishment during punishment drills; a day later, two of the students in that group found themselves dragged out of a basketball game and forced to perform a particularly exacting drill supplemented with occasional slaps to their faces and the back of their heads. (The informer’s most valuable reward–over and above any material benefit–was to be free of the worst of these disciplinary crackdowns.)

My post today is prompted by the note on self-policing in response to pervasive surveillance that I posted over the weekend; the methods change, the effects are the same. For of course, all too soon, we, the inmates, suspected each other to varying degrees and the quality of our conversations and interactions suffered as a result; we were not sure what would be reckoned as subversive or offensive. Planning for illegal activities like sneaking off for a smoke was obviously problematic, but what about saying something rude about a prefect or a teacher? Better to be safe than sorry; better to zip it.

The informers’ cover was not perfect, of course, and sometimes, by dint of informal detective work, a pattern of sorts of emerge, and a suspect or two would be identified. Reprisals against them were brutal; they came at the end of the year, when all scores were to be settled. Sometimes these consisted of beatings on campus; sometimes these took place off-campus. If this sounds horrifying, it should be. But then, so was the system of penal discipline imposed on the students in the first place.

‘Orange Is The New Black’ And Boarding Schools

As I make my way through the second season of Orange Is The New Black, Netflix’s original series based on Piper Kerman‘s memoir, Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison about her experiences at FCI Danbury, a minimum-security federal prison, I’m struck again by how much of the prison experience reminds me of my days–two academic years in all–at a boarding school. In saying this, I do not mean to, even for a second, minimize the hardships of the incarcerated, but rather, to point out how boarding schools create conditions analogous at one level to that of jails. Both are similarly inspired by confused notions of discipline and order; both show what happens when humans are confined and regulated by these.

It is all here: the correctional managerial staff i.e., the faculty; the supervisors and guards i.e., the prefects (drawn from the senior graduating class, thus forming a layer between us and school administration); and the inmates i.e., the students. We were subjected to regulation and discipline from on high, from our waking moments to ‘lights out’; we were subjected to arbitrary, often harsh disciplining from prefects (this included the usual ‘six of the best’ and punishment drills); we had fixed meal-times; our uniforms were prescribed and monitored; we could not walk with both hands in our trouser pockets; we could not complain about the food (the food parcels we were sent from home were quickly consumed by our ‘friends); we had limited allowances that we spent at the ‘commissary’; we could not meet our parents except at prescribed times and places (because my family was away in a distant city, I did not meet or talk to my mother for nine months); ‘sickbay’ was a refuge and relief; our every hour was planned and regulated. Some thirty-four years after I left my boarding school, I can still effortlessly regenerate the daily time-table for a school day, right down to the hours.

But the most interesting parallel for me is visible in the personal and social dynamics. Boarding schools, like jails, featured miniature societies, complete with their own pecking orders and hierarchies on the ‘inside.’ There were bullies and master manipulators–like ‘Red‘–who ruled the roost; they were feared and revered and resented in equal measure. There were weak ones–‘freaks’ and ‘weirdos’–who were subjected to bullying and abuse. If you were smart, you sought out and found protection quickly. Some manipulators–like ‘Pennsatucky‘–ruled over mini-groups; their hold over these was–like that of ‘King Rat‘ in James Clavell‘s novel by the same name–a contingent matter, dependent on them being able to continually spin their web of control. The weak quickly came under such influence. Scores were settled by violence and intimidation; sometimes you were cornered in bathrooms, sometimes in a deserted dorm; when a fight broke out, no one intervened till a prefect showed up. And no one, ever, ever, complained about a beating.

When the academic year ended, discipline was relaxed for the last day or so–teachers left campus, prefects gave up the pretense of policing. More scores were settled, more brawls broke out; the buses to take us to train stations and airports for our journeys back home could not arrive soon enough.

And when I got back home, I kept the ‘best stories’ to myself. Folks back home ‘wouldn’t understand’; you had to be on the ‘inside.’ I could write a book about it all; someday, I will.

Debating Teams And The Prison-Industrial Complex

The news that a team of prisoners–incarcerated criminals from the Eastern New York Correctional Facility–had beaten, in debate, Harvard’s team, was not slow in spreading. After the initial informal reactions on social media–many of which expressed glee at Harvard’s comeuppance by plebes–had died down, a more measured response followed, one which stressed that such a result was entirely unsurprising, that to entertain such surprise was to entertain stereotypes of prisoners being merely dangerous and stupid.  (An old friend who teaches at San Quentin told me her students are highly intelligent and motivated, among the best students she has ever had.) Several articles–in The Washington Post, The Harvard Crimson, and The Guardian–made precisely this same point. In these commentaries there is another common theme: that these results confirm the value of reform programs like Bard College’s Bard Prison Initiative, which offers an undergraduate education to about 300 New York State prisoners.

These two issues–the intelligence of the incarcerated and the success of well-planned and executed prisoner reform programs–highlight once again the tragedies of the prison-industrial complex as it currently exists today in the US. The US’ incarceration rates, as of October 2013, at 716 per 100,000 are the highest in the world; with 4.4 percent of the world’s population, the US houses 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. This imprisonment does not come cheap; in 2007, the US Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that its costs ran to an annual $74 billion. (Wikipedia source here.) But these costs are severely understated if one takes the talents of the imprisoned population into consideration.

The grim reality of a stint in prison is that–despite the fact that behind-the-bars activities have resulted in  musical albums and literature–they are finishing schools for criminality. Many an amateur checks in, only to check out as a seasoned professional. His or her time will have been marked–in most cases–by rape and assault, and by participation in criminal activity of one kind or the other. Mild forms may involve the smuggling in of contraband; less benign activities include the remote control of external criminal actions and participation in gang activity–very often violent–within the prison. (Bureau of Justice Statistics reports on the rates of recidivism among prisoners make for depressing reading, indicating as they do, rearrest, reconviction, and return to prison rates at or over fifty percent.)

The net result is the situation at hand today: hundreds of thousands of young men and women, rotting away in jail, tossed into a trash heap of sorts, forgotten and condemned, deemed unworthy of reform, guarded by correctional staff who over the years have had their humanity leached out of them, subjected to violence from within and without, and taught, ultimately, all the wrong lessons. This reckless wastage of ‘human resources’ would be considered profligate and indulgent at the best of times, an indication perhaps that the nation in question had recklessly determined it had ample talent, enough to spare in a gigantic, misbegotten criminological experiment. But of course it doesn’t; no nation can afford such squandering of talent, such locking away of so much potential, often fueled by racist tilting at windmills like the war on drugs.

Not every criminal is a budding debate champion or writer or artist; reform remains difficult, a challenge for sociologists, psychologists and criminologists alike. But whatever those challenges, we also know what doesn’t work: the penal system we have now.

On Visiting a Prison

I first saw a jail–and its inhabitants–as a child. Our family car had been broken into and some of its contents stolen, so we drove to a police station to file a report. While seated in the waiting room outside the police officer’s den, I could see what must have been a holding cell, occupied by a rather surly and disgruntled lot. The room looked grimy; its walls unwashed; its inhabitants resigned to their fates as they sat on hard benches or squatted on the concrete floor. I had heard about criminals; now, apparently, I could see them with my own eyes. They looked rather ordinary, rather less dramatic than their cinematic or literary versions. Their criminal acts behind them, they now seemed deflated and dejected.

I was reminded of that first encounter with a penitentiary when, a few years ago, I visited one of Taiwan’s largest maximum-security prisons. I accompanied an academic colleague whose wife, a criminologist, worked with the correctional authorities; we were offered a semi-guided tour of the facilities by some very helpful staff.

My abiding memories of that visit are dominated by a rather curious sensation: though I was clearly in no danger of being detained and imprisoned, I still felt chilled and alarmed by my surroundings, apprehensive somehow, absurdly enough, that I would be seized on some pretext or the other by one of the prison’s security guards, thrown into a cell, and with the key thrown away, left to rot till eternity. My proximity to this zone of detention and confinement was enough to cause this imagined fear.

The prisoners themselves seemed reconciled to their fate: most of them were serving very long sentences for a variety of crimes and were perhaps now used to the rhythms of their daily existence. Some seemed more hard-bitten–perhaps because of their gang tattoos or muscular development–than the others; yet others, older and wizened, were incongruous members of a demographic normally associated with youth.

Besides conversations with prison staff, and a visit to a prisoner work program center, we were treated to a visit to some standard cells for the jail’s inhabitants. These rooms were compact, their spaces tightly organized into individual sleeping and storage areas; at the time of our inspection, their residents were elsewhere.  Each cell held several prisoners; so in each one, a mini-society with its own pecking order and hierarchies was presumably created and sustained.

As I walked around their interiors,  I tried to imagine what life inside these cells was like. I couldn’t succeed in that endeavor, of course; my daily experiences and my past were too different from those who lived here to permit any such imaginative contact. I could only dimly sense the sense of confinement, the monotony, the relentless imposition of an external discipline. Because the cells had just recently been washed, there was a dampness to my surroundings that seemed appropriate; it spoke of a chill, a clammyness that seemed to pervade the walls and floors.

I found my conversations with prison staff genuinely useful, but I couldn’t wait for them to end. When we finally left the prison, walking out from its iron gates, out into the bright sunshine, back to our parked car, I felt relieved and just a little lighter and warmer.  We would now drive back to the local university, back to a space that felt much safer.