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Adding Up the Broken Souls

“The question now is how to change our institutions so that they promote human values rather than destroy them.”

Philip Zimbardo, who posed this question in the wake of the famous — or infamous — Stanford Prison Experiment 44 years ago, might have added: If we fail to do so, we guarantee our own social collapse.

The collapse is underway, one broken soul at a time.

“But the basic story the men told was the same: (Leonard) Strickland was pushed down a flight of stairs, and then beaten nearly to death by a large group of guards.”

This is from a recent New York Times investigative piece about inmate abuse at Clinton Correctional Facility, in upstate New York — a particularly boiling caldron of racism in America’s prison-industrial complex. Almost all of the nearly 1,000 guards who work at the rural prison are white; the inmates, mostly from New York City, are black. Not surprisingly, the prisoners say “they face a constant barrage of racial slurs.”

And racial slurs have a way of escalating, especially under conditions in which one group of people has enormous, unchecked power over another group. Zimbardo called it the Lucifer Effect: the transformation of ordinary, decent people into monsters. His 1971 study, in which two dozen college-student volunteers were randomly designated either guards or prisoners in a makeshift “penitentiary” in the basement of Stanford’s psych department, was meant to last two weeks but was called off after six days because the situation had gotten out of control.

Zimbardo said that he came to his senses after an outside observer, who was brought in to conduct interviews, reacted with utter shock “when she saw our prisoners being marched on a toilet run, bags over their heads, legs chained together, hands on each other’s shoulders. Filled with outrage, she said, ‘It’s terrible what you are doing to these boys!’”

Compare this to the Times story about Clinton Correctional Facility. Though all the guards were officially cleared of wrongdoing in the 2010 death of Leonard Strickland, who was diagnosed mentally ill but had no history of violent behavior, six prisoners who had witnessed the event, interviewed separately at various facilities, told essentially the same story: that he was called a racial slur, pushed down a flight of stairs and beaten and repeatedly kicked  by a group of guards at the bottom of the stairs.

As Strickland fell down the stairs, one prisoner told the Times, “his skull hit the concrete steps several times. At the bottom, he pulled himself into a tight fetal position, as about 10 officers took turns kicking him in the head and the ribs … They ‘beat this kid to zero,’ he said.”

Ah, Lucifer!

The broken souls add up. We live in a world where the prevailing belief is that control and dominance are necessary … because of all the terrorism, y’know, and the crime and what have you. In so many American cities, armed police officers (white and otherwise), wield unchecked power in impoverished, minority communities. Not surprisingly, the Lucifer Effect continually makes the news.

Last month, the Associated Press released the results of a yearlong investigation of sexual misconduct by police, discovering records of about 1,000 officers who lost their badges in a six-year period for various sex crimes, including rape. The figure is “unquestionably an undercount,” the AP story noted because many departments don’t maintain such records.

“‘It’s happening probably in every law enforcement agency across the country,’ said Chief Bernadette DiPino of the Sarasota Police Department in Florida, who helped study the problem for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. ‘It’s so underreported, and people are scared that if they call and complain about a police officer, they think every other police officer is going to be then out to get them.’”

What this otherwise excellent story fails to do is put the crimes into a larger context, dismissing the perps simply as “bad officers.” When they can’t resign quietly and disappear, they are turned into scapegoats: exceptions to the rule in otherwise good, solid institutions that serve the public. This is how it is in every institution that commands enormous power over a particular group of people, including the scandal-rocked U.S. military and the Catholic Church.

It’s time for the media, which usually goes along with the “bad apple” explanation, to expand its consciousness. Lucifer haunts the corridors of power. Ordinary, decent people can turn into monsters — rapists, murderers — when given unlimited power over others. It happens with eerie frequency, especially when, in the era of the cellphone video, such crimes are not so easily covered up.

In Chicago, a police officer shot a teenager walking in the middle of the street 16 times, almost as though the gun took control of the officer’s consciousness. Barbara Ransby, a professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, interviewed recently by Democracy Now!, pointed out that, because of budget cuts, only about 20 Chicago police officers have received crisis intervention training.

My God, budget cuts! In a country that’s waging perpetual war and raking in billions from the global sale of weapons. Yeah, the boy had been acting erratically. But real public safety for the city of Chicago would have included safety for Laquan McDonald, the 17-year-old killed by police officer Jason Van Dyke.

I fear we’re reversing the evolutionary process. We’ve surrendered to simplistic, impulsive, fear-based “safety” and we’re reaping the consequences, one broken soul at a time.

More articles by:

Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

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