Slate: Do Prisoners Really Spend All Their Time Lifting Weights?
The Supreme Court ruled on Monday that crowding at California prisons constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, and ordered the state to reduce the number of inmates by more than 30,000. An outraged Justice Scalia dissented, noting that many of the released prisoners "will undoubtedly be fine physical specimens who have developed intimidating muscles pumping iron in the prison gym." Do people really get super-buff in the slammer?
While the latent homoeroticism of Scalia's dissenting opinion reminded me of The Onion, I thought I'd take a moment on this topic. Slate continues:
Not anymore. It's true that most state and federal prisons had extensive collections of free weights and weight machines through the 1980s, and that inmates could spend significant portions of their days bulking up. But that all changed around 20 years ago. As stories about prison gyms spread in popular culture, they became an increasing source of public concern. Some shared Scalia's worry that muscle-bound ex-cons would be even more dangerous after their release, and legislators across the country responded. In 1996, an amendment to an appropriations bill expressly prohibited the federal Bureau of Prisons from purchasing "training equipment for boxing, wrestling, judo, karate, or other martial art, or any bodybuilding or weightlifting equipment of any sort." Many states, including California, made the same decision, either by statute or policy. These days, whatever free weights you'd still find in U.S. prisons are decades old.
Despite popular approval, sociologists and many prison officials have criticized the prohibition on weights in correctional facilities. Some research suggests that weight lifting decreases aggression among inmates. Wardens have noted that idleness is the biggest threat to order in a prison, and weight lifting gives the convicts something to do.
As a former inmate myself, I have a firm, hard, well-toned opinion on this topic, even if it is still a little bulky around the midriff. It's all the sugar in my diet, I know.
Judge Scalia's dissenting opinion isn't all that surprising: the eroticization of prisons and prisoners has been with us for a long time. I'm sure there's plenty of films set in mens' prisons, but frankly, I tend to notice these ones more:
Starring, of course, the inimitable Brigitte Nielsen.
Maybe they'll do one with Lindsay Lohan, now that she's actually been inside and all? She is kinda hot.
Wait, that wasn't my point at all.
This notion that prisoners can't have weights is based on two distinct ideas, one somewhat scientific and the other not. Firstly, the more scientific one is a claim that weightlifting and similar pursuits increase aggressiveness. It doesn't seem to be true. A similar one is the idea that pornography leads to more violence and "a hostile environment", which isn't true in society at large, so one wouldn't expect it to be true in prison. Nonetheless, South Carolina still bans pornography from its prisoners, which the ACLU has challenged and been criticized for by Radley Balko, which I thought was damned odd.
The latter idea is perhaps best exemplified by the Zimmer Amendment, quoted in the Slate.com article. The amendment was introduced by congressman Dick Zimmer and passed by Congress in 1995 "To amend the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 to prevent luxurious conditions in prisons." In Section 2, "Elimination of Luxurious Prison Conditions", the amendment demands not providing:
"(vii) any instruction (live or through broadcasts) or training equipment for boxing, wrestling, judo, karate, or other martial art, or any bodybuilding or weightlifting equipment of any sort;"
Although the amendment has since expired, it's left a legacy of Byzantine guidelines on what kind of exercise equipment is and isn't allowed in prisons. Most state and federal prisons still more or less abide by the terms of the Zimmer Amendment, and are phasing out weightlifting equipment by not replacing it as it wears out.
So one strand of the argument against weights is "prison luxury", a staple of the law and order platform. Prison, they insist, must be a punishment, and prisoners shouldn't be allowed "luxuries" because they're being punished.
The different views on the topic can pretty much be found in the New York Times article on the amendment. Here's the law-and-order plank:
Behind all these measures, supporters say, is the idea of making prison a less pleasant place for repeat offenders to come back to.
"To habitual criminals, prisons are resorts with televisions, weight-training facilities and libraries that some colleges would envy," said State Senator Gerald A. Cardinale of New Jersey, who has sponsored a no-frills measure called the People's Prison Act, which the Legislature will take up in the fall. "For a lot of them, jail time is just an extended vacation."
Mr. Zimmer said: "When you break the law of the land, you should pay the price for your crime, not be rewarded with a vacation watching premium cable on your personal television."
"Prisons have become mini-resorts and it's disgusting, and it's particularly disgusting to crime victims," said Mr. Deeds of the Law Enforcement Alliance, which enlists crime victims to campaign for harder prison conditions. "We strongly believe that prison is meant to be punishment, a deterrent and a prevention tool, not a resort experience."
So when it's a womens' prison, our society fantasizes about lesbians and Brigitte Nielsen, but when it's a mens' prison, we fantasize about fine physical specimens pumping iron and watching cable TV. Both those fantasies have one thing in common: none of the people responsible for them have ever been to prison.
For starters, the "women in prison" movies. I don't think the reality of a womens' prison sounds particularly sexy:
Sexual aggression and abuse by male prison staff is widespread. (...)
“In federal women’s correction facilities, 70% of guards are male,” reinforcing female inmates’ powerlessness. (...)
In 2005, “the Office of the Inspector General and the DOJ released a report documenting widespread sexual abuse by prison employees nationwide, noting that only 37% had faced some kind of legal action. Of those, ¾ walked away with no more than probation. It took all of this evidence for the BOP to finally criminalize sexual contact as a felony in 2006, so that guards can actually face up to five years in prison”. However, “when authorities confimed that corrections staff had sexually abused inmates in their care, only 42% of those officers had their cases referred to prosecution; only 23% were arrested, and only 3% charged, indicted, or convicted. Fifteen per cent were actually allowed to keep their jobs”.
Despite such legislative progress, women are fully dependent on the guards for basic necessities and privileges, and in many states, guards have access to inmates’ personal history files which can empower them to threaten prisoners’ children if the women retaliate. Female inmates who retaliate also face the loss of ‘good time’ for early parole in addition to prolonged periods of disciplinary segregation, and detrimental write-ups, which further deters acts of resistance. The fear incited by such threats as well as the concern that no one will believe them or that no one really cares can successfully silence women. Experience of sexual abuse in prison can greatly impede women’s capacity to reintegrate into society upon release.
That's how far the reality of womens' prisons is from the exploitation movie fantasy. Mens' prisons are about as far from being the luxury resorts these concerned citizens imagine them to be, and as Scalia's opinion shows, they're about as far removed from the reality of prisons as the people making "women in prison" porn. In general, none of the people who speak with this authority about how easy and wonderful prison life is have experienced it. I'm sure many of them have visited a prison once or twice. I remember a delegation of Finnish members of parliament visiting the prison I was in: they walked around the block for about ten minutes, had lunch in the cafeteria and left. I'm sure that gives them an excellent grasp of the day-to-day realities of prison life. It's been pointed out that Judge Scalia should, you know, actually bother to find out such minutiae as whether prisoners are actually allowed to pump iron at the prison gym or not before committing it to writing in a court decision, but really, the way he handled it is perfectly in line with most commentary on prisons.
While no-one familiar with the reality of womens' prisons would describe them as pornographic, I'm equally certain that very few people who've actually been living in correctional facilities would describe mens' prisons as "a vacation", let alone a "resort experience". Certainly, for some people, having walls and a roof as well as regular meals is a huge improvement on their living conditions, but not only are they in the minority, but they too suffer from the single biggest punishment prison inflicts. Even if it was a resort, it's one you can't leave.
The whole discussion on prisons and prison conditions has made me think that being deprived of your freedom is a punishment that most people simply don't seem to understand. Take for instance a closed ward in prison, around where I'm from, or one of those secure housing units or whatever they're called on National Geographic, where you spend 23 hours of each day inside a tiny cell. I've been locked up in one of those, and I assure you, it isn't a holiday. No sane person would willingly choose to go to prison over their everyday life unless that everyday life is truly horrible. Even in the more open wards, the constant reality of being locked inside a small space and being unable to leave is a very real punishment.
Having experienced it, it's somewhat bizarre for me to have to explain this, but the tone of law-and-order pundits everywhere makes it seem necessary.
By the way, here's a note of reality that crept into the NY Times proceedings:
Mr. Stout, who killed a man during a mugging in Newark in 1976, maintains that pumped-up prisoners do not stay strong for long.
"In here," he said, "you have all the time in the world, so you work out. Once they get back out, they've got other worries, and they don't stay big for long."
That's certainly true. A fitness or bodybuilding regime is fairly easy to adhere to when you're taken to the free gym regularly every week; when the gym costs money and takes personal initiative to get to, it's a whole lot harder...
And it's this interface between life in an institution and life on the outside that raises the biggest questions of all about prison as punishment. From Wikipedia:
Meta-analysis of previous studies shows that prison sentences do not reduce future offenses, when compared to non-residential sanctions. This meta-analysis of one hundred separate studies found that post-release offenses were around 7% higher after imprisonment compared with non-residential sanctions, at statistically significant levels. Another meta-analysis of 101 separate tests of the impact of prison on crime found a 3% increase in offending after imprisonment. Longer periods of time in prison make outcomes worse, not better; offending increases by around 3% as prison sentences increase in length.
This raises the question of what the point of prisons is in the first place. Do we just want to punish people? It's worth remembering that nearly all prisoners will be freed, sooner or later. The longer they're kept inside and the harsher their punishment, the more brutalized and angry they'll be when they finally get out. When one takes into account studies such as this one on how difficult it is for ex-convicts to reintegrate into normal life, it becomes pretty obvious how the prison system works: all it seems to reliably do is ensure that inmates will end up back inside.
There are alternatives to prison as punishment, mainly the much-maligned idea of rehabilitation. With such things as California's recent decision to release inmates due to overcrowding in mind, it needs to be remembered that not only is prison tremendously expensive, but the inmates aren't producing anything. Each prisoner is a twofold expense: they need to be provided for and their productivity is removed from the economy. The goal of rehabilitation is that a prisoner can return to society as a productive citizen, changing from an expense to society to a taxpayer.
Of course, there are some individuals who can't be rehabilitated, but they are the exception, not the rule. Several studies show that many prison inmates have life goals that are very similar to those of the population at large; where they fail is in realizing those goals. As the study I linked to earlier shows, our penal and judicial systems are failing to help convicts realize those goals and are in fact actively working to make it harder for them.
If what you want is punishment, it's worth reading this interview, where criminologist Peter Moskos quite seriously advocates the reintroduction of flogging as a punishment.
I’m deadly serious. Given the choice between five years and ten lashes, wouldn’t you choose the lash? What does that say about prison? And if flogging were so bad, where’s the harm in offering it as a choice?
Of course some people are too dangerous to release, but these people are kept behind bars simply because we’re afraid of them. But for most criminals, those we just want to punish, flogging is a more honest. It’s also a lot cheaper. Simply to bring our prison population down to levels we had until the 1970s, we’d have to release 85 percent of our prisoners. How are we going to do that unless we end the war on drugs or have alternative forms of punishment?
Ironically, once people hear my idea, often they say that flogging isn’t harsh enough. It’s good to move beyond the facile position that flogging is too cruel to consider, but if you think flogging isn’t harsh enough—that we need to keep people locked up for years precisely because prison is so unbelievable horrible—then you may be a truly evil person.
His point is excellent: if what you want from criminal policy is pure and simple punishment, then what's wrong with corporal punishment? Surely it'll have a deterrent effect! And given that we know prison doesn't, in fact, rehabilitate criminals, then why bother with it in the first place? As he points out:
So California now says they’re not going to release prisoners who are a danger to society. But if they’re not a danger to society, why are they behind bars in the first place? If we just want to punish people for breaking the law, there are better—and cheaper—ways to do so.
Yet somehow the idea of floggings as a punishment is repellent to us, but the idea of prison as a punishment isn't. I'll repeat myself by saying that I firmly believe that this is because everyone who is able to has most likely experienced physical pain, and so thinks they can imagine the pain of flogging; however, to those who haven't experienced prison, the simple reality of imprisonment doesn't seem to communicate itself at all. But to regard one as a cruel and inhuman punishment and the other as not smacks of hypocrisy to me.
The focus on prison as a punishment is actively hostile to prison as rehabilitation. In my mind, this is largely because of a mentality created by law-and-order politicians and Hollywood, who depict crime as the actions of a criminal class determined to exploit society's weaknesses. If one takes the view that all crime is committed by hardened professional criminals, and also adopts the strangely antithetical idea that they'll stop being professional criminals if they're punished hard enough, then it makes sense to rail against "prison luxuries" and demand tougher treatment. But this idea isn't based on any perceivable reality; instead it's part of the culture of fear our politicians maintain to frighten us into compliance.
As long as we make decisions on criminal policy based not on reality but on illusions, we're behaving irrationally. In this case, it means creating a judicial system that encourages and maintains crime. It's a worthwhile sociological question to ask whether this is, in fact, done on purpose, but that's a larger topic for another time.
To wrap up, I'll return to what kicked this whole thing off: prison gyms. We still have those in Finland, but rumor has it that they're considering getting rid of them. Martial arts equipment like focus gloves are banned. Focus gloves were, in fact, the subject of my only foray into jailhouse lawyering, when I trudged through the prison regulations and found that they were, in fact, prohibited.
As I said earlier, studies seem to show that instead of increasing aggression and violence, working out seems to do the opposite. What's more, simply banning exercise equipment won't stop prisoners from working out. There's always push-ups and all kinds of improvised exercises that can be done in the absence of equipment. Even martial arts training is easy; I've seen some impressive home-made focus gloves.
So the ban doesn't stop prisoners from working out, but that doesn't have the adverse effects it's said to have either. The ban on exercise equipment in prisons addresses a non-existent problem in an inefficient way, so it doesn't make any sense. It's pretty much par for the course in our criminal legislation.
Far from being a problem, I think exercise equipment in prisons is a positive thing. First and foremost, it gives inmates something to do. Prison is 99% mind-numbing boredom, and anything that you can spend energy on is basically a good thing. And fitness is a positive thing in and of itself, especially since I think the reason bodybuilding and working out in general are so popular is that the prisoner's own body is one of the only things they can control. A workout program is a long-term project, and I'd say getting involved in non-criminal long-term projects is only good for rehabilitation.
I'm beginning to think that the majority of our laws and regulations are coming about as nothing more than knee-jerk reactions to some level of moral panic, where it doesn't even matter if the problem is real or if the solution works, as long as the act of passing the regulation expresses our ethical view on the matter. This is basically the argument in favor of the war on drugs, for instance, as well as on prison conditions: it doesn't matter what the practicalities are, but we have to take a certain stance for moral reasons. It's a staggeringly irrational way to run a society.
I'll finish off with a reminder of how I ended up acquiring the personal experience that went into writing this blog post.
Tricky - Black Steel by Tricky