Every day, behind razor wire somewhere, there are prisoners tormenting and terrorizing other prisoners. In far too many correctional facilities in America, the laws of the jungle prevail.
Exploitative prison norms give such perpetrators a license for their acts. But even those who do not extort, sexually assault, or commit wanton acts of violence perpetuate it by standing aside and staying silent.
As Edmund Burke once said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Still, there is just as much truth to the adage that self-preservation is the first law of nature.
One need not look to “Lock-Up Raw” on MSNBC to understand the truth of that statement. History provides powerful illustrations that give insight into why some people stand by while others are victimized.
At the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party in 1956, Nikita Khrushchev openly condemned the late Joseph Stalin for his murder of innocent people and other atrocities. During Khrushchev’s speech, one party member yelled from the audience, “Well if he was so bad, why didn’t you get rid of him?”
From the dais Khrushchev immediately shouted back, “Who said that?”
The entire audience fell silent in fear.
Khrushchev again shouted, “Who said that?”
Nobody said a word.
Khrushchev then declared, “Well, now you understand why we didn’t do anything.”
Any prisoner who has retained or reclaimed his humanity can understand why Khrushchev stayed silent and refused to intercede. The threat of reprisals deters people—both confined and free—from being righteous or doing justice.
Other prisoners have tried and came to ruin.
In The Funhouse Mirror: Reflections on Prison, Robert Ellis Gordon tells how numerous prisoners at Washington State Penitentiary banded together to prevent young, weak, and vulnerable prisoners from being preyed upon sexually. For their noble efforts, these prisoners were “singled out and murdered by predatory convicts,” thrown in the hole for “thirty, sixty, or ninety days” at a time, and, had years added to their sentences for assaulting the predators and possessing weapons.
Obviously, Khrushchev’s line of thinking is prudent in a penitentiary. From the very beginning, I have followed his example.
Long ago, I learned to turn a blind eye to cruelty.
I came to prison as a young teen and used violence to keep predators from having their way with me. My young friend wasn’t so lucky and swiftly fell victim at the same facility.
Were you to believe that such an experience during my formative years would incline me to intervene on other youngster’s behalf if one day given the opportunity, you are correct.
But that doesn’t mean I was foolish enough to do so when a decade later a teenager in my midst was in a similar predicament.
There was plenty that I could have told him to help him stay safe, but I didn’t say anything.
When I saw him crying by himself, and felt compelled to offer some comfort or encouragement, I gave him nothing.
I remained a silent spectator.
As Khrushchev understood, attempting to foil the plans of psychopaths can put you in serious jeopardy. If doing nothing reduced the risk that harm would come to me, then I wasn’t going to say or do anything.
He was on his own—Edmund Burke be damned.
However, in time I found— as other prisoners had before me— that there is a psychological cost involved in following Khrushchev’s philosophy. Ultimately, laying low and keeping quiet to ensure one’s safety can damage you mentally.
Being inconspicuous, Craig Haney explains, requires many prisoners to become as “unobtrusively disconnected from others as possible,” and in so doing they can ultimately “retreat deeply into themselves, trust virtually no one, and adjust to prison stress by leading isolated lives of quiet desperation.”
Haney further explains that when prisoners “struggle to control and suppress their own emotional reactions to events around them” it can also lead to emotional “over-control and a generalized lack of spontaneity” which can impede their post-prison adjustment.
This is the life for many prisoners who have retained or reclaimed their humanity.
The irony of this situation is that it reveals how the inculcation of pro-social norms and values can undermine a prisoner’s sanity because he must continue to live amongst the depraved while cloaking his thoughts and feelings.
It is a lonely, solitary existence filled with anger and depression when one’s life is lived at the intersection between rehabilitation and self-preservation.
Jeremiah Bourgeois is an inmate at Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen, WA, where he is currently serving 25 years to life for a crime committed when he was 14. He will be eligible to go before the parole board in 2017. He welcomes your comments.