The Dangerous—and Delusionary—‘Big House Syndrome’

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Lincoln Prison (UK). Photo by hillcroftdave via Flickr

Almost a decade ago, Bruce Ramsey, a 47-year-old lieutenant at Washington State Reformatory (WSR), died in a tragic motorcycle accident. He had been a longtime member of the WSR staff, and his professionalism, along with his personality, not only garnered him the respect of his colleagues—but also, uniquely, the respect of many prisoners at the facility.

I cannot attest that his reputation was justified, since I had not been at the facility very long and had no interactions with him before he died.

However, several of my acquaintances who weren’t prone to hyperbole spoke of their affinity for the lieutenant and assured me his reputation was well earned. They wished that the other officers at the facility would try and emulate him.

Jeremiah Bourgois

Jeremiah Bourgeois

I understood their sentiments. I know several correctional officers and staff who execute their duties in a way that has earned my respect, too.

That said, when I saw the flyer notifying inmates that a memorial service for the lieutenant was going to occur inside WSR’s chapel, I was perplexed. A few weeks later, when I was heading to the law library and saw the long line of prisoners patiently waiting to get inside of the chapel for the memorial service, I was taken aback.

When I later learned that a prisoner in attendance (who is a sexual psychopath and compulsive liar) cried on stage, and with quivering lips told the dead man’s family that the lieutenant was his “friend”—I was absolutely disgusted.

For years thereafter, I could not get to the bottom of why this entire episode troubled me so much. Older and wiser, I can now explain the strange phenomenon that was writ large that day inside the prison chapel that caused my negative feelings to boil over.

The “Friend” Delusion

Inside a penitentiary, there’s something called “the Big House Syndrome,” which bears a resemblance to the Stockholm Syndrome, in which hostages develop a psychological alliance with their captors.

It is most prevalent inside Medium and Minimum Custody facilities, especially those that are not overly repressive.

The longer prisoners are confined within them, the more susceptible they are.

The symptoms are manifested in more mundane ways than prisoners attending memorial services for those who in life were paid to kill them to prevent their escape attempts from succeeding. For instance, I often see the same prisoners laughing and socializing with the same officers throughout their shifts five days a week, as if they are best friends or close colleagues.

To a convict, these interactions are justified only if the prisoner is endeavoring to prevent being targeted, to corrupt or compromise, or to cloak the prisoner’s illicit activities. However, those with Big House Syndrome actually believe these staff members are their friends, ignoring that the duties of correctional employees make befriending prisoners and maintaining professionalism mutually exclusive.

How could an officer be the friend of someone that he might have to gun down from the watch tower to stop a fight or riot?

How could she countenance confiscating items she believes do not threaten security from a “friend” who holds them dearly?

They can’t—and they shouldn’t try to convince themselves or pretend otherwise. The orderly operation of correctional facilities is enhanced, I believe, when custody staff remain aloof from prisoners, restricting most interactions to those which are necessary to perform their duties.

An occasional joke or friendly exchange is one thing. But overall, it is best practice for correctional officers to not entertain endless small talk from prisoners, especially those with Big House Syndrome. Feel free to move them along when they try to stop and preen.

Knowing Your Place

I don’t recall such chitchat and other foolishness during my 15-year span confined in Level Four (Closed Custody) prisons, which are one custody level above solitary confinement. In that highly secure and dangerous environment, everyone knew their place, and almost everyone stayed in it to ensure their well-being.

Staff members who were impudent enough to buck the separate-and-unequal system of social relations with prisoners were slandered and ostracized by colleagues, especially in the case of apparent fraternizing between female staff members and prisoners who seemed too familiar.

Prisoners who refused to stay out of correctional officers’ faces would be warned by other convicts to desist. If they persisted, they would get pummeled and stomped by associates, run out of general population by threat of further violence, and then have to spend the remainder of their sentences in protective custody.

Being polite and respectful was accepted, mainly because being rude or disrespectful could unleash aggressive reactions from prisoners and correctional officers alike. But as a rule, keeper and kept did not distort the truce nature of the relationship, no matter how friendly or sociable the other presented themselves to be.

To suggest that a friendship existed between a correctional officer and prisoner was actually offensive because it implied one was compromised and would violate his duties for the prisoner’s sake, and the other had bonded with the officer to such an extent that he is prone to snitch.

Quite simply, the prevailing prison norms require that each maintain a cool distance.

Otherwise, the maltreatment of prisoners would be difficult for many officers to countenance, and they might be unwilling to validate the lies in a colleague’s incident report narrating how some prisoner supposedly committed a disciplinary violation. Likewise, prisoners might refuse to stand aside when an officer was being assaulted and could feel compelled to rescue their “friend” in distress.

The only way that both parties can, with equanimity, witness cruelty and be cruel when necessary is to harden their hearts.

Being forged in this way essentially immunized me against Big House Syndrome.

The Flim-Flam Men

While Big House Syndrome ensured that plenty of prisoners would attend a memorial service for a correctional officer, the real executive producers behind the production are prison administrators for whom this approach satisfies their own interests.

WSR is unique in that officials at this facility have a long history of holding regular meetings with elected prisoner representatives, as if the conditions of confinement come by way of a collaborative process.

Both parties are motivated by self-interest: Make no mistake about it.

Administrators create the fiction that they are open and responsive to the concerns of prisoners. Meanwhile, the prisoner representatives often play along to curry favor and maintain the ability to have personal issues addressed due to their proximity to those in authority.

Why these prisoners are motivated to collaborate is often the result of their sentence structures rather than Big House Syndrome.

They are lifers.

They want to be freed.

This will only occur through executive clemency.

Consequently, by shucking-and-jiving, these prisoners hope to craft a narrative that will someday convince the Governor that their rehabilitation is extraordinary and they are worthy of being set free.

Desperate times call for chicanery, so it seems.

One such prisoner tried to parlay his donations to a fund for the family members of four murdered Lakewood, Wa., police officers into a play for a sentence commutation by this means.

I am convinced that an elected representative with a mind such as this suggested pitching the idea of having the memorial service for the lieutenant to administrators, and the rest of the representatives jumped on board to further their own interests. Then, once they got the go-ahead, they set about trying to persuade as many prisoners as they could to come and attend.

Reflecting on the statements that were made prior to the event led me to draw this conclusion.

“If the officers see how we’re willing to honor one of theirs who was decent, maybe they’ll see the value in acting more like he did,” I heard one explain to a group of naive youngsters under his sway.

“If we convince these fools that we really care about this bullshit, maybe the administration will loosen up and let us have more shit,” another candidly explained to me, believing I was so jaded that his logic would appeal to me.

Cynicism, peer pressure and self-interest led to a pretense of humanity. But I truly wish that administrators and prisoners would have never troubled that deceased man’s family.

No matter how the service came into being and the pews were filled with prisoners, Big House Syndrome is the only sensible explanation for what caused the quivering lips of the rapist to tearfully bawl out from the stage that the lieutenant was his “friend.”

The Model Prisoner’s Demise

My friend is dying from a blood disease.

He has long been a prisoner at WSR, and his model behavior and personality not only earn him the respect of his peers but also, uniquely, from many officers at the facility.

But when he dies there will be no flyers inviting prisoners to attend a memorial service in his honor. Correctional officers will not be lined up to get inside of the prison chapel to pay their respects. Life will simply move on as it did the day before.

This captures why I never entertained the idea of entering the prison chapel all those years ago to honor that respected lieutenant. Life simply moved on for me as it did the day before, protected by a hard heart and enduring the life sentence imposed upon me when I was fourteen years old.

EDITOR’S NOTE:  after publication of the first version of his column, Jeremiah sent the following:

“My correctional counselor called me to her office to discuss this piece upon its publication, and she raised several valid points that are worth addressing. First, WDOC is trying to move away from a control model of prison management, by using alternatives to solitary confinement, positive incentives, and emphasizing positive interactions with staff. To suggest, as I did, that “friendly” interactions between staff and prisoners should be curtailed—and to put a negative spin on it—argues against applying principles around normalcy. Furthermore, she pointed out that positive interactions better prepare prisoners for reentry, and she invited me to imagine being released from a Level IV prison as opposed to the minimum custody facility where I am confined. Admittedly, I did not consider this and will address it in a future column.”

Jeremiah Bourgeois is a regular contributor to TCR, and a Washington State prisoner who has been serving a life sentence since he was 14 years old. He is due for another hearing before the Washington State parole board in early August. Those who wish to support his release, can sign the petition here. He welcomes comments from readers.

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