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Prison Discipline Study

The Prisoner Rights Union (PRU) in California in 1989 started a survey to determine the prevalence of extreme forms of discipline in the American prison system. To do so they mailed out questionnaires to prisoners in 41 states across the U.S. Based on useable returns from 650 respondents and a review of the literature on prisons and scholarly studies of staff on prisoner violence. Two of the scholarly studies relied upon in part involved staff and prisoners at the penitentiary in Walla Walla.

The study reaches the conclusion that extreme forms of discipline, ranging from beatings and assaults of prisoners to sensory deprivation for prolonged periods are the norm in maximum security prisons across the U.S. with little differences from state to state or region to region.

Most of the information received was from prisoner respondents. Prisoncrats in various states placed barriers to prisoner's receipt of the questionnaire claiming that only studies approved by the DOC can be conducted. Despite this ban, 15 prisoners at WSR and WSP responded to the survey.

The survey showed that 70% of the respondents had personally witnessed beatings and other forms of physical assault on prisoners by guards, fists, boots and clubs being the most commonly used instruments. 74% reported this type of assault was done routinely or "occasionally" (at least once a month). 140 responded that the beatings took place while the prisoner was handcuffed or restrained.

The second major finding of the study was the pervasive use of "mental discipline," this being the use of verbal abuse, racial slurs, food tampering, frequent unnecessary shakedowns and body searches, false write ups and death threats. Only 10% of the respondents reported not seeing this form of discipline, indeed, the study concluded it is at the very core of incarceration with the purpose of "beating people down."

In examining the cause and victimology of severe discipline, the two leading causes that brought it about were: 1) Prisoners being verbally hostile to guards and 2) Prisoners refusing to follow orders. It being important to note that verbal hostility to guards is considered a minor security infraction in most U.S. prisons. The primary victim, according to 61% of the respondents is the "jailhouse lawyer." Based on comments on the questionnaires, the third highest category of prisoners victimized in this manner are prisoners who exhibit personal integrity, who verbally express their opinions, report prison conditions to people on the outside, file lawsuits and grievances are singled out for harassment and punishment. It is interesting to note the victimization was uniform across the U.S. and across security levels of prisons.

The study's conclusions must also be viewed against the backdrop of the specific techniques of physical and psychological control used by prison staff. A recent training manual for guards titled: "The Book, Punishment and Correction" describes the following techniques for maintaining order in a prison in a southern state:

Physical removal of prisoners to areas isolated enough to weaken close emotional ties. Segregation of all natural leaders. Prohibition of groups forming that are not in the interest of the prison administration.

Convincing prisoners that they can trust no one. Systematic distribution/withholding of mail and visiting privileges (especially with outsiders having anti-prison views) Building the conviction among all prisoners that they deserve to be (and have been) abandoned by our good citizenry.

Prevention of any serious emotional ties among prisoners. Permitting access to as few disrupting publications and materials as possible.
Moving prisoners that are resisters from one prison to another whenever they act up.

Use of techniques of character assassination to discredit and endanger uncooperative prisoners. Making jailhouse lawyers pay for their suits against prison administrators and a conditions. The study has ample footnotes and a bibliography. If you want a copy, send $5.00 to: Prison Discipline Study, 1909 6th St., Sacramento, CA 95814.

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