Two million Americans are in prison, so it’s not surprising that they have developed a culture of their own. It’s one where violence is routine, “snitching” is intolerable and the strong control the weak.
We ask a great deal from the men and women who work in prisons, and nothing is more important than demanding that they don’t act like prisoners. Their job is to hold up the standards of society and not sink into the culture of the prison.
A disturbing report from the Maine State Prison indicates that some of Maine’s state employees may be failing to meet that standard. Former guard Cory Peaslee said he was jumped by three colleagues, restrained against his will and threatened with pepper spray. He was also forced to read a statement broadcast over the prison’s communication system, calling himself a “sugarplum fairy princess” and promising to always refer to his superior officer as “my overlord daddy.”
Some people might find it easy to dismiss this as good-natured teasing that got out of hand, but they are forgetting the difficult job guards are asked to do, and the amount of trust we need to have in them. They do their work without public oversight. What goes on inside the prison is known only to them and the inmates, whose voices are easy to ignore.
This incident raises two troubling questions: If guards are this cruel to each other, how might they treat prisoners? And if this conduct is considered good fun, what might guards tolerate the prisoners doing to each other?
Violence between prisoners is a national embarrassment. Despite having no freedom of movement and no privacy, a prisoner is far more likely to be the victim of a violent crime in prison than outside. In Maine, four prisoners have been beaten to death and one fatally stabbed in the last five years.
What the other guards reportedly did to Peaslee had eerie echoes of the kind of treatment that prisoners dole out to each other. For instance, when Peaslee reported that he had been handcuffed, he says that other officers mocked him for being a “snitch.”
This is a sensitive matter, and it could result in dismissals and litigation. The department should be careful about not violating confidentiality.
But prison guards are public employees who represent the state in a very hidden environment. The Department of Corrections should be publicly discussing what happened here and what steps it is taking to prevent it from happening again.
The department has had a closed-door session with legislators, but that is not enough to rebuild the necessary public trust. We know too little about what goes on in prison already – we can’t afford more secrecy now.