One Size Fits No One
One size fits all. Such false and empty marketing ploys are rarely uttered anymore. It is strange, and counterintuitive then, that every aspect of the courts and legal system, and most especially the Prison Industrial Complex, maintain a “one size fits all” policy. This becomes ever more frustrating when, for decades, our court and Legal system has proven to be a complete failure; we compound that with the historical fact that prisons have never been more than the tools of tyrants, and in modern times we have a century worth of reposts and statistics that conclusively illustrate that prisons do not work, and are sorely lacking in providing any promise of reformation, rehabilitation, behavioral modifications, or even the least bit of security for societal benefit. In fact, the truth is quite to the contrary.
One of the most important narratives to come out, exposing the truth, has been the growing knowledge base in Neuroscience. As we have come to better understand the workings and processes of the human brain, the way we see and understand the “hows and whys” of aberrant behavior has been dramatically altered. The first milestone as it were, was in the late 1990’s when the National Institute of Health declared that the correlations between head injuries and “criminal” behaviors was a public health issue. At that time, grants were made available to State Departments of Corrections for programs meant to track, screen, and treat those whose previous head injuries were related to changes in behavior, leading to incarceration. Only two states, Colorado and Minnesota, accepted the grants.
Over the next decade, neuroscientists made huge leaps in understanding the human brain, almost in lockstep with the fields of psychology, regarding the relations to our justice system and prison industry. It was becoming ever more apparent to neuroscientists that this new understanding had to be brought to the foreground and incorporated into legislation of judicial hearings. Psychologists had (along with everyone not profiting from the prison industry) openly declared prisons to be, not only failed in their proclaimed purpose, but possibly, the very cause of some of the problems they were expected to correct.
Through the first decade of the 21st Century, the body of evidence grew. Psychologists began to regularly recite the phrase “catastrophic stress” to describe the effects of the prison environment, while at the same time, prisons increasingly became a place to warehouse a growing population of mental health sufferers. Politicians and policy makers seem to have a sick sense of irony, because the number of prisoners with mental health issues climbed above the 40% mark. Obviously, an environment such as prison would only exacerbate and compound mental health issues, while providing easy fodder and prey for prison staff who are historically understood to be habitually abusive, predatory and exhibit behavioral traits that are red flags for dangerous pathologies. Prison, it was widely known, had become a detriment to society, as if it had somehow ever been otherwise.
In 2011 “Incognito: The Secret Lives of Brains” was published by Stanford University Neuroscientist David Eagleman. While being an especially well written book penned in a manner that would speak to the everyday person, it is Chapter 6 of Incognito that is especially poignant. Eagleman states, in no uncertain terms, and with all of the backing of neuroscience understood at that time, that our entire justice system needs to be reevaluated and restructured in a way that not only incorporates our modern understanding of how the human brain operates, but also how it is possible to retrain and “rewire” the brain itself. In other words, the justice system is operating in the dark and making poor decisions without all the understanding and evidence where culpability is concerned. Likewise, our system of punitive response is archaic and not in keeping with our understanding of the brain, what drives the brain and how to address human behaviors.
The entire 6th chapter is dedicated to explaining the science, and the reason, for such bold and necessary statements. It also broadly illustrates the great disconnect between what is known and what is readily applied. This disconnect, while certainly a cause of extreme harm and damage in regard to the judicial and prison systems, is a far more widespread issue across the entire United States. In fact, it would seem to correlate to the root of many of our societal and cultural problems in the U.S. While correlation is not necessarily causation as a rule, in this case we can actually say there is a causal connection. It can, and should, also be said that now in 2023, another decade, that the causality is being ignored rather deliberately.
Given how far neuroscience and psychology have come, it is important to take note of a few key features of the U.S. courts and its prison system. The first point is that both are now nefarious at a global level. While US politicians spew talking points about “our great system of law and order,” most of our global neighbors, and most US citizens, are keenly aware of the immense failure our system represents, and that its total collapse is all but inevitable. The next point is that the US judicial system depends upon the ignorance of those engaged with it. That fact, proven on any given day and time, in any given courtroom, is so unequivocal that it even applies to that special caste known as lawyers and judges. Yes, it is a fact that all too often this caste is not only unaware of major changes in our understanding of neuroscience – which should guide all of our policies and laws – but more often than not, this caste is unaware of things even as they stand on centuries of common laws, as it is applied and practiced.
This might sound improbable, and common sense would declare incredulous. Sadly, it is a fact, and it is one I would beg every single defendant in prison now, or stuck in the web of the judicial system, to give credence to. As an example, admittedly from one of the most archaic and backward states in America – Virginia – allow me to provide some curious points. In 2021-22, Virginia removed all of the openly “racist language” from its laws; however, some of those laws still remain on the books that are inherently racist, as they were written to be. Virginia has statutes that require judges to issue orders…e.g. A judge must declare from the bench that a person is competent to stand trial (VA.Code 19.2 – 169.1(E)), yet in the majority of cases this never actually occurs. So, where judges are incapable of following state laws, it is really no wonder that the incorporation of new and valuable information is avoided, and given the evidence, we presume intentionally.
This brings us to another point. In the last few years, it has been discovered that negative psychological factors: loneliness, anxiety, depression and being prone to psychological distress – to name a few – are DIRECTLY RELATED to a more rapid cognitive decline. Psychology has also noted a “specific-to-prison” stress disorder: Post Incarceration Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is onset after approximately three (3) years in any prison environment. In other words, the level of harm being caused by prisons to individuals, and by direct extension to society as a whole, is extensive.
Prisons are designed with negative psychological factors as a default foundation. Loneliness, created by being dramatically separated from family and friends, but also from familiar environments, basic comforts and from a basic sense of humanity and purpose. Imagine such separation then being filled with total strangers, many of whom are suffering from the same traumatic experience. Everyone is pushed under the threat of harm by force and violence, into a state of “fight or flight” survival. (The flight action is not really an option). All of this is enforced by state employees – prison guards – many of whom have no other option but to accept this disrespected job. At no other time in history have gaolers/jailers been seen as respectable, good or of use to society, and they likely never will. Their presence does nothing to create a positive environment for correcting behavior and healing.
This, then, is the launching pad for a bad situation made worse. It takes no stretch of terms and only a limited imagination to see how other psychologically negative factors are created, quite literally out of the thin air of a prison environment. This is the very definition of anxiety and depression. A proneness to psychological distress is not only to be expected, but it is seemingly a standard issue neurosis. In these environments, cognitive decline is something that may be seen and tracked from the start, certainly in those who have spent more than the approximately three years shown to cause PITSD. We should expect to find even higher traces of cognitive decline in unfortunates who have spent decades in such derelict environments.
Bring your attention back to the approximate 40% of incarcerated humans (that number increases depending on which polls you look at) who are, in fact, already experiencing mental health issues. We again note that they are in an environment that, without question, creates mental health problems where none existed prior to incarceration. It is well documented that mental health care, as well as medical and dental care in prisons, is paltry or cursory, at best. In fact, in the majority of departments of correction, it is only existent on paper. Those hired to fill such positions often have both hands tied behind their back while being gagged, as well. Many of these professionals seem to have inferior education and poor training, similar to those who “choose” to be guards…limited opportunities for employment elsewhere. These are the mental health staff we presume to be legitimate, because there is no shortage of corrupt and dangerous people in the prison mental health industry; in fact, there is evidence of at least one “Quality Mental Health Professional (QMHP)”, who falsified psychology records simply to prevent and avoid proper care being provided.
This is all in an environment that, by design, caters to the most basic instincts of the human condition. Malnourished and confined to a small concrete box, where at any time and with no legitimate cause, some other human, who is also operating on base instinct, and with no logical reason, may come in and steal from you, or randomly and with intent, destroy your very few personal items. A place where everyone struggles to get even the most basic of items, to a point of such depravation that one might end up dead, quite literally, over a pen and paper or a $0.39 ramen soup. That is what the environment of prisons are DESIGNED to create, because it helps to generate the justification that prisons need to exist. In psychological circles, this is known as a circular argument, and it is how an idea can reinforce itself while avoiding the logic and reason that ends the argument.
It is almost 2024. The government is all but useless. Not a single American institution is trusted. Law enforcement is often seen as terroristic. Politicians are widely recognized as an elite caste with no ties to the people (of lower castes) they claim to represent. Likewise, Science in America enjoys two very distinct forms of being broken: It is too often openly ignored when it should not be, as illustrated here regarding neuroscience; science, when not being summarily ignored and rejected, is often treated with the same level of contempt usually reserved for only the most fanatical of religions and their zealous adherents. This then begs the question: Has America/have Americans descended into madness: It seems to me that, ironically, neuroscience could very well provide us with the beginning of an answer, while simultaneously addressing and correcting the many problems that have led us to the question.
Could (science) possibly explain the pathology of denying medical, dental, and mental health care, thereby causing additional and unnecessary suffering and pain? Could neuroscience help explain the how and why of prison staff who often behave in a manner that is wholly criminal and openly abusive, (and the how and why of state DOC’s covering up this fact to the detriment of all?). It would seem the answer is “yes.” The even bigger question then is: What will it take to make such desperately needed changes occur? While the science is well founded, why is the change ignored for years and decades?
For some time now, we have had the solutions to more than a few of our problems. “We the people” need only have the willingness to implement those solutions, and preferably before more harm is done.