Lock a man up. Put him in a tiny cell. Require him to live with others not his choosing. Regulate when and what he can eat. Limit the times he may leave his cell to exercise in another pen. Restrict his access to family, reading material, and all the signals that might reach him from the external world. Do all this to the man and call him an inmate. Your control over the man is almost absolute. He is stripped of almost all the power he possesses.
The law-and-order crowd thinks this is a fitting response to the commission of a crime. We must punish, punish, punish a transgression of the law; punishment cannot be harsh enough, or savage enough. It’s almost as though there is this great rush of resentment against the incarcerated: we the law-abiding obey the rules at such great cost to the gratification of our instincts; you prisoners must pay for mocking us with your lack of restraint. Suffer!
Is it any wonder those living in our penal colonies strike back with such tools as they have?
The Connecticut Department of Corrections wants state lawmakers to create a new Class D felony making it punishable by up to five more years in the slammer for an inmate to masturbate in the presence of a prison official. What’s more, they want folks convicted of this offense to be required to register as a sex offender. That’s just stupid.
A spokesman for the prison union complains that some prisoners masturbate in their cells as a means of expressing a sense of power. "It's about power," the woman said. "If you can demoralize somebody, and some of the acts that women have described to me are absolutely horrific, then by all means the inmates feel more powerful over them." If you don’t want to see soiled sheets, then stay the fuck out of my bedroom.
Just why the Department of Corrections thinks it wise or even appropriate to use female guards to patrol the living space of male prisoners is a question for another day. What staggers the imagination is how prison administrators can regard masturbation as a crime: Once you have taken everything else away from a prisoner, must you also insist on sociological castration?
One of the most serene and wisest men I know is serving a prison sentence from which he will, absent a miracle, never be released. His crime was violent. Yet when I visit him, he is invariably calm. “What’s your secret?”, I asked him once. “They have my body but not this,” he said, pointing to his head. Prison has not broken this man. He retains his dignity, even amid the squalor than is prison.
Most prisoners never achieve that level of philosophic self-mastery. They and their jailers engage in petty disputes about dominance. Guards have rules and the discretion to impose them in ways they see fit. Prisoners have next to nothing. So they strike back in ways designed to humiliate a guard.
Does that include masturbation? Apparently.
The image is pathetic, even heart-breaking. A man broken to the point that his most effective form of expression is to engage in this most intimate form of protest. Is this not-so-silent scream really a way of saying that prisons have pressed too hard? I note once again that although the United States has five percent of the world’s population, we have 25 percent of all those imprisoned worldwide. By contrast to our European counterparts, our sentences are excessive. The rage of inmates is not misplaced; it is the self-righteousness of prison administrators that puzzles and infuriates.
If a man is so stripped of dignity and hope that he is reduced to hunching in his cell to produce semen to fling at the world, why aren’t we asking what the prison system is doing wrong? Instead, we want to criminalize more conduct, create longer sentences, make sex offenders of the enraged, drive the screws deeper into the skulls of those without hope. What next, castration of prisoners? (That so many will agree with castration as an option is a sign of how twisted we have become.)
Brian Garnett, the prison spokesman, told reporters the other day the new law is necessary. Really? I hope Garnett testifies in favor of the new legislation during the next session of the General Assembly.
“What do you think about when you masturbate, Mr. Garnett.” I’d love someone to ask that question. His angry outburst and refusal to answer will represent only a glimpse of the rage prisoner’s feel. Treat men like animals and they will behave as such. Drive them to the edge of despair and the despair will become murderous rage. Maybe it’s time to rethink prison and how it humiliates instead of rehabilitates. Maybe the real jerk offs in the prison system are the administrators.