Prison Is An Unethical Experiment On Human Beings

Image from a dramatization of the Stanford Prison Experiments, which were deeply flawed

We cage, torture, and kill human beings based on a theory that punishment changes behavior. Can we test this theory? Um, no. No ethics board will let you cage and torture people for years to see how it 'works'. Incarceration is too fucked up to study, but somehow totally fine to do.

We are living inside a deeply unethical psychological experiment, which neither asks for consent nor delivers results. Besides being unethical, besides being psychologically and socially devastating, mass incarceration doesn't even work.

In every possible way, throwing people in cages is just wrong.

1) Punishment Doesn't Work

BF Skinner from his book Science and Human Behavior (1965)

Everything in human psychology, child psychology, and even dog training tells us that punishment doesn't work. If you're trying to change long-term behavior, it's the worst possible intervention. Punishment produces a temporary effect that you have to keep punishing to maintain. The fact is that incarceration doesn't change behavior. It's a violent behavior in itself.

Skinner, continued

BF Skinner was the OG of operatant conditioning and he wrote that "in the long run punishment, unlike reinforcement, works to the disadvantage of both the punished organism and the punishing agency." It is, in short, evil. Science has slowly come around to this and punishment is no longer recommended for children or even dogs. Which begs the question. Why are we still caging adults?

1.1) Human Psychology

The allure of punishment is that it immediately seems to work. If you shock a rat for pressing a lever, it will stop pressing that lever. However (especially if there's an underlying cause for the behavior), when you stop shocking, the behavior will come back. As Skinner said in Science and Human Behavior (1965), any behavioral change is temporary. Punishment doesn't change real-world behavior. It forces you to maintain a new world of pain.

Science and Human Behavior

This makes punishment terrible public policy (you have to keep doing it), but it makes for a great public spectacle. In the past the regularly disemboweled people in public, but today we make prison rape jokes on TV. It's the same thing. We're still living in a world of vengeance, an eye-for-an-eye.

Even after doing this temporary bullshit and being long-term fucked up for thousands of years, the illusion is punishment will somehow dissuade 'criminals' next time. But it just doesn't. All we're proving is that humans are really bad at understanding deferred consequences. As Skinner said, we get immediate reinforcement when we throw someone in a cage, while all the consequences are deferred and we never hear about them.

About Behaviorism, BF Skinner

Punishment feels like 'doing something' in the short term, but in the long-term it destroys lives, families, communities, and does fuck-all for victims or the root causes of crime. The powers-that-be can say "look, we got the bad guy off the streets" and ignore how he got there, who he hurt, and why it happened in the first place. Those are all deferred consequences, who cares?

The truth is that punishment isn't a motivation against crime as much as it is more crime. The state has to be constantly committing more and more crime (kidnapping, torture, and murder are crimes) to maintain any meagre behavioral change.

This isn't about the type of punishment or how it's applied; 'better' laws or punishing different people won't fix this. This is just the psychological nature of punishment on human beings. It's short-term. If you want a long-term, healthier society, you can't punish your way there. Just look at us. We're pretty fucked up, thinking caging human beings is fine.

1.2 Child Psychology

As Skinner predicted, research has slowly, dimly, been leading to social change. Today, no child psychologist recommends hitting a child. Absolutely no one advocates throwing your children in a cage. Besides being unethical (which somehow isn't enough) these methods of discipline don't work.

As Margot Sunderland writes in The Science Of Parenting (2006), harsh punishment really fucks up your kids, who then go on to fuck up society.

The Science Of Parenting

Being a parent is not about getting your kids to put on their shoes, it's about wiring their brains. Harsh punishment wires them into a traumatic and aggressive loop. Forget the shoes, what they really learn is the traumatic punishment, especially if you keep repeating it for the toothbrush, and hitting their sister, and not washing their hair. They learn that violence and coercion are how adults deal with problems, and they start dealing with problems the same way.

So great, you spanked your children into putting their shoes on. At what cost?

The Science Of Parenting

Harsh punishment fucks up your children and they go on to fuck up their societies. The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand the rules the world, and we've just been rocking them too damn hard. And we're just talking about harsh punishment here, not putting your child in a cage, which is straight-up child abuse.

Caging your child—caging anyone—is illegal, but also somehow the base of our legal system. What the fuck are we thinking? If the government just spanked or yelled at people that would be better than what we regularly do. How did we decide that caging, torture, and murder was fit for entire adult populations? It's not even fit for a dog.

1.3) Dog Training

Today, no dog trainer recommends the Jack London method of beating/caging your dog into submission. Again, while this can temporarily work, you're not actually changing their 'bad' behavior. You're introducing even worse behavior from you, creating a traumatized animal living in a fucked up world. You have to be constantly beating or caging this poor creature to maintain control.

No dog trainer recommends punishment because why would anyone want to live like this? People want to have a healthy relationship with their dogs, not Call Of The Wild.

The dog trainer I followed, Brandon McMillan, recommended only positive reinforcement. Not beating a dog out of bad behavior, but treating them into good. The point is to have a good relationship with your dog, not dominate them into submission.

Lucky Dog

McMillan talks about the difference between being a warden (imprisoning your dog) and a teacher (helping them). No dog trainer advocates throwing a dog in a cage for bad behavior (crate training is never used as punishment). Every dog trainer calls for building trust, using positive reinforcement, and taking time.

You have to do long-term work to see long-term results. You have to exercise the dog, make sure they're fed, rested, loved, and only then can you use positive reinforcement to change individual behaviors. You have to work with a dog for moths to build a relationship with a shared definition of good. This is what every dog deserves and, indeed, every human being.

So we have to ask. Why are we still applying the law of club and fang to human bodies, long after we've stopped applying it to dogs?

2) Prisons Don't Work

These are the theoretical reasons prisons don't work, but you can also just see the results. If prisons made crime unappealing, why do we always need more prisons? Why are prison recidivism rates so high? This goes back to the basic theory of punishment. As Skinner said:

The effect of punishment was a temporary suppression of the behavior, not a reduction in the total number of responses. Even under severe and prolonged punishment, the rate of responding will rise.

And this isn't even getting into who we run this fucked up experiment on in the first place. It's disproportionately minorities, the poor, the mentally ill, and the already traumatized. Often people who were abused as children, who were raised violently, and for whom society also didn't care about from the moment they were born. Instead of helping children, we spend billions caging them adults. We take away parents from the next generation. And the racist, classist way we do this attacks vulnerable communities the worst.

Forget trying to fix our problems for a second. At the very least, we should do less harm.

3. Why Am I Even Arguing This?

I shouldn't even have to argue against caging human beings. The burden of proof should be on prisons to prove their utility, not on abolitionists to unexplain something so patently fucked up. We should have overwhelming evidence before traumatizing adults and treating them worse than dogs.

Of course they can't prove it, because the very idea is so obviously demented that you can't even research it directly. Just imagine the proposal you'd have to submit:

Research Proposal: We propose putting thousands of mostly lower-income men in cages for years. We will introduce the threat of random torture, abuse, and death, in addition to lethal neglect. We will test whether this makes certain behaviors (defined by politicians) less common among the general population, with no controls. We will select participants without consent.

You are not allowed to conduct this experiment because it's so patently fucked up, yet this is somehow public policy. Worst of all, it's presented to the public as having some great psychological efficacy, while in fact it's too obviously wrong to even merit testing.

Caging human beings has no psychological validity at all. It's just ancient eye-for-an-eye, crime for a crime, disguised in the scientific, 'rational' language of the day. We've had the golden rule for thousands of years, but we don't follow it. Jesus told us turn-the-other cheek and we turn the other way. Confucius, Buddha, your mother (I assume); everyone who thought about harming your fellow human said it was wrong, but here we are, tossing more humans in cages than ever before.

Scientists are telling us now and we still don't understand. I'm telling you here, again. Punishment for trauma is just more trauma. Crime for crime is just more crime. Eye-for-an-eye just doesn't work. All it has done is make the whole world blind.

For further reading try the books above, or read my Demand For Nonviolent Government, or Tolstoy, The Most Woke Anarchist Since Jesus.

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