Abuses of Power in Closed Institutions: A Better Way

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Boy in detention

The ABC’s exposé of abuse at Done Dale detention centre in the Northern Territory has shocked the Australian public and led Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to announce a Royal Commission into juvenile detention.

Since the abuses hit the mainstream media, there has been a lot of finger pointing by those at the top of the political pecking order. The NT government has found its scapegoat in Corrections Minister John Elferin and the individual guards involved, dismissing them from their positions. Meanwhile, Chief Minister Adam Giles and other senior politicians who long knew about the abuses get to keep their jobs.

The abuses at Don Dale point to an inherent problem in giving largely unchecked power to those within closed institutions, something which was highlighted by the Stanford Prison Experiment. Without proper checks and balances, there is little question similar abuses will continue to occur in prisons, mental health hospitals, immigration and juvenile detention centres.

The Stanford Prison Experiment

As previously reported, the ground-breaking 1971 experiment revealed the extent to which the ‘normal’ people compromise their values as a result of power dynamics of the circumstances. As Lord Acton, a British Historian, famously said, “Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

In the experiment, a group of male middle class students (specifically picked to exclude those with criminal backgrounds or medical and psychological issues) were randomly divided into the role of prisoners or guards, with all the usual power imbalances of the relationship.

The head of the experiment, Professor Zimbardo, reported that the guards increasingly became more cruel and sadistic. Among other things, they used physical punishment, solitary confinement, took away mattresses and denied access to toilets. One-third of the guards were judged to have exhibited “genuine sadistic tendencies”, while some of the prisoners suffered long term psychological effects.

The experiment had to be cancelled after just 6 days.

Subsequent Research

In his ensuing book, ‘The Lucifer Effect’, Zimbardo compared the Stanford experiment with the Abu Ghraib atrocities, where young members of the US military smiled while torturing detainees to death, encouraged dogs to attack the genitals of men and watched them bleed to death, and performed the most humiliating and degrading acts on those detained. Nothing was done about this until dozens of horrific photos were leaked to the media. At the time, Zimbardo criticised the US government for scapegoating ‘a few bad apples’ rather than acknowledging the systemic problems of a formally established military incarceration system without appropriate safeguards.

Choosing Participants

There are some who believe the Stanford experiment contained a certain selection bias, which skewed the outcome. They pointed-out that the experiment involved young males who actively wanted to be part of a prison study, which may not be representative of the general population.

Research published in 2007 found that those who responded to an advertisement to be part of a study on “prison life” scored higher on tests of aggressiveness, authoritarianism, narcissism, and social dominance, and lower on measures of empathy.

Research by psychologist Adam Galinsky suggests that power is not necessarily good or evil, but that it depends on the characteristics of the person wielding it. His research concludes that “power amplifies the person”, meaning that those who are disposed to cruelty and a lack of empathy can be dangerous within institutions.

The concern, of course, is that those who seek jobs with power over others are, like the applicants for the Stanford experiment, more likely to be those who crave power over others – a dangerous situation.

Causal Link to Reoffending

True longitudinal studies have identified youth incarceration as an independent factor leading to adult offending. A 2013 study of around 35,000 children from Chicago showed incarceration itself made reoffending more likely. All other factors being equal, children who were incarcerated were found to be a whopping 22-26% more likely to be imprisoned as adults.

And a recently-concluded 20-year study of 779 low-income youth in Montreal similarly tracked arrest records into adulthood. Compared with other kids with similar risk factors, those who had been incarcerated as kids were 37 times more likely to be arrested again as adults.

More generally, 78% of meta-research (research into other research) compiled by Villettaz, Killias and Zoder (2006) of 27 studies from 1961 and 2002 found either no deterrent effect or increased crime rates as an effect of incarceration.

The results are clear and perhaps unsurprising – placing children into detention dramatically increases the chance they will offend as adults. It is counterproductive to breaking the cycle of crime.

Effective Juvenile Detention

The ‘Missouri Model’ aims to create lasting change by focusing on rehabilitation rather than punishment.

The US state uses small, community-cantered facilities with highly trained ‘youth specialists’ rather than guards. The program aims to house offenders in facilities close to home – to maintain a child’s links to family – and implements a therapeutic model of addressing underlying issues.

As a result, fewer than 8% of children in the Missouri system are re-incarcerated within three years of release, and less than 8% progress to adult prison. 50% successfully return to school, which is more than 3 times the national average for incarcerated child offenders. In total, 90% are attending school and/or employed at the time of their discharge.

The Model shows there is a better way to deal with youth crime than locking children up with those who are drawn to positions of physical power and failing to implement appropriate checks and balances.

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Zeb Holmes

Zeb Holmes

Zeb Holmes is a lawyer with a passion for social justice who advocates criminal law reform, and a member of the content team at Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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