Marcia Powell, forty-eight, was serving twenty-seven months for prostitution in an Arizona state prison. Late in May, she was placed in an outdoor holding cell for approximately four hours. The cell was not shaded; the outdoor temperature was 108 degrees. She was left in the cell until she collapsed, despite three corrections officers being just twenty yards away in a monitoring control room. Powell died the next day.
To be sure Powell lived a very troubled life. But why did the three corrections officers choose to commit violence against Powell? Clearly, they saw her as less than a human being; she was a mere object to them. Her comfort, her safety, her life was apparently of no concern to them.
The Arbinger Institute through their seminars and best-selling books has done much work in helping individuals understand the damage they to do to themselves and to others when they see others as objects. Violent behavior begins with a violent heart. Arbinger (their work is not attributed to individual authors) writes: “To see a fellow person as an inferior object is to harbor a violent heart towards that person.”
When do we begin to see others as an object? Arbinger writes: “When we regard others’ hopes, needs, cares, and fears as inferior to, or less legitimate than, our own, we see others as less than they are—as objects rather than as people.” In other words, Powell was a mere prostitute, a mere inmate who needed to be controlled.
While the responsibility of the corrections officers for their actions is inescapable, the responsibility of the institution that they served cannot be ignored. Butler Shaffer, in his book Calculated Chaos, does an important service in dissecting how our institutions often produce violence. Leaders of coercive institutions, according to Shaffer, “regard their functions as being to manipulate, threaten, induce or coerce the group members into subordinating their personal interests and promoting organizational purposes.”
What institutional purposes could the leaders of the prison system have? Perhaps, bigger budgets, more perks, and more power for themselves. A humane prison culture that facilitates rehabilitation might not cross their minds. The result of all of this can only be fear. The more the culture of the prison is fear-based, the more dehumanized both the prison guards and the prisoners become.
Brandy Britton was a former assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of Maryland. In 1999 she resigned amidst controversy. Her second husband was abusive and assaulted her. In 2006, after running into financial troubles, she became a $300 an hour high-end escort. After relentless prosecution by county authorities, she committed suicide in 2007.
Eliot Spitzer, the disgraced former New York governor, prosecuted prostitutes during his tenure as attorney general of New York. After resigning as governor for being a client of prostitution ring, he was never indicted; now he is in the process of reinventing himself as a media columnist and public speaker.
You don’t have to be a feminist to notice the disparities in how Powell, Britton, and Spitzer were treated. Then there is the question of why the citizens of Arizona, Maryland, and other states are not troubled that their tax money goes to prosecute and incarcerate prostitutes in the first place.
There is really no way to reform the system directly—our prisons, our courts, our laws against victimless crimes. Correct one abuse and two more will appear next month. The real reform begins inside each of us. When we stop seeing our fellow human beings as objects then more humane, non-coercive institutions will automatically arise.