I heard what sounded like a bowling ball hitting the floor with a thud and the familiar sound of a scuffle ensued I stepped out of my cell to see two men tussling on the concrete. One man was mounting the other as prisoners watched while pretending not to. The man on the bottom scratched, clawed, kicked and eventually bit, attempting to recover from a punch that caught him off guard. I heard his high-pitched scream as the man atop him dug both thumbs into his eye sockets and I felt sick to my stomach; sick to my stomach that I was programmed and institutionalized to the point that I could stand idly by while another human being was being brutalized and do nothing. Why could I do nothing? I certainly still had a choice, albeit as long as I was willing to accept the consequence of that decision. However, the rules and norms of prison dictate that I must turn my head and walk on.
What does it mean to be institutionalized? How does it happen and who teaches it? Many define institutionalized “as the inability or struggle to function outside of prison.” Prison is very mechanical in its routines and interactions; there is an indifference comparable to its metal doors and bars. Both prisoners and correctional officers become jaded by the day-in-day-out grind of the prison, often looking through a lens clouded by stigmatization, labeling and patterns of criminal thinking. This machine that is prison is well-oiled at the top by administrators with rhetoric and phrases like rehabilitation, pro-social behavior promotion, and encouraging family connections; but this oil rarely trickles down to the ground floor of this prison machine (where we live every day), leaving it rusty. There is a deeper sense of humanity lost for the prisoner with each label or interaction with some in authority who silence his or her voice using that very authority to do so. When one turns on the news, a great percentage of media is crime-related. Consistently, news media refers to prisoners as thieves, murderers, monsters, subjects, and criminals without mentioning a context or narrative of any part of their humanity. This ideology that the mainstream media reinforces further desensitizes the public and de-humanizes prisoners who are sons, fathers, and human beings not simply defined by a choice or mistake.
Furthermore, the prison culture creates an us-against-them mentality. For the young man or woman entering prison, the cell blocks, the noise, the stench, the often-malicious prison guards, the indifferent prisoners, the lack of empathy, the geographically-marked territory of prison factions and gangs on the prison yard (and the once agents of change on both sides now burnt out and handcuffed by the system), these become the prisoners’ teachers. For many, it’s a veritable jungle of intimidation and brutality where only the fittest survive and they must adapt accordingly. Correctional officers can often fall right into this same dehumanizing, institutionalized way of thinking, some even contriving to arrange life so that it destroys the prisoner’s sense of personal value, degrades his or her human dignity, and deadens the fibers of his/her very being.
This whole daunting process snatches hope and dehumanizes individuals, reducing them to a subject without a voice. A few months after my family member was murdered by Salem police at age 25, I kept having negative interactions with correctional officers who used their authority to silence my voice. I struggled to find any motive or intention on their part outside of malevolence, often associating it with the killing of my cousin and the life she would never have because those in authority took her life. I nearly gave away all my hope. I packed up most of my small amount of property in my 6×8 cell, and one by one I began to remove pictures of my loved ones from my picture board. I first took down the picture of my mother and father, then the ones of 11-year-old Kate whose smile and kind words on paper had sustained me in darker times. Finally, I took down the pictures of me holding a blond little girl who gave me hope for the future each time she squeeze my neck with her little hands. It was as if I was packing up all hope in the bottom of my heart only to be carefully unpacked upon leaving this prison. The idea was that I did not want to allow them to have anything with which they could hold over me, or threaten to take, that I must focus only on what’s in front of me inside the prison. This kind of thinking is the extreme of institutionalization. Fortunately, this is not what happened to this prisoner because my connections are deeper and stronger than the apathy of these prison walls and the reach of those hands of loved ones reach farther than the hands of hate, but many do not have those strong connections.
When many often hear stories of violent encounters in prison, its frequently assumed prison is the place these violent men belong. The prison uses solitary confinement (23 hour a day lockdown) as a deterrent or punishment for even nonviolent breaches of the rules, often referring to prisoners in the hole (solitary confinement) as the “worst of the worst.” However, this is simply not the case, based on over 20 years of empirical evidence, according to an ACLU report on solitary confinement, “indeed, contrary to the assumption that a few worst of the worst prisoners cause violence in prisons, researchers have shown that the levels of violence in American prisons may have more to do with the way prisoners are treated and how prisons have been staffed and managed than the presence of a few ‘super-violent prisoners.'”
The way prisons are currently run in America and what they produce in men and women at the end of their sentence certainly suggests that many come out broken and institutionalized. This writer has been blessed to have experienced incredible moments of humanity inside these mechanical prison walls, but it was not because of the environment, but rather a fellow prisoner or staff member making a choice to be kind.
When we diminish the value of any human being, defining them by their worst moments, we fail as a community, as a country, and we fail as human beings. When we begin to see someone as less than human, it paves the way to treat them as less than human. I once sat with a man on death row who was dying. He was dying of congestive heart failure and was experiencing multiple system shutdowns as a result. Consequently, because he was a death row inmate he was not allowed to be around other human beings. It was determined by non-medical administrative staff (over the phone) that no one was allowed in the same room with this man. This man was at a stage in his dying process where he could no longer walk, or even speak. He nearly died alone devoid of human touch in a locked infirmary prison side room. Fortunately, a courageous nurse on the graveyard shift (who by choice no longer works here) followed her higher ethical values of humanity by calling up a prisoner hospice volunteer. Just as this man was dying of heart failure, so our prison system has created a heart failure of humanity.
“They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted.”
“W]e again fell victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long.”
Taken together, these citations demonstrate the parallel King draws between violence in Vietnam and violence in the United States. The motivating force is “Western arrogance” and its dominating, destructive impact on those who are on the receiving end. Central to his argument is that these parallels are not representative of separate events. Rather, the war in Vietnam exports the destructive race relations in the United States abroad, forcing Vietnamese people to suffer and die at the hands of Black and white soldiers, while the government and white citizens in the United States continue to inflict violence on Black citizens at home.
King explains the inhumane and illogical exportation of violence and domination by highlighting the inconsistency in supporting the war and also supporting civil rights efforts. He insists that in order to pursue mutual resolution and peace, there must be trust between parties. And when the United States has shown nothing but state sanctioned murder and destruction of land, there is no reason for the Vietnamese people to trust that peace and access to resources are the intended result of the war.
“Beyond Vietnam” was specifically targeted to an American audience to convince people that silence condones the suffering of other humans. King speaks to the ignorance of Americans, and how we do not understand the international impact of the violence we perpetuate. He shows that Americans felt distant from the daily struggles of Vietnamese people during the war, failing to recognize that we were condemning innocent Vietnamese people and fighting a war we had to place in. The distance from human experience is the ultimate tool of domination, in this instance, as it facilitated the inaction of American citizens who didn’t consider the daily plight of Vietnamese people. Institutions within the United States still do this; we still rely on the distance between Americans with institutional power and the people we persecute to justify inhumane treatment. Demonizing and distancing the narratives of those who receive the violence of “Western arrogance” is how we maintain the prison industrial complex and how we remain ignorant to murder and destruction abroad. At risk of being ahistorical, King’s argument rings true 50 years later—even when considering the many differences in our current American context.