Psychology and prisons expert Craig Haney talks about social injustices in U.S. prisons at Annual Faculty Research Lecture

April 10, 2015


Craig Haney, psychology professor, 2015
The United States has the highest rate of imprisonment in the world, UC Santa Cruz Professor Craig Haney said during his Faculty Research Lecture Tuesday, April 7.

Compared to other Western countries, America is an outlier.

The data are startling. Over the four decades that Haney has studied prisons, the criminal justice system has radically shifted the way it responds to criminal behavior.

“We should respond to crime in a way that is consistent with our values,” said Haney, a distinguished professor of psychology and director of the legal studies program. 

Instead, we have locked up prisoners and thrown away the key. Since the 1970s, the U.S. incarceration rate has increased sevenfold. To handle the rapid growth, inmates in many prison systems were double and even triple bunked in cells intended for one person. Prisons turned gymnasiums  into dormitories; other social spaces were stripped bare.

As prisoners were crammed together in overcrowded prisons, means “prison is always with you,” Haney observed. “There is always the presence of another prisoner and no privacy or respite.”

Haney’s lecture, “PrisonWorld: How Mass Incarceration Transformed U.S. Prisons, Impacted Prisoners, and Changed American Society” is the 49th Faculty Research Lecture at UC Santa Cruz. Every year, the academic senate nominates a faculty member with an extremely distinguished research record to deliver the Faculty Research Lecture. Dating back to 1967, this is the longest standing academic tradition on campus.

As Haney remarked, prisons became increasingly violent places over this “era of mass incarceration.” Hyper-vigilance, distrust and suspicion became modes of survival; outward signs of vulnerability must be suppressed, lest they be used to someone else’s advantage. Too often, prisoners are presented with only Hobson’s choices: be scary or scared, bully or victim, Haney said.

In effort to maintain order over unprecedented numbers of prisoners, officials implemented harsher restrictions and increased surveillance and control. More bars, barbed wire, fencing, chains, walls, and even cages became the norm. In some places, rifle-toting guards oversee housing units.

“Harsh conditions of confinement inflict forms of psychological pain on prisoners, and the trauma of solitary confinement often worsens it,” Haney argued. The long-term prison isolation that Haney has studied has severe psychological consequences. It fills many prisoners with depression, social anxiety, and what he calls an “ontological anxiety.” As Haney described it, “some isolated prisoners do not know if they still exist anymore,” Haney remarked. “Many also manifest a deep melancholia, joylessness and grief.”

Solitary confinement often means that prisoners are denied any human touch, except for the incidental contact they have when an officer handcuffs them. Many isolated prisoners worry that they will never be fully functioning persons if and even when they re-enter free society.

The process of adjusting to prison life in general culminates in what Haney calls prisonization. “Prisonization is a normal set of psychological responses to the abnormal situation of confinement,” he said.

But the prison system has grown so vast and influential in American society that forms of prisonization extend beyond the prison walls and into aspects of our daily life outside, Haney argued further.

The habits of thinking and acting that are commonplace inside prison are increasingly accepted and adopted in the world outside, he argued, calling this phenomenon the rise of “carceral consciousness.”

“We normalized the act of sending people to prison for an ever larger number of social problems,” Haney remarked. A “punitive mindset” has been embraced in which deference to authority and the tolerance of prison-like forms of surveillance and control appear more widespread.

Despite this, however,  Haney has recently become optimistic about reform and social change.“The arc of the moral universe may be bending towards justice,” he said. Haney, who has testified about prison conditions to the California State Legislature and to the US senate, said that elected officials appear much more serious about significant  reform, and implementing more preventive and less punitive approaches to crime control

As evidence of the beginning of meaningful prison reform, Haney pointed to the US Supreme Court order several years ago forcing California to dramatically reduce its prison population.

In addition, he cited media reports, including one from Erica Goode, a former UCSC psychology graduate student and now a journalist at the New York Times, acknowledging that a “new approach to crime” is taking hold across the country.  

And just last week Haney joined Attorney General Eric Holder along with other leaders from government including senator Cory Booker and former house speaker Newt Gingrich to address how systemic changes can be achieved in the American criminal justice system and what reforms must urgently be made.

There is still a long way to go, Haney conceded. Even if the US would reduce its prison population in half, it would still have the third highest rate of incarceration in the world.

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