“Monster Factory” is a slang phrase for a prison, one that fits the popular view of a jail: a place where ruthless thugs are kept locked up by sadistic guards. These stock images surround us—in movies, television shows, music lyrics, and newspaper stories.
One such “monster factory” recently hit the media when the Department of Justice released a 42 page report accusing New York State’s Westchester County jail of violating prisoners’ civil rights. As Preet Bharara, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, bluntly stated the jail had ‘utterly failed’ to protect inmates and to provide humane conditions. (New York Times)
Having worked at Westchester County jail for ten years teaching locked up teenagers who were either awaiting trial or serving time, I found that report painful to read. It catalogs abuses in which correctional staff used excessive force on prisoners such as administering pepper spray to already subdued inmates at point-blank range in crowd control doses; slamming a female inmate’s head into a wall; dragging another inmate along the floor by his handcuffed wrists. The Department of Justice also cites the county jail for using “threatening and aggressive verbal strategies” regardless of an inmate’s “mental impairments” which only make situations more volatile.
While these are horrible things, when I first heard about the investigation I felt a sense of elation. Finally, I thought, the jail is being held accountable for some of the abuses I and my colleagues had long been aware of. Maybe now kids won’t be subjected to needless physical force and intimidation. Maybe now they won’t be thrown in to disciplinary isolation for long stretches of time, where the conditions seriously threaten their mental health. And maybe now these locked up teens will get decent medical and mental-health care.
Ultimately, though, I felt sad and disheartened by that report. Westchester County jail isn’t a “monster factory.” Most buildings have been modernized. Efforts are being made to set up job training programs, add more educational opportunities, and provide pre-release counseling and planning services. I found myself thinking, “If these kinds of abuses can happen at the Westchester jail, in a county with all the money, education and sophistication of a New York City metropolitan suburb, what kinds of things are happening in jails in other parts of the country with far fewer resources.”
Then it hit me. Westchester jail is a “monster factory” because every jail is a “monster factory.” I had been missing the irony of the phrase. A factory is a place where things are made. And indeed, as the Department of Justice report showed, jail conditions can make monsters out of people.
The Westchester jail’s emergency response team came in for some particularly hard criticism in the report. ERT, an elite group with special uniforms and SWAT gear, carries a certain cache in the prison. Made up of officers who volunteer to serve on a rotational basis, the squad is sent in to break up fights. It’s a demanding job that requires not only brawn but also a cool head and iron-fisted restraint.
I worked with a number of COs both in the classroom and on the blocks who volunteered for the team. They were decent men and women who on a day-to-day basis seemed to care about the kids—even the worst troublemakers—we both worked with. But something happened to them when they put on that all-black uniform to do their ERT stint. Later, when their rotation was over and they returned to their usual posts, they would talk unselfconsciously about the brutality of what they had done.
Listening to them talk—or more often, overhearing them as they joked about it with their peers—I was struck by how easily many of them had shed the humanity, commonsense and good judgment they had shown working with my students. Hidden behind body shields and reflective visors, the men and women on ERT became faceless, rage-filled forces accountable to no one, not even themselves.
There’s a lot of suffering in those 42 pages. It is a roll call of abuses not only of the kept but of their keepers, both victims of a culture of threat and violence. It is an indictment of how this country runs its jails and of their damaging affects on the people who must survive in them. But more importantly, it is a cautionary tale, its lesson as old as history: that all human beings, good, ordinary people are capable of the greatest atrocities.