Prison Torture and the Spit-Mask

Pete Brooks highlighted a video that emerged last week of horrific abuse in a Maine Department of Corrections prison. Graphic video is available here.

I don’t have much to add to Pete’s commentary — watching the shorter clip, I can’t help but think of Ted Conover’s account from ‘Newjack’. And even more than the sadistic torture, I wonder about the dynamic between the guards. Unlike Lt. Pike at UC-Davis, we see the militarized figures working as a group under one command. We get a clear view of Captain Welch’s face, but the rest of his staff are masked and armored. Only when he dismisses one of them to clear his mask (of spit? of pepper spray?) are we given the smallest hint of ‘humanity’ or flicker of concern towards human welfare. I’m fascinated watching how Welch turns his back on the scene several times, pacing out of the cell while his armored colleagues work.

And they’re missing the key. Not surprising in a chaotic and elaborate prison episode, but a reminder that these sorts of operations are far from standardized (hence Welch’s use of pepper spray at 6 inches, rather than the minimum suggested operating distance of several feet). Try as we might, we can’t escape our humanness.

I’m also reminded of a section of Philip Zimbardo’s ‘The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil’, where he’s discussing dehumanization and moral disengagement. Zimbardo points to the work of sociologist Ervin Goffman and the way he describes “the process by which those who are disabled are socially discredited. They become not fully human and thus tainted.”

Prisons must operate as dehumanized environments to maintain the balance necessary to keep human beings in suspension. With the torture at Abu Ghraib, prisoners were stripped naked, the final measure amongst already crushing levels of categorial discrimination and demonization of ‘the other.’ Here, it’s the same idea but the exact opposite visual metaphor — the addition of the spit mask is yet another layer grafted onto the already mentally disabled and physically restrained inmate.

Consider that each primary character in this incident was masked except for Welch. It’s proven that, when deindividualized, humans tend to bend more to situational demands — which is why it’s even more fascinating that Welch maintains the autocratic, authoritarian role throughout the entire incident. The inmate, bound and shackled, masked with black gloves covering his eyes, immediately appeals to the captain as another human. “Captain, I was honorably discharged,” he sputters, “if you just uncover my mouth so I can breath, I promise not to…”

And even weirder, most of the guards look at the camera (or past the camera, to their counterparts presumably looking on) numerous times. This is the era of the Internet and of the Internet scandal. The thought of this video being leaked to the public undoubtedly crossed the minds of every single person in that room at one point during those two hours. Whether they thought it really mattered (hell, this is what we do every other week) is up for debate.

But then again, maybe the record of this incident doesn’t immediately equate to guilt or culpability like it does to the average viewer. Again, this may be a routine occurrence in this prison — society is full of prison horror stories.

One final parallel: In his latest book, ‘Every Twelve Seconds: Industrial Slaughter and the Politics of Sight’, Timothy Pachirat explains how the 130 workers employed in an average-sized slaughterhouse all assuage their part in an industrialized killing process by grafting the collective culpability of mass-slaughter on a single man — the knocker, the job title of the guy holding the captive bolt gun — responsible for the perceived fatal shot to the cow. Doesn’t matter that 20 seconds after the bolt stuns the hefer, another worker guts the beast with a huge knife while it’s still breathing. As long as the knocker is the one delivering the deliberate act of violence, the rest sleep well at night.



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