I am reminded of a Stanley Ellin story of the prison guard who put prisoners in the SHU and sometimes had to not let them take showers or trade food for showers, and turn on the lights all night so they would be tired when his double shift started.
His son told him that that was a cruel form of torture.
The prison guard told his son that someone had to do it, and it had a sound penological reason, for it kept men in fear and the more some men were tortured, the more other men would seek to avoid it.
And so he would lay the torture on extra thick – leaving excrement in cells, putting men in cages, and moving them around, and placing men with cellies that they were bound to have trouble with.
All for the penological purpose that torture keeps the others in line and even if everyone was good in a prison, they would still single out some men for torture, for it would be good penological exercise.
And that was why he would keep men in the SHU so long that they would become delusional, for when they got out, they would be babbling idiots, and not cause any trouble – all for penologically sound reasons.
“Is that all it is to you?” his son asked. “Just penologically sound?”
“Yes, and it is my duty.”
“But you get paid for it, don’t you?”
“I get paid little enough for it, yes.”
The son kept looking at his father in a strange sort of puzzled way.
“Only a duty?” he asked again, never once taking his eyes off his father, the prison guard for the SHU.
“But you enjoy it, don’t you?,” his son asked.
That was the question he asked. You enjoy it, don’t you?
You stand there looking through the little peephole in the cells knowing that the man inside is all alone with nothing to do every day so that day and night are all the same, and he has nothing to do but sit on the bed, on the floor or the toilet. If you’re like me, you have stood there two thousand times, looking at the vacant faces when you bring their food extra cold.
The door across the room opens. The guards bring somebody in. Maybe we threaten him, and usually a guy there in the SHU for a while is in a daze; until he sees us come and we try to scare him alert and awake. Then he starts to struggle. Sometimes he screams, throws himself around and tries to fight. Or bang his head against the wall. All of them scream when they have been there long enough. There seems to be something in a man going mad from loneliness that needs to scream. Your ears are fixed on the convict. Screaming convicts is penologically speaking very sound.
Then you take him out to a little larger cage, and though he is supposed to get an hour you cut it short 25 minutes, so just when he is getting some of that frenetic energy out of his system from being in a cage all day every day you interrupt him.
The body leaps out of the cage. And you push him right back into his tiny cell defeated again. It’s all about defeating him. Killing his spirit. Crushing him. Killing him with boredom and inhumane treatment what you would not do to a bad dog or trapped raccoon.
Like a rat in a live trap.
You do it again. A little trick to see if you can speed up the madness. And you do it a third time, just to make sure. And you don’t take him out one day for exercise and he don’t even know it.
He’s talking to himself, thinking he is back with people and then you come by and flash the lights on his eyes every time he shuts up and goes to his bunk to sleep.
And whenever you slide the cold mush moldy food into the cell, you can see in your mind what the SHU is doing to that body, and what the face in the dark cramped airless room must look like.
And will look like a year from now.
Son, we torture men in the SHU because we must do what’s best penologically, and for the sake of a taut prison, which is as penologically sound as protecting society from these worst of men.
And to have power over men and take everything human away from them and maybe give them a piece of something – a morsel of food or the chance to stay three minutes longer in the shower, or let them make a phone call, then cut them off or then take it away again – no shower – no calls. Whatever you have them have so they never know when you’ll let them have anything at all.
Never to see daylight again, or just warm sour milk and cold thin coffee, and watch them lose the power to smile in their wan pale ugly faces, their bodies going all flabby from dark confinement.
It’s a duty to our penological purpose to deter bad behavior this way. It’s as American as penological duty itself.
And his son said, but you enjoy it, don’t you?
That was the question his son asked him. That is what he asked, as if a prison guard didn’t have the same feelings deep down that we all, all of us Americans, have.
My God, how could anyone not enjoy it?