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Dealing with Civil Disobedience inside a Prison
By Carl ToersBijns, former deputy warden, ASPC Eyman, Florence AZ
Published: 06/04/2018

Inmateclass Correctional employees deal with civil disobedience daily during their shift at work. Some may say it is a passive aggressive method to burn off steam or stress. Others recognize it as a natural by-product of the culture within the prison setting. Whether we realize it or not, the prisoner has a powerful tool called ‘civil disobedience’ to communicate displeasure or even refusal to institutional rules and regulations.

How they express these grievances is an important part of a democratic and diplomatic solution within a prison setting; not often recognized is how the matter arises. Nobody wants a controversy to escalate into a controversial or violent situation. So how do we fix this potential problem? How do we stand our ground without letting a prisoner make a mockery of the authority invested in a prison official and in some cases, the lack of common sense that is often injected into the conversation? Using the term ‘democratic process’ lightly, we would like to respond to the prisoner that if you don’t like the rule or law impacted, don’t break the law and come to prison. A more civilized response would be to file an appeal or write a grievance. That is what Civics 101 recommends.

There was a time when this advice might have made sense when the government was small and laws on the books were few and simple. At the same time, prison systems were not as densely populated as today, and overcrowding is a common problem for many states. Culturally speaking, the diversity of races, religions, and customs has made life complicated for correctional employees in how to resolve such matters peaceable and reasonably.

However, that is a reality check of today’s painfully unrealistic situations at times. We are dealing with evolved mass regulations that represent an unbelievable accumulation of many decades of prison lobbying, coalition-building, administrative interpretation, and judicial precedent. Unfortunately, many of these regulations have not kept up with the times of the cultural revolutions inside prisons. The idea that an individual could clear up this quagmire of complicated laws, rules and traditions or customs is asinine.

Outside a prison setting, the democratic process gave us these laws. Inside the prisons, the rules change, and some liberties are lost because of their own violations of the rule of law. In fact, there are many harmful side effects that impede a civilized settlement when the system doesn’t work that way.

Today, correctional administrators and employees deal with the harmful side effects, but this is the way the system works. The modern goal is not to just make things better but also safer. It is to display good faith intentions, to gather credibility whenever they can while dealing with complex issues under pressure. Politics needs to stay out of the conversation.

Politics has become a theatre of fake performances that lends no credibility to the matters at hand. There are no heroes and the audience are other prisoners watching the events as they unfold, giving them food for thought for the next controversy. Inside the prisons, good intentions can go a long way with single-minded pressure groups. Thus, there are no means available to carry out a democratic process, just the facts and a clear explanation of the expectation.

Is there nothing that we can do to counteract foolish and destructive rules and regulations? Yes, but disobedience is not an option even when the rules appear to be unfair or unreasonable. A proven revolutionary tool is to appeal to a higher power through the means provided by the policies of the institution. Appeals do work, but disobedience defeats the credibility of the principle of civil disobedience. There is a difference between the two.

When rules contradict our sense of morality and decency, it is right to disobey them? Civil disobedience points the way to the tactics of reform, but it will not itself address the problem of poorly written rules or overregulation. Civil disobedience is a tactic of mass protest. It assumes a single, objectionable law or rule so prominent that large numbers of people can be marshaled to demonstrate against it. To resist and counter the regulatory administration, prisoners need to create or form small-scale, convenient strategy that can be applied to the masses. It is called “civil noncompliance.” Its aim is to counter a destructive (or foolish) law or rule by finding a quiet way to evade it and change it, whichever may be the case.

By calling the tactic “civil noncompliance”, it was meant to emphasize the element of social responsibility without harming the existing culture. Change should not advocate disobeying laws or unjust rules because one can get away with it because inside a prison, it is highly likely you won’t. One must have a helpful, socially constructive purpose in mind. Something that benefits many rather than just one. By using the term “noncompliance,” I mean to emphasize that this is a polite disobedience. It is not confrontational, and certainly never violent. Civil noncompliance does not presume a battle with prison officials enforcing the rule of law or unfair institutional rules.

The idea is to be credible or to receive tacit support in changing a regulation’s requirements. It is not the notion that prison officials may be willing to “look the other way” as we are accustomed to portraying correctional staff as rigid, power-mad enforcers who enjoy making life difficult for prisoners. There are undoubtedly some in this category, but most prison employees are ordinary human beings who want to be friendly and helpful if the situation allows them to behave accordingly. Government officials often see that some regulations are irrational and harmful. Out of empathy, or embarrassment, they can become allies.

Civil noncompliance is more than a strategy for getting by in an age of over-regulation. It affords an avenue for remaking social governance along new lines. It is designed to meet judicial reforms, culturally sensitive customs and traditions and at the same time, keep a safe and orderly prison operating within the rules of dignity and respect.

The more awareness correctional employees have concerning this matter, the better choices and decisions are made at the most basic levels of supervision. There is no need to rush into a conversation that may have to be examined to be legitimate and have common-sense validity. Recognizing that disobedience is unacceptable, the tools available lies squarely with the prisoner to handle this socially responsible and within the rules of the institution provided.

Corrections.com author, Carl ToersBijns, (retired), has worked in corrections for over 25 yrs He held positions of a Correctional Officer I, II, III [Captain] Chief of Security Mental Health Treatment Center – Program Director – Associate Warden - Deputy Warden of Administration & Operations. Carl’s prison philosophy is all about the safety of the public, staff and inmates, "I believe my strongest quality is that I create strategies that are practical, functional and cost effective."

Other articles by ToersBijns:


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