Jails and prisons are filled with stories of guards and corrections officers who abuse their power. Sometimes, the guards can be quite obvious about it, beating prisoners and holding them in solitary confinement. Other times, the abuse of power takes the form of throwing food on the floor or using tear gas to force a prisoner to leave his or her cell.
In any case, such abuse is not right. Asking the question, “Why does power go to guards’ heads?” sheds some light on the issue.
Is it the guards themselves?
The sorts of people who are attracted to working in jails and prisons may already be disposed to misusing power. So, self-selection likely plays a role.
Is it systemic flaws in the culture?
Many guards and officers intend to do good, fair work when they go into prisons. However, after being confronted with a flawed prison culture, they may begin to “go bad.” The structure of many prisons is black and white. There is little room, if any, for guards to show leniency. They must follow rules and obey the orders of whoever is power. In fact, it could be their own feelings of helplessness and the lack of trust in their judgment that eventually leads to them committing gross miscarriages of justice.
The “us versus them” nature of police and prison culture is very much in play, as is a code of silence. A guard who speaks up about another guard’s misdeeds is not likely to get rewarded. Similarly, guards who get mental health counseling may be scorned.
Is it the focus on punishment, not rehabilitation?
Then there is the fact that the penal system in the United States largely focuses on punishment and not rehabilitation. The emphasis is on appearing and acting tough and masculine. Little regard is given to issues such as expressing your emotions safely. Guards’ training is often focused on using physical force instead of negotiation or de-escalation.
There are many reasons why power can go to some guards’ heads. No doubt, the culture in many U.S. prisons needs an overhaul.