By Keith Dauch
Television often portrays corrections officers as the bad guys and inmates as their victims. Anyone who has seen Orange is the New Black or Prison Break knows about the power trips the officers are on, and the crimes they commit, like smuggling drugs into the prison or abusing an inmate for their enjoyment. It’s almost as if the moment a criminal walks inside the gates of a prison, he stops being a criminal and becomes a victim, and the corrections officers, meant to serve and protect, are the monsters.
As a corrections officer myself, I saw it on the news, on the looks I got from the inmates’ visitors, and I read about it in articles written by those who profess to be experts on the problems of our nation’s prisons. It became so I felt a little awkward if I had to stop somewhere on the way to work with my uniform on. I could feel people staring at me, disgusted by the power complex they assumed I had, like I was going to leave the gas station with my cup of coffee and Power Bar and head off to work to lock the inmates in their cells, deny them any contact with the outside world, and basically treat them like caged animals.
I couldn’t help but notice a gap between the so called “studies and statistics” and the realities I witnessed on the front lines.
After many years of working as a CO, each individual inmate melded into one massive tan blob, a number I had to count twice a day, and worth no more attention than that, until they began overstepping the boundaries. Mostly things ran smoothly, but at times, like when the inmates would hang out on the walkway instead of in their bunk area or common area, or when they wanted extra recreation time, with which I could not comply, they became angry. Since I wore the blue uniform, I was the immediate enemy of everyone in groups based on physical differences including race, ethnicity, and gender. This helps people differentiate between things to understand the world. “One of the roots of biases is categorizing people,” Fridell says. “Infants don’t have that negative content we learn over time, but even infants recognize people who are different than they are, and that’s the beginning of categorizing and turning [those categories] into stereotypes and groups.” One of the ways police can reduce their biases is by using a concept called “The Contact Theory.” Fridell teaches officers that “frequent police. “I think that overwhelmingly, police in this country are good people––heroes even––who want to do good, effective, and impartial policing. The way we used to think and talk about the topic of ‘racial profiling’ did not reflect that fact. The police have felt attacked, accused of being racists,” she says. “This has produced reactions from frustration to anger. I’m glad that the Fair and Impartial Policing perspective changes this discussion. We are no longer talking about ‘bad police,’ we are talking about the fact that police are human, like the rest of us.” Curses were exchanged, face- offs occurred, and sometimes even punches were thrown. When things became a bit too out of control, I would have to put the inmates on their bunks, or back in their cells.
The problem forgotten by academics and others who have probably never worked in a prison setting is this: How can a corrections officer tell which are the inmates who want to better themselves, and which are the ones who would have no problem attacking him. After nine years of working in the prisons, I learned to watch the shifting eyes and the tell-tale body language: the nervous hand rubbing and feet shuffling, coupled with those eyes that keep coming back to meet mine to see if I’m still looking.
So, yes, I profile, but I see nothing wrong with that. How else am I to protect myself? Color of skin makes no difference to me, but actions and body language might make me look at a person differently. When I see an inmate walking towards another with a hard-eyed stare, almost pushing others out of the way, I feel on edge; when I see a group of guys huddling in a back corner with one inmate up front watching me, I feel on edge; when I see someone tying his shoes tight and tucking in his shirt, which can be an indication of an upcoming fight, I feel on edge, regardless of skin color. Each inmate represents a possible dangerous situation, and I have to be in a constant state of watchfulness: in other words, I need to be constantly profiling.
In many situations profiling helped me inside the prison walls. But the profiling spread to everyone in tan, not just one specific ethnic group. On one particular night a few inmates somehow smuggled some marijuana back into the dorm. My partner and I smelled the distinct odor and began to look on the cameras for the source. Soon we noticed one very watchful inmate in the common area watching us instead of the television. As I got up to walk down that side of the dorm the inmate turned away from me and loudly mimicked the sound of a police siren. Immediately a group of inmates began to flood out of the back where the cameras couldn’t reach. Smoke filled that area, but by the time I got there the drugs were gone. I consider the drug use a multi-cultural effort. The look-out was an African-American, but the inmates running from the back were certainly a diverse group.
During another shift I noticed a white inmate walking into the common room with an angry look on his face. He began tying up his shoes while a group of inmates gathered further in the back. Pulling the inmate aside I learned he had an argument over a game of cards, and was about to fight. Once again this was a very diverse card game.
In no way did I have a bias for or against any specific group of people, only against those who were out to cause trouble.
In 1995 Doctors Anthony Greenwald and Mahazarin Banaji wanted to know, “why discrimination persists, even though polling and other research clearly shows that people oppose it.” They theorized that it was an unconscious action which they called “implicit social cognition.” To test this, they started “Project Implicit” and developed the Implicit Association Test which measures the test taker’s reaction time while associating both positive and negative words when paired with white and black faces.
I know I have biases, but I do not believe they are directed towards any ethnic group; they are directed towards criminals. I decide to take the simple 10 minute test to prove this to myself.
Bile fills my stomach at the accusation on the screen before me. I try to think of just one person for whom I might have had a hatred due to skin color, and I come up empty. I say to myself again that I don’t like criminals, be they white or black, but having a bias against a person for skin color is ridiculous.
My mind runs the gamut of excuses: The test is not reliable; it requires the test-taker to make fast decisions which leads to mistakes; and on and on the excuses come.
I decide to temporarily accept the results in order to make sense of them. Buying into excuses only buries the problem deeper, allowing its roots to take a firmer hold, so I accept that I have a bias against persons of color. I read further through the website, and come across a section giving the total results for this project: 27% of test takers had either a strong or moderate preference for European Americans, while only 2% had a strong preference for black Americans, and 4% had a moderate preference. The most shocking statistic of them all, according to a blog entry on the Project Implicit site: out of 900,000 test takers, 70% associated white people with good things, and black people with bad things.
If Doctors Greenwald and Banaji are correct that these preferences are unconscious, and that I, too, am guilty of them, then how do I fight a behavior that I barely believe – and definitely don’t understand – is happening?
Dr. Lorie Fridell, Associate Professor and Graduate Director in the Department of Criminology at the University of Southern Florida, has spent the last 20 years building an answer to this very question. She is a national expert on racial profiling, or “racially biased policing.” Dr. Fridell opens her trainings by dispelling the myth that only ill-intentioned officers can produce “racially biased policing.” The damage this idea creates causes a defensive police force and “has harmed police community/partnerships.”
She explains that we link people on sight with their associated stereotypes and in racially biased policing, ethnic minority groups are associated with criminal activity.
Dr. Fridell claims that “one of the roots of biases is categorizing people.” Studies have shown that infants categorize people in terms of whether they are the same or different. An infant can tell the differences in color between themselves and another infant, but the negative content and stereotyping comes later.
As people age, those biases which manifest below the conscious level can produce discriminatory behavior. I recognize this in myself. After nine years in the prisons I can see how those biases which may have formed unconsciously lead to my own discriminatory behavior.
Initially I joined the Department of Corrections with the intention of moving up the ladder as far as I could possibly go. I wanted to become a supervisor and a warden. I wanted to try out for and become a part of the Department’s Special Operations groups. But a prison is a negative place which breeds misery in its inhabitants – those who are incarcerated and those who work there. And all too quickly that misery took hold inside me.
I understand now that I stopped seeing people and began to see only the stereotypes associated with them. While driving with my family, if I saw an African-American man driving a nice BMW or Escalade, I would comment: “The drug business must be nice.” If I saw any Spanish person with tattoos I would immediately look to see any gang symbols, assuming they must be gang bangers.
I see now, after taking the test and reviewing Dr. Fridell’s training, that without knowledge of my unconscious biases, they sneakily became unconscious, and like a cancer, they began eating away at me from the inside. This is the importance of Dr. Fridell’s training: to learn to recognize the biases we don’t understand we have, and to learn to fix them before they begin to manifest themselves outwardly. Especially for the officers who take an oath to protect and to serve their communities, which is an impossible task if first they do not carry respect for their community.