Living in prison: Responses to COVID-19 in Georgia’s penal system and implications for how we think about the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’

BY DR. COSTANZA CURRO

Dr. Costanza Curro, a Postdoctoral research fellow on the Gulag Echoes project, has been analysing what Georgia’s penal system responses to COVID-19 can tell us about divides between the prison and the ‘outside world’. In this post, Costanza considers how exceptional pandemic-driven measures expose the contradictions of the prison itself.    

While millions of people around the world are urged to work from home in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, in Georgia prison officers are going in opposite direction and moving into their workplace. This special measure was announced on 30 March by the Minister of Justice Tea Ts’uluk’iani, who said that 780 officers have been selected on a voluntary basis to live in prison buildings in the coming weeks without returning home at the end of their shifts. Ts’uluk’iani defined this an ‘unusual, unprecedented step’, taken so that ‘neither we (the Ministry) nor the prisoners will have the feeling that any inspector-controller will bring the virus inside’. The Minister went on to specify that, aside from receiving three meals a day and appropriate financial incentives as a partial compensation for ‘this particular mode of work’, the officers will ‘of course’ have ‘the rights that the prisoners do not have, as they are certainly not persons deprived of their liberty’. Finally, Ts’uluk’iani addressed the prisoners directly, asking them to ‘take care of these 780 employees who willingly decided to spend the next few weeks in jail with them, to respect them and refrain from abusing them’.

The threats that the COVID-19 pandemic poses to the prison population have ignited disturbances and riots in penal institutions across the globe, with fatalities in at least 15 countries (among which Colombia, Italy, Nigeria, Iran, Chad, Russia, India, Venezuela, and Romania), and a significant number of escapes. Prisoners worldwide demand stronger protection against coronavirus, the spread of which would be particularly devastating in an almost unavoidably overcrowded environment, with poor health and hygiene conditions and lack of proper medical facilities. Governments have addressed these concerns in various ways, from limiting visits to inmates from outside to commutating prison sentences to house arrest, from postponed incarceration to mass releases of prisoners.

The Georgian Ministry of Justice’s move prompts some questions and considerations on the ways in which the pandemic has reconfigured everyday understandings and experiences of the boundaries separating the prison from the ‘free world’. The shortcomings of approaching the prison as a ‘total institution’ – which, following Goffman, is a close social system governed by strict rules and schedules and clearly separated from wider society from a physical and a legal perspective – are highlighted in many prison studies. From this standpoint, Foucault’s ‘carceral system’ idea, drawing upon technologies which control and discipline behaviour, stretches far beyond the prison walls, both spatially (recreated in other places and institutions, such as schools, workshops, the army and so on) and temporally (with former inmates bearing the psychological, physical and social marks of imprisonment long after their release). The widespread use of technologies such as video surveillance, biometrics, and facial recognition systems seems to indicate that prison-like control extends to the whole population. Yet, along with the development of these ‘softer’ and delocalized systems, the ‘punitive turn’ many countries have taken since the 1970s for managing their ‘problem population’ has seen the resurgence of mass incarceration and warehousing of people – overwhelmingly from lower classes and ethnic minorities. Both at the level of politics and of public perception, the prison retains its role as the ‘other’ place par excellence, inaccessible and invisible to ‘free’ citizens (who often do not want to see it in the first place).

Elke Rehder / CC BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)

‘Free people’ in prison?

The measures adopted by governments to combat the spread of COVID-19 speak of different perspectives on the boundaries which separate this ‘other’ place from the ‘free world’, as well as on the dynamic relation between the inside and the outside. The more or less temporary release of prisoners indicates a movement of people from the inside out, and the ‘exportation’ of prison-like spaces and techniques (house arrests, electronic tags to monitor prisoners’ movements) to the outside world. Limitations on visitation rights (so far the most popular way to deal with the COVID-19 emergency in prison) heads in the opposite direction, further isolating the prisons and their population from the rest of society. Going a step further, Georgian prison officers moving in to live permanently (albeit supposedly only for the duration of the emergency) inside prison walls positions the prison as a centripetal force, which brings the outside world within its perimeter.

Does living in prison make officers the same as prisoners? The Minister of Justice deemed it necessary to clarify this point, stating that living in prison does not deprive staff members of their liberties and rights as ‘free individuals’. What, then, comprises the everyday differences between living-in prison officers and ‘actual’ prisoners? How, in practice, do the former enjoy rights that are denied to the latter? Some studies have explored the ambivalent status of outsiders when they enter the prison. Prisoners’ relatives and friends, it is argued, experience a ‘secondary imprisonment’ when they visit their detained loved ones, and partially share control with prisoners (they are searched, filmed, their conversations with inmates may be listened to and recorded), limitations (they are not allowed to bring and use certain items and substances inside the prison) and deprivation of liberty (they are locked down in a room for hours – or even days, in case of long-term visits – and they cannot move around freely).

Prison officers spend a lot of time in a highly surveilled and secluded space, and the degree of control to which they are subject is not so different from that of prisoners. While staff members are allowed spaces, items and behaviours which are forbidden to prisoners, the almost total lack of privacy due to the constant presence of CCTV and other surveillance devices prevents the development of (staff-to-prisoner, but also staff-to-staff, and staff-to-administration) relationships based on trust, spontaneity, and mutual openness. Still, one might argue that this is the prison officers’ job, they are paid for it, and of course we must not forget the degree of (often arbitrary) power which prison staff have over prisoners’ lives. Moreover, nowadays, control and surveillance are part and parcel of the workplace in many jobs. Video cameras, electronic badges and devices which monitor employees’ shifts and breaks are increasingly common across factories, stores and offices.

However, when the working day is over, employees normally have private time in the private spaces of their homes. What happens when the prison becomes home to prison officers? Ts’uluk’iani’s speech, quite revealingly, talks of ‘living together’, of staff members who have decided ‘to spend a few weeks in jail’ with prisoners. But while detention as punishment deprives prisoners of their private time and space, prison officers’ schedule still preserves (at least in theory) the separation between a working shift and time off, between the ‘public’ role and related norms and duties they must stick to at work, and the private self, private activities and private behaviour they cultivate in their free time.

What do Georgian living-in officers do when they are off from work? What kind of liberties do they enjoy in comparison with when they are on duty? How strictly is the division between work and free time regulated? In her statement, Ts’uluk’iani also thanks the Special Penitentiary Services (former Ministry of Corrections, which merged within the Ministry of Justice in July 2019) for having provided ‘the office space and bedrooms for (our) staffers in just two days’. What does this space look like? How is it separated from the space inhabited by prisoners? To what extent is it regulated by a ‘prison-like’ regime rather than as a ‘free’ and ‘private’ space which houses ‘free’ and ‘private’ individuals? At the moment, we do not have any details from the Georgian authorities which could help answer these questions, and since this ‘unusual way of work’ is only at its very first stage, it is not yet possible to talk to those who are directly involved and hear how officers’ and prisoners’ everyday life and relationships have been affected by the Ministry’s move.

“Fengselsfugler (Prisonbirds)” by svennevenn, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Feeling safer?

As Ts’uluk’iani declared, the exceptional decision of moving prison officers to live inside the prison for the duration of the epidemic has been made in order to increase prisoners’ – real or perceived – safety against COVID-19 infection. Regardless of the effectiveness that this measure will have in this regard, do prisoners actually feel safer this way? The emotional and psychological burden which this arrangement places on prison social life is a potential source of tension across the penal system in the weeks and months to come. In a space which is saturated with strong, conflictual and mainly negative emotions – anger, depression, fear, frustration, shame, confusion, apathy – prison officers are faced with the double task of managing prisoners’ emotions in as much a positive and constructive way as possible, while also keeping their own feelings and related behaviours in constant check. When either of these tasks – or both of them – are not performed properly – that is, when prisoners’ emotions are only confronted, opposed and repressed, and when prison officers do not control their own anxiety, anger or frustration – inmates’ abuses from staff members are more likely to occur. Further pressure is added by officers’ need to look ‘up to the job’ in the eyes of their colleagues and superiors. This means behaving in a ‘formally’ professional way – that is, following the work protocol and respecting the institution’s official rules – but also (and perhaps more importantly) knowing the informal norms and practices underpinning the prison officer position, which often involve the display of aggressive, tough, and careless masculinity.

The lack of a spatial and temporal break from working in prison is likely to exacerbate the distress generated by these dynamics, among both prison guards and prisoners. Ts’uluk’iani is certainly right when she says that living-in prison officers are not the same as prisoners. This difference, however, does not lie in the liberties that officers are supposed to enjoy while living in prison, but in the power that prison guards have on prisoners’ life, at an emotional, psychological, and physical level. This power has manifested itself in nefarious ways in Georgia’s recent history, with widespread cases of physical, verbal and psychological abuse of prisoners from prison staff, occasionally with the more or less implicit permission of prison administration and higher political authorities. Relationships between prison staff and prisoners were particularly poor during Mikheil Saak’ashvili’s presidency (2003-2012), in which the thorough implementation of a zero-tolerance approach to even very petty crime led to a 300% increase of the prison population. The then-government’s ideological and moral war against ‘criminals’ of all kinds (from ‘thieves-in-law’ to traffic offenders, from drug addicted to insolvent debtors) promoted the image of prisoners as social waste to be removed and stored away from the ‘good’ part of society. Political authorities’ harsh stance against perpetrators of often very minor breaches of law conveyed the message that detained people were not as worthy of respect and dignity as other human beings. This, in turn, might have generated a perception of impunity with regard to tough, humiliating and brutal treatment of prisoners among some members of the police, prison administration, and prison staff. The same message, however, did not resonate well across the population. Amidst rampant socio-economic inequality and increasing authoritarianism, a crucial factor in determining Saak’ashvili’s government’s electoral defeat in 2012 was the release, few days before the elections, of a video in which inmates of prison No. 8 in Gldani (Tbilisi) were brutalized by officers, which sparked huge public outrage.

Georgia’s current government has been showing a relatively more liberal approach to the management of the penal system (although very harsh legislation against, for example, drug-related offences is still in place)  and eagerly emphasizes its commitment to follow recommendations and guidelines from the Council of Europe, the Committee for the Prevention of Torture and other international bodies. A massive amnesty in 2013, just a few months after the government led by Georgian Dream took office, dramatically reduced the number of incarcerated people (even though Georgia has still the 4th highest prison population rate on the post-Soviet space, following Turkmenistan, the Russian Federation and Belarus). Since then, penal policies have opened up (at least on paper) to alternative measures to detention, individual sentence plans, prisoners’ rehabilitation, and the principle of dynamic security (which states that prison staff should be trained and encouraged to have good and sympathetic relationships with prisoners and value them as individuals). While moderately optimistic, local and international observers have detected various challenges to these reforms, including chronic overcrowding of certain facilities, underpaid and poorly trained staff, and the strong influence of informal prisoner hierarchies on prisons’ management. And, in any case, in Georgia and elsewhere, attempts to create more viable living and working conditions for prisoners and staff will not change the substantial character of the prison: an institution which deprives individuals of basic human rights (freedom of movement, privacy, right to vote) and cuts off their physical, social, and emotional access to family, love, friendship, culture, work, education, leisure, and so on.

“Eastern State Penitentiary” by annendale, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Staying inside

The COVID-19 emergency has shed light on the stark contradictions underpinning the prison from a functional and an ethical perspective. In several instances, both governments and public opinion, while accepting the suspension of basic human liberties in such exceptional circumstances, still prioritize the ‘certainty of punishment’ over public health and safety when it comes to prisoners. We are outraged by the sight of people leaving their house for a short walk because we think they may harm the community, but we are far less bothered by the thought of the virus circulating among thousands of people for whom prevention and protection measures demanded from everyone are not really an option. Aside from its moral implications, the approach to prisoners and prisons as completely ‘other’ to society risks pave the way to a health disaster. If prisons become hotspots of COVID-19 infection, it is ludicrous to think that walls and bars will stop its spread to the outside.

The current global ‘state of emergency’ has seen the material and discursive construction of enclosed ‘insides’ (first and foremost our homes) as experienced or imagined safe havens vis-à-vis the dangerous ‘outside’, in which we are all exposed to infection and illness, and from which the virus can be brought to us. While often bore as an imposition – and conveyed through images of ‘self-isolation’, ‘quarantine’ and indeed ‘imprisonment’ – our ‘staying home’ is firstly understood as a necessary step for protecting ourselves and our loved ones, while also acting responsibly towards the wider community. As it emerges in Ts’uluk’iani’s speech, it is easy to transfer the image of a safe, domestic-like enclosed space to the prison, and thereby thinking of prisoners and prison guards as ‘staying in’ for their own safety and that of the whole society.

Yet, further isolating the prison from the rest of the world – and doing this at a time when the world is devastated by a health crisis which will have huge social, political and economic consequences in the years to come – arguably will not make prisoners feel safer. On the contrary, it will increase their sense of precariousness, helplessness and disconnection from reality. In line with measures adopted by many other countries, all visits to Georgian prisons have been suspended, including meetings with relatives, social workers’ activities, and visits of local and international observers. Living-in prison officers further sever the links between the prison and the outside world, transforming the prison into an increasingly closed system with its own rules, which are hardly controllable from the outside. While it is not at all certain whether these measures will stop the spread of COVID-19 through the prison walls (and from there, to neighbouring communities and beyond), it is difficult to underestimate their long-term impact on the wellbeing and mutual relationships of prisoners and prison officers. The ‘stay home’ mantra has been criticized for neglecting the fact that for many people (homeless, asylum seekers, people with abusive partners) ‘staying inside’ is not a safe option, or indeed an option at all. From the same perspective, thinking of prisons as home for prisoners – and for prison guards – means depicting the prison as a protective and possibly even friendly place, where people can ‘live together’. In reality, this is a dreadful and oppressive space, and with the onset of the COVID-19 epidemic, it is as dangerous as ever.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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