Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

All the world’s a prison / And all the men and women merely prisoners

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While watching or reading various accounts of prison life, be they real or fictional, I am often struck by an eerie similarity, below the immediate surface, between prison life and “regular” life in allegedly free societies, in general, and school, in particular—and this even before the COVID-countermeasure era, which came close to turning the various peoples of the world into actual prisoners.

Certainly, there are great differences to be found. For instance, Jack Henry Abbott’s In the Belly of the Beast* might be a sobering account for someone tempted to take the comparison too far; for instance, the sorrows and plights of the J6 victims go far beyond anything that I have seen in my own life;** for instance, the risk that I will be stabbed with a shiv while going about my affairs is small.

*See parts of the below and an excursion for a more detailed discussion. Note that many of my own statements on prison are colored by my recent reading.

**But the fact that they have been locked up without proof of crime, with no speedy trial, no true due process, whatnot, and on political charges, does show a similarity between real life and prisons. In a U.S. prison, someone can be thrown in solitary for ages without a trial; in a truly free country and a true Rechtsstaat, he cannot; where, then, does this put the real-life U.S.?

However, there are also many similarities, especially if we look at prisons that are more “white-collar crime” centric or located in “softer” countries.*

*There are, of course, many other countries with prisons than the U.S., which is likely the main source of prison-related impressions for most of us, even when not ourselves of the U.S. Some are softer in treatment, like Sweden; others are so bad that inmates would not hesitate to switch places with a U.S. prisoner.

Before I go into more detail, two specific pointers: Firstly, prison is a place with a natural division into two worlds, guards and inmates. Secondly, in prison, right and wrong do not matter. This neither factually, where compliance is all-important; nor ethically, where “can” and “can’t” are what matters. Thinking on how this applies to the real/non-prison world can be very beneficial.

Consider school:* The students are told where to be and what to do. Food is provided at a fix time and a fix location with minimal choice and, often, in dubious quality.** The teacher’s word borders on law, be it through formal authority or through being able to talk to other adults, including principals, other teachers, and parents on an adult-to-adult basis and with an adult credibility. A student who is not sufficiently compliant and conforming risks punishment. Justice is often arbitrary.*** When the students have issues with each other, teachers are rarely to be found, and if they are found, there is no guarantee that they even differ between aggressor and victim. The sharp division into teachers (and other school staff and other adults) and students/children creates a two-tiered society and, worse, a tendency for a parallel society, with its own rules, to arise among the students (if one less sophisticated than among adults in a similar situation). Time off for good behavior? No. Barring a local possibility to “test out”, skip a year (or, in reverse, repeat a year), or be home schooled, everyone is stuck for a fix time.**** Often there is not even the possibility to switch schools or classes.***** Etc.

*Schools, too, vary. Here I am partially guided by my own school years. A modern stereotypical U.S. inner-city school might differ in e.g. less teacher discipline (playing down the guard angle), but might be more similar in inter-student violence, lawlessness, gang-building, whatnot (playing up the inmate angle). Go back further in time, instead, and discipline could be quite heavy, including corporeal punishment.

**Although the worst meal of my own school years might have been well above some shown in TV prisons. Certainly, unlike Abbott, I have never been on a forced starvation diet.

***I recall especially, and have likely mentioned in the past, an incident when I was around six and another boy framed me for something that he had done. The “teacher” physically dragged me away from where I was—and refused not just to hear any defense that I might have had, but outright refused to tell me what I allegedly had done.

****Home schooling is not an option in Sweden. Skipping years is (was?) very rare, maybe through being seen as “social injustice” or whatever the term of the day might have been—and, barring truly exceptional cases, would only have been a matter of a single year. As to “testing out”, there simply was no such mechanism.

*****In the very rural area where I lived, for my first years, everyone of my age and for kilometers around went to the same single school in the same single class, with a vague awareness of a smaller school a few kilometers away. Then this other school was closed, and we had two classes in the one school for a while, and then, for year six, a single class in the single school. (With reservations for exact details.) Of course, even with the theoretical option to switch this-or-that, the student has to be aware of the option, has to convince parents and school(s), and has no guarantee that he will enjoy life after the switch any better.

Consider “adult” society: The laws and law enforcement are there more to control the people than to protect it;* and police officers often border on being prison guards in terms of rights and whatnot relative the people.** There is, again, a division into two parallel societies, the governmental and the “real”. Even the lowest civil servant has opportunities to make decisions that the citizen cannot see remedied. Politicians can make the most abstruse and destructive decisions, and the citizen is helpless. Apart from mandatory schooling, many countries have or have had mandatory military service (e.g. my native Sweden) and if a war occurs, witness the U.S. and the Vietnam War, a citizen might find himself fighting for a cause that he rejects—on pain of jail. In the U.S. there are plentiful cases of e.g. “civil forfeiture”, where arbitrary asset losses take place. Many countries, including e.g. the U.S. and Canada pose a great risk to dissenters, as they might be hit by governmental persecution for dissenting. The privacy of the citizen continually shrinks in the wake of computer surveillance, unwarranted*** searches, facial recognition systems, ever more and ever larger governmental registers, whatnot. Etc. To this might be added some phenomena, notably taxes, that have no obvious similarity in prison, but follow a similar pattern of subordination and subjugation. (And note that I am talking about allegedly modern and Western democracies. Go into the third world or various dictatorships and the situation can be far worse.)

*Notably, the two central pillars of a true Rechtsstaat, that citizens are protected from harmful acts by other citizens and from governmental overreach, arbitrariness, whatnot, tend to be largely missing. This is definitely the case in Germany, where the police and the “DA” has a virtually complete discretion to not investigate/prosecute most crimes and where the civil courts are usually a dead end for other reasons—that the government is virtually above the law is an even sadder fact.

**See excursion for an example by Abbott.

****In both senses. I have myself been the victim of a middle-of-the-night apartment search, with no warrant and no legitimate reason, on the instigation of some psychopath who had claimed that I would hold a woman prisoner in my apartment—the worse, as merely watching the (small) apartment with regular and/or infrared binoculars through the many windows would have virtually ruled out the possibility without a physical search. And, no, there were no consequences for either of the idiots who fell for this nonsense, the idiots who mis-implemented this nonsense, or the psychopath who instigated this nonsense.

As a related, if arguably slightly off-topic, case, there is a massive problem with treating humans as less than human or as non-human by wide groups of other humans—something that Abbott repeatedly complains about in the guard–inmate relationship. Consider, e.g., travel with the Deutsche Bahn (“German Railways”), where the customer is almost without rights and has to take whatever shit is thrown at him, including constant delays, undue crowdedness, rude or incompetent staff, misinformation, and a system that seems bent on doing as much damage as possible.* On one occasion, I was locked in a broken train, just short of the next station, for half an eternity** waiting for the Deutsche Bahn to let us out. No apology, no recompense, no whatnot, followed. Or consider the typical attitude displayed in/on (at least German) airports and airplanes, where the passengers are treated as lemmings or sheep, everything runs according to an empty ritual,*** and even a typical stewardess, herself usually without any true accomplishment and ability, sees it as her right to boss the passengers around with not one word of explanation, and not the slightest shimmer of the service mentality that was once a part of the stereotypical image.****

*To take just one of many examples: when I was commuting between Düsseldorf and Cologne, there was, on the way back and virtually without exception, an artificial halt for five-or-so minutes in Leverkusen, month in and month out. Why? Well, either my train was on time and had to stop to let through an ICE (a fancier and higher-priority train) that was delayed—or my train was already delayed and had to stop to let an ICE that was on time through.

**I want to say that it was hours, but I honestly do not remember, and it might have been as little as one hour. It was certainly, however, far longer than could reasonably and by any stretch of the imagination be justified.

***Including the ever repeating, virtually identical, security lectures and the stubborn back-and-forth with the food-and-beverages carriage, no matter how short the flight, no matter how little it brings for a short flight, and no matter the disturbance that it causes.

****This is a recurring theme in the real world: It matters little who the parties to an interaction are, what they have accomplished, what level of intelligence they move on, etc. What matters is whether they have the weight of an organisation behind them or some other lever of power. A stewardess, a low-level civil servant, and a prison guard have such weight and/or such a lever—the mere passenger, citizen, and prison inmate do not. With some reservations for the rich, famous, politically influential, whatnot, the latter can be a genius and still be forced to bow to the whims of the former, even should the former be incapable of higher thought.

Then there are the horrors of COVID-countermeasures, which, with no true scientific support, saw businesses and lives destroyed, forced wearing of masks, curfews even for adults (even day-time bans on leaving apartments for “non-essential” purposes for some time), mandatory vaccinations for many places of work and with attempts to push nation-wide mandatory vaccinations,* gross defamation of those who opposed this Nazi-nonsense (using tax-payers’ money), the closing of borders,** etc. Note, in particular, how the issues of vaccinations and mask-wearing, no matter with what intentions they began, soon descended into a measure of compliance—and how those not in compliance were seen as the Enemy, even absent sound scientific reasons to criticize their choices.

*I am uncertain what the scope is, but Austria briefly had a law to the effect, the German Social-Democrats pushed hard for the same, leading to a parliamentary vote, and a general attitude among many, especially on the Left, has been that everyone must be vaccinated—regardless of whether he belongs to a risk group and regardless of the established danger from the available vaccines.

**Which did not just mean that vacations had to be postponed, but also that entire countries became virtual prisons. In a slightly different reality, I, e.g., might have found myself forced to take the vaccine if I remained in Germany, but been unable to leave Germany for another country without first being vaccinated (or, worse, at all)—even if the other country did not have an internal vaccine mandate.

More philosophically, many politicians and similar groupings seem to see it as right and just that the citizen is subjugated to the state and/or some other collective(s), and seem to deliberately push for a furthering of this condition—the ant heap matters; the individual ant only exists to serve the heap. (Certainly, a typical judicial ideal of many politicians is the police state—not the Rechtsstaat.) If we look at e.g. the ignorant and arrogant nonsense that the WEF spreads, like “you will own nothing”, where would that lead us? One of the most fundamental advantages of a non-prisoner relative a prisoner is that he does own quite a few things (albeit, even today, only as long as the government allows it)—remove his belongings and the distance shrinks considerably. Ditto having a somewhat private home, e.g. an apartment or a house shared with no-one but family, as opposed to prison quarters—remove the citizen’s right to such a private home in favor of something shared with strangers, and he yet again grows closer to a prisoner.

Returning to Abbott, one of his complaints is the lack of free information in prison and how, in his opinion, prison schools were instituted to ensure that only that was learnt (or “learnt”) that the prisons wanted to see learnt—but how is that different from regular school in many countries, and the more so the more strongly the Left controls the schools? Or look at mainstream media, social media, and the single-minded agenda pushing that has so often taken place. U.S. colleges and social “science” virtually everywhere? This especially during the COVID-countermeasure era, but also with regard to various PC and “woke” opinions, including all-out biology denialism contrasted with mindless acceptance of any and all climate hysteria. Yes, those who know better can still find independent information and make their own comparisons, but that is something that many governments would like to see ended—and often have been trying to end or reduce. More generally, while Abbott’s world was very different, and far worse, than mine , he was angered or frustrated by many things in a very similar manner and for very similar reasons to how and why I am angered and frustrated. (And I doubt that I am unique in this.) Take such a thing as the prison’s attitude of “you are at fault for X” and the dependence of the prisoner on the guards for everything that he needs, compared to how many Leftist regimes want to see society—an all-wise and all-giving government that provides, with no mention that someone might only need such help because of how much he must give up in taxes and other government-caused burdens or because government intervention has slowed the growth of the economy. Or take his complaint about prison having (mis-)shaped him into what he became, while modern society is often doing the same, if less extremely, to the rest of us. Or take the common disproportion between crime and punishment. Etc. Above all, when things are boiled down to the smallest core, both prison and real life is filled with injustice imposed from above or the outside.*

*Where, yes, the prisoner has it worse, but where most prisoners are actually guilty of something, while the citizen on the street is not.

Excursion on becoming an adult and things “getting better”:
There have been quite a few cases in my life, where I have thought or been told that “things will get better once [I/you] grow older” (or similar). This includes the presumed greater freedom enjoyed by an adult relative a child and by someone in the workforce relative a school-student. Usually, to the point that I have repeatedly considered writing a text on the specific topic of “It was supposed to get better!”, I have been gravely disappointed—including in both the aforementioned cases. In many ways, adults have just changed one set of externally imposed restrictions, complications, and duties for another. Indeed, even something as childish as bullies is often found in adult life—including among civil servants, who are untouchable. At age ten, those sufficiently daring can at least clock a bully with no worse “legal” consequences than a stern talking to, some detention, and/or a grounding. At twenty? The daring might well go to jail, especially if the bully is a civil servant.

Excursion on Abbott:
Most of the above is a backlog item, finally written due to my concurrent reading of Abbott’s book. As the writing proceeded, I added a number of footnotes and comments on Abbott, which cluttered up the text. Most of them have been moved to this excursion and slightly re-written. (I have considered writing a separate text on Abbot, and might have done so, had I realized in advance how interesting the book would be—there might be more than a dozen other points that I have not written a word on. As is, I have decided against it for reasons of time.)

  1. On the nature of prison guards vs. “regular” humans:

    While Abbott takes a view of prison guards as evil beings detached from normal humanity,* who lack something good that most others share, I suspect that it is the other way around—that a very significant portion of humanity is ultimately evil and simply lacks the opportunity to express that evil. It might well be that prison guards are overrepresented among these, be it through stupidity or through having deliberately picked a field where evil tendencies can be given more opportunity, but, no, sadly, they are not fundamentally different from a very large group, maybe a majority, of “civilian” humans.

    *Bear in mind that he spent decades as a prisoner and might have had a too one-sided/partial view or lacked a frame of reference involving non-guards/non-prisoners.

    It is particularly interesting that he seems to consider the guards sub-/non-human in much the same way as he claims that the guards feel about the prisoners. (In a manner that goes well beyond “they are idiots”, “they are small-minded”, “they are cruel”, whatnot. Note that I am on record as saying that most humans are idiots, and would not consider a similar assessment on his behalf the least bit remarkable.)

  2. Concerning Abbott’s view of the non-prison world:

    He spent so little time out of prison that his view of the rest of the world is likely to have been extremely incomplete. Generally, Abbott seems very naive about topics not relating to prison,* often seems to reverse causalities, sees the world through a distorting Marxist/Communist lens, and, increasingly gives the impression of being nutty as the book goes on.

    *For want of own experiences and deeper knowledge from other sources, I cannot rule out that he was naive about prison too; however, for the same want, and in light of his long time in prison, I would be foolish to assume it.

  3. Concerning Abbott’s credibility:

    This “impression of being nutty” reflects poorly on his overall credibility, and some stories told are sufficiently fantastic (notably, concerning the extremely prolonged starvation) that I do not rule out a deliberate lie or exaggeration. (But, I stress, neither do I say that he is lying or exaggerating.)

    I would further caution that it is very easy to get the details of past events wrong, especially when they take place under extremely stressful circumstances. I have certainly put things in writing, myself, that are wrong in detail, because my memory failed me (as proved by a later encounter with, for instance, old personal notes or documents).

  4. Concerning time covered/later changes:

    The book was published in 1981 and might, in parts, go back as far as the 1950s. Conditions in even U.S. prisons appear to have improved for most prisoners. (Chances are that Abbott was also on the deeper end, even by the standard of his day.) Generally, of course, prisons tend to be worse the further back in time we go.

  5. Concerning Marxism:

    Abbot, at the height of his naivety and nuttiness, appears to sees a Marxist/Communist revolution as a stroke for freedom, despite these having led to a more prison-like world where- and whenever they have been tried. Certainly, a division of the world into “us vs. them” is at the very core of Marxism, and Marxism goes hand in hand with the subjugation of the individual to the collective, with the suppression of dissent and free thought, etc.

    Indeed, there are stretches when he reads like a modern/2022 instruction manual for proper Leftist thought, including various talking points on racism, white supremacy, IQ, homosexuals, oppression, whatnot.

    As naive as his long discussions of Marxism/Communism/whatnot are, they can be valuable in giving some clue to the paradoxical attraction that these ideologies hold to so many, despite their horrifying track record. A particular point is exactly the Marxist “us vs. them” and “oppressors vs. the oppressed” thinking, which fits prison life and his own experiences of prison quite well.

  6. Example of non-compliance with horrible results:

    Abbott (who, however, seems to interpret the situation naively) tells a story about witnessing a Black man being shot to death by the police. The Black man appears to have double-parked* his truck, and partially in a “whites only” parking space (non-compliance with a law**), failed to immediately pay the ordered 200-dollar fine (non-compliance*** with the police), resisted the ensuing arrest with violence (severe non-compliance with the police), and ended up brandishing an improvised weapon against the police (extreme non-compliance with the police).

    *Proof-reading, I see that I assumed that the “whites only” infraction was the sole issue. While this is a plausible assumption, I cannot rule out that double parking was a contributing issue or would have been sufficient on its own—again: compliance. (I have left the text and the following footnote unchanged.)

    **Yes, the law was flawed, but that makes the incident the more telling—it is simply not a matter of whether someone fails to comply for a good reason, out of ignorance, or, as it might have been here, by accident or through sloppiness. It is a matter of complying—period. That is simply the government’s attitude: you comply—period. Also note e.g. my own adventures with a piece-of-shit chimney sweep, as discussed in some older texts.

    ***Albeit, non-compliance of a very understandable type. Even today, many or most will not have that amount at hand at any given time—and the sum might have been an order larger in the dollar-of-the-day. (From overall context, the year was likely 1962 or 60 years ago.) Looking at circumstances, including the immediate payment, I cannot rule out that this was some type of scam or that Abbott had the details wrong.

    Now, a take of a typical modern Leftist (and, approximately, of Abbott) might amount to “he was shot over faulty parking” or “he was shot for parking while Black”, with attributions to “racist laws”, “racist cops”, and “systemic racism”. In reality, he ended up shot for repeatedly not complying, up to the point of brandishing a weapon, which is among the last things (both literally and figuratively) to do against the U.S. police—no matter the race of the involved persons. Had he chosen to comply at any point prior to the decision to shoot, chances are that he would have remained alive. (Notwithstanding that any racist attitude among the police officers might have made matters worse or escalated them faster.)

    The first type of problem to address, then, is what the consequences of non-compliance should be, what type of escalation by the police is allowed under what circumstances, etc. Also note Unfair government and choice, where I discuss similar situations.

    It would be very, very interesting to see what proportion of police actions alleged-by-the-Left to be racist are in fact a matter of non-compliance, how statistics for various racial groups look when adjusted for non-compliance, and what the statistics of non-compliance are for these groups.


Written by michaeleriksson

November 23, 2022 at 4:08 am

6 Responses

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  1. […] experiences as examples (I often do, myself; note e.g. the locked-in-a-train situation in my previous text) and painting fairly normal problems as something much worse than what others encounter. Ditto […]

  2. […] a recent text, I mentioned parallel societies in a manner that implied that they were something negative. For the […]

  3. […] by other citizens and from governmental overreach, arbitrariness, whatnot” (here quoting from the most recent instance). Noting some drifts and attempted drifts in (most notably) U.S. law and application of law, this […]

  4. […] an earlier text ([3]), I noted some similarities between life in- and outside prison. Parts of “Maus” play in well […]

  5. […] or whatever might apply, but either compliance-for-the-sake-of-compliance (cf. e.g. parts of [1]) or the opportunity to push others around (which almost proverbially is what happens when small […]

  6. […] the collective over the individual, and similar, are. Among many relevant older texts, note e.g. [1] and […]

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