Alison Liebling, Ryan Williams, & Elinor Lieber On Changing Nature of Mind Games In Prisons

(L-R) Alison Liebling, Ryan Williams, Elinor Lieber

‘As we attempt to work out what ‘humanity’ and ‘dehumanization’ might mean in practice, in prisons and beyond, these terms should surely include ‘the expectation of help or just treatment’, respect for personhood, and a meaningful autonomy that is recognized by others

Surviving prisons, especially for prisoners serving indeterminate long sentences, involves participating in actions and using tactics that McDermott & King termed as ‘Mind Games.’ In ‘More Mind Games’, Liebling, Williams & Lieber submit that the new games have evolved, which differ in ‘action’ and their impact on the prisoners. Their work uses the concept of ‘games’ analytically, identifying where the ‘action’ (uncertainty of consequences) is played out and how it affects those participating in it.

McDermott & King in their 1988 article used the metaphor of ‘mind games’ to explain how the power flowed and manifested itself in English prisons. They described five category of games:

a. Confinement games: develop as a response to prisoners’ near-total dependency on staff for many aspects of their daily lives

b. Association Games: relate mainly to strategies staff use when ‘handling’ prisoners in an attempt to defuse tensions or minimize the possibility of friction

c. Security Games: these are played ‘within an elaborate framework of bureaucratically devised rules’ and include everything from gathering covert intelligence to body and cell searches

d. Tactical Management Games: these constitute attempts to manipulate the system to achieve specific objectives

e. Deadly Game: it is infrequent, played only when prisoners have reached ‘a sticking point’, a principle ‘over which they could not compromise’ (372). The consequences are dire, including physical confrontation and long-term segregation.

Apart from analysing these games, the study also introduces some new games that involve higher risk, fear, and bold ‘counter-moves’ from the prison administration. The context in which these games are played has also changed; with diversifuing demography of prison and new challenges to manage longer term prison population, raising the stakes, risks, and fear.

The study highlights that these games ae like any other games that involve dignity, autonomy and control. However, the rules of the game are framed, manipulated, and played out in a way that not only disadvantages the prisoners, but also leaves very little ground for them to participate with a sense of control or a hope to gain favourable outcomes:

‘… the stakes are now higher, the odds of winning reduced, the outcomes bleaker. Games are still played, and tactics still deployed, but there are more ways to lose ultimate concerns: life, the self and the eventual prospect of release.’

Good Games

In most of the association games, staff strategically use humour, wit, and talk to diffuse the situation. These games are termed as ‘good’ as they work in the benefit of both players, and bring the humanity and dignity of both players. These games can give an opportunity to the prisoner to realise his moral self not just against the institution but also with the institution.

Sloping Shoulders and Pass The Buck

In this game, prisoners who are dependent on the staff for seeking their basic requirements are pushed against the complex bureaucratic machinery of the system. The game involved absolving of responsibility by staff, referring prisoners to various departments for acquiring anything. This increases the frustration of the prisoners who are forced to participate in this game:

‘It was often difficult to discern whether this game was intentional or a product of the ‘Kafkaesque’ bureaucratization of institutions in modernity. Either way, the system was opaque and easily defeated anyone who tried to do what would otherwise be a simple task… Whether these games were intentional or not, failure to receive a straight answer could force the hand of prisoners, who had few options available. Pressure and frustration mounted.’

Security Games: Hide & Seek

These games involve active search operations by the administration and ways to escape the same by the prisoners. Prisoners used communicative signals, and hidden spaces to prevent the search teams from finding what they’re looking for:

‘Prisoners could only win at the game of hide and seek for a limited time. In high security, nothing was private for long.’

Tactical Management: Musical Chairs

This game involved information gathering, and using movement and relocation of the prisoners for the same. The information collected through these games could be used by the administration as a ‘trump card’ against the prisoner in the annual risk review meetings, jeopardizing the positive progression of the prisoner in the prison system:

‘A novel feature of the game was the hiddenness of the rules or purposes of the
game. Intelligence-reporting, especially as it concerned national security, was in- creasingly abstracted from those who worked with prisoners on a day-to-day basis. It was funnelled into what one staff member described as the ‘black box’ of the intelligence machine — supplied to higher levels for security and counter-terrorism analysis, with little information ‘fed back to the wings’

Battle of Paperwork and Pen

The study noticed the emergence of a new mind game which involved prisoners resorting to prison rules to participate in the discourse on human rights, seek reforms, and challenge the strategies of the dominant player: the administration. Scoring points through this game provided the prisoners with a rare opportunity to feel a sense of control and empowerment. This includes incessantly filing complaints (complaint-bombing), claiming religious rights, and litigation:

‘The principles of fairness, equality and freedom motivated a struggle against the ‘system’, shaping identity and feeling. The ‘moral grammar of social conflict’ — fired by strong and natural impulses against disrespect — was highly visible in prison even if it brought risks of counter struggle.’

Winding Up of Prisoners

The study highlights that prisoners often complained about how staff would ‘wind them up’ or force them to situations where they’re bound to fail. This would include deliberately loosing the paperwork, denying small requests, and ‘pushing the buttons’ of the prisoners to check whether they pass the right of passage to privileges:

‘These rites-of-passage were extraneous to formal procedures of sentence planning or annual reviews. ‘Successfully avoiding kicking off’ was of unacknowledged merit. The pressure was considerable. For some, this additional demand was too much. When prisoners caved in and exploded, the violence only served as confirming evidence against their readiness for progression, especially when parole hearings were due.’

Black and mixed-race prisoners talked about consciously changing their embodiment to avoid these games. This would include deliberately changing their postures and body language:

‘Embodiment is crucial in fields of action, where the risks are high, and posture, reflexes, or looks/gazes, are read and gauged as an invitation to action: as belligerence by staff or ‘winding up’ by prisoners.’

Snakes & Ladders: Fatefulness and Sentence Progression

The rules of this game involved privileging certain cognitive-behavioural offending behaviour courses, making the process of sentence-planning by the prisoner extremely opaque. While avoiding these courses often worked against prisoners, registering and completing these accredited courses did not guarantee risk reduction:

‘Such bureaucratic mistakes (and there were many) communicated that prisoners were losers in a game where the rules were hidden, shifting, or designed to ensnare.’

Putting On a Mask

Prisoners often have to pretend, or have to ‘put on a mask’ to avoid labeling during the sentence planning meetings. It also helps in getting through the process of risk assessment by psychologists, who act as gatekeeprs of sentence progression. One of the priosners highlighted that the key to get positive psychological reports is to conform to the informative stereotype, proceed through the ‘correctional’ logic of the prison system, showing how it has transformed you:

‘While fateful sentence progression situations could be met with self determination — attempts to navigate or manipulate the obstacles with some success, fatefulness, or risk without opportunity, could transform self determination into ‘F*ck it’ behaviours (Halsey et al. 2016) leading to Pyrrhic victories that took a devastating toll on their au- thors, and sometimes on others too.’

While the long sentences may already engender a feeling of being abandoned by the humanity, the study submits that the prisoners’ long and arduous journey to freedom is also affected by the exposure to unregulated and unfathomable forms of power:

We should not overlook the possibility, even in prison, and however slim, that games can be fair, and power can be more rather than less legitimate. But where the stakes increase, this becomes less and less likely

Complement this with Coretta Phillips on Multicultural Prison, and Dirk van Zyl Smit &Catherine Appleton on Life Imprisonment and Human Rights.



I’m Karan Tripathi, a researcher, writer, and this is my one man labour of love exploring Criminology & Penology

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Annotating Criminology

I’m Karan Tripathi, a researcher, writer, and this is my one man labour of love exploring Criminology & Penology