I was recently released from solitary confinement after being held therein for 37 months (months!). A silent system was imposed upon me and to even whisper to the man in the next cell resulted in being beaten by guards, sprayed with chemical mace, blackjacked, stomped and thrown into a strip-cell naked to sleep on a concrete floor without bedding, covering, wash basin or even toilet. The floor served as toilet and bed, and even there the silent system was enforced. . . . I have filed every writ possible against the administrative acts of brutality. The courts have all denied the petitions. Because of my refusal to let the thing die down . . . I am the most hated prisoner in (this) penitentiary, and called a “hard-core incorrigible.”
The floor served as toilet and bed.
Maybe I am an incorrigible. . . . I know that thieves must be punished and I don’t justify stealing, even though I am a thief myself. But now I don’t think I will be a thief when I am released. No, I’m not that rehabilitated. It’s just that I no longer think of becoming wealthy by stealing. I now think of killing—killing those who have beaten me and treated me as if I were a dog. I hope and pray for the sake of my own soul and future life of freedom that I am able to overcome the bitterness and hatred which eats daily at my soul.
—A letter from a prisoner in a state prison, as quoted in Zimbardo 1972
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The Problem in Sociological Perspective
WHAT IS CRIME?
Crime is a fascinating area of human behavior. We may feel almost spellbound as we learn about a crime that is particularly gruesome, or even about a crime that was committed in some unusual way. To understand crime, let’s begin by placing it in sociological perspective.
Crime and the Law.
Before we can get into this chapter, we have to answer the question of what crime is. Let’s start by looking at what people call “dumb laws.”
In Florida, it is illegal to sell alcohol before 1 P.M. on Sunday.In Arkansas, schoolteachers who cut their hair short cannot get a raise.In California, animals cannot have sex within 1,500 feet of a church.The Florida constitution guarantees that pregnant pigs cannot be put in cages.In New York, women can go topless in public as long as they do not profit from the behavior.In Texas, you’ll break the law if you sell your eye.
More than likely, your state has “dumb laws,” and I’m sure that it has laws that make something legal at one time during the day or night but illegal at another time. 149150For example, to sell whiskey, wine, or beer one minute before “closing hour” is legal; to sell them one minute later is a crime.
These examples illustrate the essential nature of crime. No activity is criminal in and of itself. Crime is the violation of law. If there is no law, there is no crime. Although we may agree that stealing, kidnapping, and rape are immoral or harmful, only the law can define them as crimes.
The Relativity of Crime.
The principle that law defines crime has many implications. One is that crime is culturally relative; that is, because laws differ from one society to another, so does crime. Travelers are sometimes shocked when they find that some behavior they take for granted at home is a crime abroad—or that what is illegal at home is taken for granted elsewhere. For example, although eating pork and drinking alcohol are illegal in some Muslim societies, a man there may take several wives as long as he can support them.
Within the same society, behavior that is criminal at one time can later be encouraged as a virtue. In China, for example, selling goods to make a profit used to be a crime, one so serious that it was punishable by death. To teach everyone a lesson, “profiteers” were hung in the public square. When Chinese officials adopted capitalism in the 1990s, however, they decided that letting people make profits would help their economy. The change has been so thorough that now “profiteers,” Chinese capitalists,