Eye-opening video reveals the tactics prison guards use to psychologically abuse inmates
via The Marshall Project

There are few situations that are more stressful than being incarcerated. The threat of physical violence looms over everything. You are separated from the people you love. Your personal freedom is all but gone.

One stressor that's seldom discussed is the psychological abuse people experiencing incarceration must endure from prison staff, namely their corrections officers.

This form of punishment was outlined in a thesis by Patrick Doolittle, a senior at Yale studying criminal justice, called "'The Zo': Disorientation and Retaliatory Disorientation in American Prisons."


This 96-page essay was based on an archive of letters compiled by the American Prison Writing Archive.

"The Zo" is a "disturbing study of a struggle between prisoners and their captors, waged not with fists or weapons but with deliberately disorienting rules and impossible tasks," The Marshall Project's website reads.

via MyFuture.com

It explains the tactics guards use to gaslight inmates to keep them psychologically off-balance. Eventually, the inmates become disoriented, slowly lose their identities, and become nothing more than numbers in the confusing system.

This feeling is known by inmates as the Twilight Zone or "The Zo" for short.

Doolittle's paper was handed over to The Marshall Project a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization that seeks to create and sustain a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system.

But the nonprofit was unsure what to do with a 96-page essay. So they decided to turn it into a short, animated video series explaining what it's like to live in "The Zo."

Below is the first video in the three-part series, "Induction," narrated by Michael K. Williams ("The Wire," "Boardwalk Empire"). The video shows how prison guards and administrators use deliberate bureaucratic paradoxes to make prisoners question their grip on reality.

You can watch the rest of the series at The Marshall Project.


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Shanda Lynn Poitra was born and raised on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in Belcourt, North Dakota. She lived there until she was 24 years old when she left for college at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.

"Unfortunately," she says, "I took my bad relationship with me. At the time, I didn't realize it was so bad, much less, abusive. Seeing and hearing about abusive relationships while growing up gave me the mentality that it was just a normal way of life."

Those college years away from home were difficult for a lot of reasons. She had three small children — two in diapers, one in elementary school — as well as a full-time University class schedule and a part-time job as a housekeeper.

"I wore many masks back then and clothing that would cover the bruises," she remembers. "Despite the darkness that I was living in, I was a great student; I knew that no matter what, I HAD to succeed. I knew there was more to my future than what I was living, so I kept working hard."

While searching for an elective class during this time, she came across a one-credit, 20-hour IMPACT self-defense class that could be done over a weekend. That single credit changed her life forever. It helped give her the confidence to leave her abusive relationship and inspired her to bring IMPACT classes to other Native women in her community.

I walked into class on a Friday thinking that I would simply learn how to handle a person trying to rob me, and I walked out on a Sunday evening with a voice so powerful that I could handle the most passive attacks to my being, along with physical attacks."

It didn't take long for her to notice the difference the class was making in her life.

"I was setting boundaries and people were either respecting them or not, but I was able to acknowledge who was worth keeping in my life and who wasn't," she says.

Following the class, she also joined a roller derby league where she met many other powerful women who inspired her — and during that summer, she found the courage to leave her abuser.

"As afraid as I was, I finally had the courage to report the abuse to legal authorities, and I had the support of friends and family who provided comfort for my children and I during this time," she says.

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Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

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