After the disturbance at the Lorton Reformatory last week, we were introduced to a new term, "prison psychology," which holds that inmates will torch 14 buildings to prove that a consultant's report on prison conditions is true.
Some say the term indicates a kind of warped thinking in troubled minds that brings people to prison in the first place. District Mayor Marion Barry expounded on the theory when he said of the inmates, "They figured if they burned the place down, we would have to set them free."
But no matter how illogical prison psychology is made out to be, the fact remains that it cannot be applied exclusively to inmates. It took a lot of warped thoughts to get us to this point.
To understand prison psychology at Lorton better, consider the television show "Hogan's Heroes" and imagine inmates at a concentration camp passing the word that there will be a fire at midnight while Col. Klink bumbles in the dark.
With organization unmatched by the government agency that houses them, inmates struck right after a head count, usually the most secure time in the prison. Think about it: At 12:30 a.m., 1,295 inmates are in bed and accounted for. At 12:33 a.m., Lorton is in flames.
By setting fires on the heels of Barry's own prison consultants' report, prison psychology says, rioters reestablished an inmate axiom: Never lose track of time. And by preventing leaks or loss of life caused by fire, they demonstrated the solidarity that allowed them to seize the moment.
What these men were saying is that life couldn't get any worse for them, that the chances of being killed by fire were lower than being suffocated in a warehouse with 200 inmates sleeping eight inches apart.
The fact that inmates didn't spend a lot of time writing letters to their favorite female television news anchor says they now know that nobody cares.
The situation at Lorton had deteriorated badly, and nothing but reports and studies were being done. True, a new warden had been assigned to the Occoquan facility in April, but the numerous changes that occurred among the prison's middle management in effect cut off all informed contact with the inmates.
Worse yet, the religious groups of Lorton, those whose constructive input is crucial to maintaining order at the prison, were thrown into disarray by severe overcrowding and the shuffling of their members.
In the annals of penology, this kind of situation indicates that nobody was in control at Lorton.
So when Henry E. Hudson, U.S. attorney for eastern Virginia, said at a news conference that "in our view, the time has come to wrest control from the prisoners . . . and place it back into the hands of law enforcement agencies," he was engaging in a kind of prison psychology, too.
The effect, however, was to make the D.C. Department of Corrections appear to be incompetent.
So City Administrator Thomas Downs says in an interview that "we have the highest incarceration rate of any city in the free world, higher than South Africa, and the stiffest sentences in the country," which, according to prison psychology, makes the conservative U.S. attorney appear as an oppressive arm of the state.
Barry is a student of this stuff, too. When he said of the inmates, "We feed them good food, prime USDA cuts of beef, let them watch TV or go to prison industries class, and they still went off," the effect is to make inmates appear ungrateful.
But the bottom line does not require prison psychology. Simply put, it was hot and these guys wanted to get out. Cattle would have done the same thing if they had thumbs. For those who got to sleep on a cool baseball field and then go for a bus ride uptown, it was a great night at the "Animal House."
For those who were injured, there was solace in knowing that at least somebody was on the scene to take them to a hospital -- for a change.
To know that all law enforcement officials can do is send them back to jail is where prison psychology fits in.