By AJ Webster & Christy Durham, Co-Founders of the Sycamore School in Malibu, CA
Believe what you want. These walls are funny. First you hate ’em, then you get used to ’em. After long enough, you get so you depend on ’em. That’s “institutionalized.”
– Ellis “Red” Redding, The Shawshank Redemption
In The Shawshank Redemption (1994), a movie about men trying to survive incarceration, Morgan Freeman’s character makes this observation of fellow prisoner Brooks Hatlen, the elderly prison librarian. Imprisoned since the early 1900s, Brooks does not know how to live outside the prison system. When he is given his freedom, he despairs and commits suicide. It is a gut-wrenching moment; the audience cannot help wishing that Brooks could see that his new life is full of possibility. Sadly, he cannot. Fully institutionalized, he is unable to imagine life without the strictures that once controlled him.
This phenomenon, while well-documented in prisoners, is not unique to the penal system (Yuan). Any organization which enforces compliance at all costs can have the same effect: narrowing of vision, loss of agency, and a learned sense of helplessness. Individuals lose their ability to function independently and solve problems in…