Tales From the New Asylum: Machiavelli Part 2


The next I heard of the Prince, my hopes that he had reshaped his consciousness in a more healthy direction were dashed. The Prince was in solitary confinement as punishment for another attempt to establish his empire.

The Prince was a voracious reader. Several months later, I crossed paths with him, but this time he appeared very different. He was no longer tense. His gaze had softened. He smiled at me as I walked up to greet him. In place of Machiavelli's work, he was holding a copy of the Dhammapada in his arms along with some paperwork from one of his groups. The Dhammapada is a versified Buddhist scripture, most of which deals with ethics. It is not at all uncommon for inmates to pursue an interest in various religions or philosophies, but I found it interesting that the Prince should pursue this particular discipline.

He told me of his meetings with the visiting Buddhist nun, and proudly showed me the "mala" around his neck-a traditional Buddhist prayer bead necklace used during meditation and prayer. I left our meeting somewhat heartened. I wanted to leave it feeling touched and optimistic, but I knew too much of the experiences that had shaped his consciousness. I remember hoping that he was able to re-shape his consciousness, which was why I encouraged his continued study of the alternate book.

The next I heard of the Prince, my hopes that he had reshaped his consciousness in a more healthy direction were dashed. The Prince was in solitary confinement as punishment for another attempt to establish his empire.

Heroin, and all the mental and physical stigma associated with its use, is a common problem in the New Asylums. In particular, heroin withdrawal, overdose, hepatitis C, and HIV are quite prevalent. Upon release from prison, drug overdose (eg, opioids) is a leading cause of death.1 In fact, during the first 2 weeks after release, the risk of death among former inmates was found to be 12.7 times that among Washington state residents.2 Despite the fact that psychiatry has proven treatments for opioid dependence and withdrawal, the correctional system has been very reluctant to allow their use.3

The Prince could not resist the pull of amassing riches and authority. In many, if not most, prisons across the country, there is a thriving underground heroin trade. Why heroin? Cheap, easy to use and easy to hide-if one deals in small amounts. The Prince's downfall this time resulted from making too many sales (drawing suspicion and decreasing secrecy), and storing too big a cache of heroin in his cell. When the COs arrived to conduct their cell search, based on inmate rumors, the Prince's cell received a more intense inspection than the typical, random cell search. The many iced-tea bags neatly filed in their box would likely have passed inspection, had say, only 3 or so bags contained heroin. But the Prince had about a dozen tea bags filled with heroin, disrupting the neat order of the bags, and catching the eye of a persistent CO. It turned out to be the largest cache of heroin ever discovered in the prison's history.

. . . in seizing a state, the usurper ought to examine closely . . . all those injuries which it is necessary for him to inflict . . . and thus by not unsettling men he will be able to reassure them, and win them to himself by benefits. He who does otherwise, either from timidity or evil advice is always compelled to keep the knife in his hand.4

A main theme of Machiavelli's book, The Prince, is that the end justifies the means. Brutal or deceptive acts by a prince are ultimately acceptable if they result a secure preservation of authority.5 The work seems to suggest that a Prince should only concern himself with the acquisition and maintenance of power. All else is a distant second and should be kept as such if this power is to be maintained. In particular, a prince cannot sustain his power unless obedience to his mandates is inescapable. And let all lingering doubts be dispelled via the example set forth by the very prison system to which the Prince returned time and again.

In his desire to pursue power, the Prince made use of deception, though in an arguably less skillful manner. Obtaining all the heroin he could from a well-known prison gang, he had no intention of paying them back in full. It took the gang little time to decipher the Prince's true intentions. It was likely that this was the cause of the COs being tipped off to the Prince's cache. Now, in addition to his lengthy punitive isolation sentence, the Prince's life was in danger. He well knew that another aspiring Prince would be rewarded for taking retribution against him.

Years later, as a result of my encounter with the Prince, I learned that a potential tragic irony for him was a theory among scholars that Machiavelli had actually written a satire-not a blueprint for the ruthless acquisition of power.6 In other words, The Prince may have been intended "to warn men of what tyrants could be and do, the better to resist them."7

Who can say whether this satire controversy would have impacted the Prince's mindset in a positive way? Of course, it is impossible to say now that he is no longer alive. He hung himself in his punitive isolation cell. Was it the result of his depression? The extremely credible threat of death from the jilted gang? The despair resulting from failing again in his quest for power? Sometimes such things are hard to determine.

Returning to the question of being feared or loved, I come to the conclusion that . . . a Prince must endeavour only to avoid hatred.4


1. Merrall EL, Kariminia A, Binswanger IA, et al. Meta-analysis of drug-related deaths soon after release from prison. Addiction. 2010;105:1545-1554.
2. Binswanger IA, Stern MD, Deyo RA, et al. Release from prison: a high risk of death for former inmates. N Engl J Med. 2007;356:157-165.
3. Nunn A, Zaller N, Dickman S. Methadone and buprenorphine prescribing and referral practices in US prison systems: results from a nationwide survey. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2009;105: 83-88.
4. Machiavelli N. The Prince. Skinner Q, Price R, eds. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press. 1988. Also online at: http://www.constitution.org/mac/prince00.htm. Accessed October 12, 2010.
5. The History Guide: Lectures on Modern European Intellectual History. http://www.historyguide.org/intellect/machiavelli.html. Accessed October 26, 2010.
6. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/machiavelli/. Accessed October 26, 2010.
7. Berlin I. The Question of Machiavelli. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1971/nov/04/a-special-supplement-the-question-of-machiavelli/. Accessed October 26, 2010.

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