How we treat our prisoners says a lot about our country. None of it is good.
There are a lot of things I like about my country, our country. But we have many failures. Some are egregious. We’ve failed to humanely treat our domestic and foreign prisoners. We must re-examine our prison policy. It has increasingly been characterized by neglect, abuse, and outright dehumanization. This article examines just a few of the failures of our nation to adequately care for our prisoners, and also examines some of the causes behind this negligence.
But before we examine the system, it’s important to understand how rampant our culture of inmates has become. About one in every one hundred U.S. adults is currently in prison at a growing cost of sixty billion dollars a year. For blacks, the number is one in ten. The United States houses a quarter of the entire world prison population, and internationally we rank number one in most inmates, beating out China (2.3 million to 1.2 million, and keep in mind they have four times more people than us). Worse than the sheer number of prisoners is our treatment of them, and if how we treat our prisoners is any indication of our morality as a nation, we are in need of a brutal self examination. Here are several issues that policy makers must address.
A recent editorial entitled “Time for Iran to show mercy and free two U.S. hikers” noted that Mr. Bauer and Mr. Fattal, two hikers who accidentally stumbled into Iran’s borders, were neither charged of any crime nor offered general counsel. I absolutely agreed with the analysis that the author provided. The treatment of Mr. Bauer and Mr. Fattal has been horrible. Sadly, what has happened to them happens every day in America (well, technically, Cuba). Numerous court decisions finding that the prisoners in Guantanmo Bay have a writ of habeas corpus. Yet over the past decade we have held hundreds indefinitely, without being charged of any crime, without any counsel, and subject to what should most definitely be considered torture. Wikileaks has released documents that indicate that nearly 255 of those in Guantanamo Bay are there based on shaky evidence offered by only eight prisoners. These documents, along with research done by McClatchy, provides evidence that like the two hikers, many Guantanamo detainees were in the wrong place at the wrong time and are being detained on shaky evidence. Even the government has inadvertently admitted the weakness of their case. Of the 779 detained over the past eight years, in only 34 cases has a suspect been charged. Of those, only 3 have resulted in a conviction. The Iranian hostage situation is regrettable, yet for cases of vile injustice, we need look no further than the actions of our own government.
We treat our prisoners subhumanly. We see this when a natural disaster comes around.
The ACLU documented the failure of the government to adequately care for those in Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) in the aftermath of Katrina: “As floodwaters rose in the OPP buildings, power was lost, and entire buildings were plunged into darkness. Deputies left their posts wholesale, leaving behind prisoners in locked cells, some standing in sewage-tainted water up to their chests.”
Recently, we New Yorkers saw the same blatant disregard for prisoners during hurricane Irene. Even while citizens of surrounding islands were evacuated, the prisoners of Rikers Island, obviously at risk, were ignored.
When a reporter asked Bloomberg the plans about Riker Island, he simply stated that “we are not evacuating Rikers Island.” This is probably because, as the New York Times reports, “According to the city’s Department of Correction, no hypothetical evacuation plan for the roughly 12,000 inmates that the facility may house on a given day even exists.” This complete failure to prepare in advance any contingency is not unprecedented. As the ACLU report found in OPP, “Prisoners went days without food, water and ventilation, and deputies admit that they received no emergency training and were entirely unaware of any evacuation plan.” Rikers Island, built on a landfill, is more vulnerable to natural disasters.
Perhaps the most unreported tragedy in prison is the prevalence of rape. The United States Department of Justice recently released, for the first time, estimated prison rape statistics. In 2008 alone, 216,600 inmates were victimized. The report found that most of these rapes were not committed by prisoners, but instead by corrections workers, who instead of protecting inmates, perform the ultimate act of dehumanization. Most prisoners who are victimized will be raped multiple times each year and will be too afraid to report the crimes committed against them. The Prison Rape Elimination Act was passed in 2003, but the standards it required the Justice Department to write and implement were not released until 2008, and Attorney General Eric Holder rejected them as being too expensive. The Alabama Department of Corrections decided to not implement the standards but instead change the definition of rape, which artificially reduced the number of reported cases. There are an estimated 600 prison rapes every day, and the results are horrifying and traumatizing. Marilyn Shirley, while serving time for a drug charge, was raped by a corrections officer. The officer who raped her was eventually convicted because of Shirley’s courage, but most prison rapes will go unreported. But the rape still haunts Shirley,
Now that I am out of prison, I am left with the devastating impact of the rape. I have paralyzing panic attacks. I can’t even hold my grandbaby because I’m afraid of having a panic attack and dropping her. I can’t do some of the basic things, like watch certain TV shows, or go over high freeway overpasses because I start to panic.
Scott Howard-Smith was repeatedly raped and forced into prostitution by a white supremacist gang during his time in Colorado prison for tax code violations.
“I continue to have various medical problems stemming from this abuse. I have nightmares, suffer from paranoia, inability to eat at times and I take various medications for blood pressure, cardiac palpitations, and other anxiety-related problems.”
These stories could be prevented with stricter standards, but the government has stood strong against passing them, because they are worried about the high cost. The New Mexico Corrections Department released the following statement:
“A simple cost-benefit analysis shows that when weighed against the twelve million dollar cost of compliance, non-compliance would be much cheaper. To be clear, the Department has every intention of complying with whatever standards are ultimately approved, but the fact remains that compliance with the currently proposed standards would be very expensive.”
For those not paying attention, what the government of New Mexico is saying is that 12 million dollars is too high a cost to prevent what happened to Shirley and Howard-Smith.
These problems with American prisons stems from two sources. First, there’s The Dark Knight syndrome. For those who haven’t watched The Dark Knight (first, what the hell have you been doing?) there is a scene where two boats, one full of prisoners, and one full of civilians, are loaded with explosives. Only one can be saved. Those on the boat of civilians would say things like “they had their chance” or “they made their choice.” This is the attitude most Americans take when they hear about cramped living conditions or prison rape. They don’t care. Many prisoners, though, have committed non-violent crimes like check fraud or recreational drug use. Only 22 percent or prisoners are serving time for violent crimes. Rikers Island houses those still waiting for trial (and those who haven’t been convicted), juvenile offenders, and the mentally ill. Yet, because it is a prison, in our minds we ignore the plight of those who should be considered innocent until proven guilty. In order to understand how we all fall subject to this fallacy, imagine I framed the question differently. Instead of saying “Mayor Bloomberg, what are you doing about the island full of criminals?” and instead said “Mayor Bloomberg, what are you doing about the island full of mentally ill people and children?” If we believe that people have “had their chance” we don’t care about their fate. The problem is, the people in prison could just as easily be us. Harry Silverglate, a defense lawyer for Boston’s Zalkind, Rodriguez, Lunt & Duncan LLP estimates that the average American commits three felonies a day completely unintentionally. One of the prisoners in OPP was in prison for unpaid parking tickets. Another was a young girl named Ashley George:
Ashley George, a 13-year-old girl housed in OPP’s Youth Center, who was moved to an area adjacent to an adult male holding area where the men watched her use the toilet. As the building began to flood, Ashley spent days in water up to her neck. Adult prisoners rescued Ashley and the other children from the waters. After being taken to the bridge for evacuation, Ashley was lucky enough to be given a bag of potato chips and water. She reports again being forced to relieve herself publicly and that pregnant girls received no assistance or treatment.
Our foolish belief that prisoners for some reason deserve their plight, or that prisons are “too easy” leads us to turn a blind eye on abuse and violence. We label inmates as “criminals” instead of “fathers,” “mothers,” “husbands,” “wives,” or “children.” The Dark Knight syndrome is why Governor Rick Perry callously tossed away a memo that could have saved Cameron Todd Willinham’s life. The Dark Knight syndrome is also why politicians who are tough on crime end up being so successful.
The second source of our inmate culture is political. In California, one’s third offense, no matter how petty, will result in an extended prison sentence, which means that 3,700 inmates who have committed non-violent, non-serious crimes are serving life sentences. In Alabama, a man named Jerald Sanders is currently serving a life sentence for stealing a bike. Our laws on sex offenders are even worse. Many know about the rape and murder of Megan Kanka. This spawned the famous “Megan’s Law” sex offender registry. But very few know about William Elliot, a young man that was killed by a vigilante who used the registry to find and kill sex offenders. Elliot was on the list for statutory rape. At age 19, he had sex with his 16 year old girlfriend, three months away from the age of consent in Maine. Because we so want to prevent crimes that we cannot, we pass increasingly tough laws after horrific instances. “Caylee’s Law” followed the Casey Anthony case and would have made it a felony for parents to fail to report a child missing after 24 hours, and a child dead in one hour. This will not save a single child, but it may put innocent parents in prison. The writer of the law, Michelle Crower, admits that she did not consult any experts before arbitrarily creating the deadline. But anecdotes like Megan and Caylee get laws in the books that can’t be easily removed. Politicians want to appear tough on crime so the laws stay, and innocent people are hurt. That means unjust laws stay on the books for years. Laws get more and more strict, and Americans prison population slowly drifts upwards.
It’s time for America to stop imprisoning non-violent drug offenders and reduce the time served for petty crimes. It’s time for a sensible policy on sex offenders. It’s time to make policy based on data instead of fear. It’s time to stop indefinitely detaining and torturing foreigners. But most importantly, it’s time to treat our prisoners like they deserve to be treated. They are human, and while they may have committed crimes (or may not have) that does not mean they aren’t entitled to human decency. How we treat our prisoners says a lot about our society. Right now, we treat our prisoners like shit. And you know what they say: you are how you treat.
Chart - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:U.S._incarceration_rates_1925_onwards.png
U.S. v China - http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/23/world/americas/23iht-23prison.12253738.html
Number of U.S. citizens in prison - http://www.economist.com/node/16640389
Cost - http://www.commondreams.org/headlines06/0608-05.htm
Wikileaks - http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/wikileaks/8471907/WikiLeaks-Guantanamo-Bay-terrorist-secrets-revealed.html
McClatchy - http://www.mcclatchydc.com/detainees/
ACLU - http://www.aclu.org/prisoners-rights/aclu-report-details-horrors-suffered-orleans-parish-prisoners-wake-hurricane-katrin
Evacuation Map - http://www.mockpaperscissors.com/2011/08/26/why-isnt-the-rikers-island-jail-being-evacuated-for-hurricane-irene/
Rikers Details - http://solitarywatch.com/2011/08/26/locked-up-and-left-behind-new-yorks-prisoners-and-hurricane-irene/
Prison Rape Statistics - http://reason.org/news/show/rape-factories
Alabama Department of Corrections and Marilyn Shirley, Scott Howard-Smith stories - http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/sexist/2010/04/27/we-know-the-way-to-end-prison-rape-is-it-too-expensive/
Violent Crimes - http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/pdf/pji02.pdf
Three Strikes California - http://www.economist.com/node/16636027
Megans Law - http://reason.com/archives/2011/06/14/perverted-justice