From Florida to
In both states, advocacy groups would rather see non-violent prisoners nearing the end of their sentences released early than build more new bunks. Barney Bishop, president of the influential business lobby Associated Industries of Florida, has released a position paper calling for a halt to the scheduled construction of three new, 1,300-bed prisons at a cost of $300 million. “It doesn’t make sense to me,” Bishop told the Miami Herald.
“Many inmates are serving long sentences for nonviolent crimes, including minor drug offenses,” The Times noted in an editorial last January 1st. In
There are grim signs those who run our prisons at all levels have lost their grip on their jobs. In
“Overcrowding is dangerous for the prisoners, for the corrections officers and for the public,” said Michael Bien, a California lawyer for the inmates who asked Federal District Court judges to reduce the prison population by 52,000 over the next two years by early paroles of non-violent offenders. Mocking the concept that our prisons are "country clubs," one Federal inmate wrote in the Honolulu Weekly, “Can you imagine a country club where 130 snoring, stinking, farting guys sleep stacked on bunk beds arranged not even two feet apart in a tiny little dormitory and then stand in line in the morning to use one of six toilets, which are only rarely in working order at the same time?”
According to Human Rights Watch, mistreatment of prisoners is practically a tradition. In 1995, a federal judge found a stunning pattern of staff assaults, abusive use of electronic stun device guns, beatings, and brutality at Pelican Bay Prison in California, and concluded the violence “appears to be open, acknowledges, tolerated and sometimes expressly approved” by high ranking corrections officials. Another federal judge four years later concluded that
“In recent years, U.S. prison inmates have been beaten with fists and batons, stomped on, kicked, shot, stunned with electronic devices, doused with chemical sprays, choked, and slammed face first onto concrete floors by the officers whose job it is to guard them,” HRW says.
What’s more, many prisoners are dumped into numbing solitary confinement not because of any infraction against prison rules but owing to their political views. As one man who experienced this wrote in the Socialist Worker last year: “There is no way to articulate the excruciating torture of sensory deprivation. Picture living in a cage, about the size of a bathroom. You are there 23 hours a day, day in and day out, year in and year out. You are allowed one hour a day out in a cage the size of a tiny living room. You are allowed one five-minute phone call every six months, which is monitored. Your mail and reading material is maliciously scrutinized and censored. When leaving your cage, you are subjected to a dehumanizing strip search which includes a genital and anal probe, and then handcuffed. You are completely under the control of prison guards who carry pepper gas and long, black batons that some refer to as "spic and nigger beaters."
That’s one inmate’s perspective. Yet an overview report titled “Rights For All” by Amnesty International found: “Some prisoners are abused by other inmates, and guards fail to protect them. Others are assaulted by the guards themselves. Women and men are subjected to sexual, as well as physical, abuse. Overcrowded and underfunded prisons, many of them privatized, control inmates by isolating them for long periods and by using methods of restraint that are cruel, degrading and sometimes life-threatening. Victims include pregnant women, the mentally ill and even children.” And the Justice Department itself conceded four years ago that sexual assaults on inmates is a "significant problem"in federal prisons.
The last thing this country needs, though, is another study of our prison system if it will only gather dust in bookcases on Capitol Hill. We need to take the profit out of prisons, beginning with the liberation of all inmates jailed on marijuana charges. (Note: I am not a user.)
Too often, our jails are seen as money-making opportunities for those in charge. In
As Tom Paine once opined on this subject: “When it shall be said in any country in the world, ‘My poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive’— when these things can be said then may that country boast of its constitution and its government.” Folks, we gotta ways to go.
(Sherwood Ross formerly reported for the Chicago Daily News and the Miami Herald. He currently heads a public relations firm for non-profit organizations, book publishers, and good causes. Reach him at [email protected]).