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The Caging of America
January 24, 2012 7:58 PM   Subscribe

The scale and the brutality of our prisons are the moral scandal of American life. Every day, at least fifty thousand men—a full house at Yankee Stadium—wake in solitary confinement, often in “supermax” prisons or prison wings, in which men are locked in small cells, where they see no one, cannot freely read and write, and are allowed out just once a day for an hour’s solo “exercise.” (Lock yourself in your bathroom and then imagine you have to stay there for the next ten years, and you will have some sense of the experience.)
posted by Trurl (102 comments total) 60 users marked this as a favorite

 
Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height. That city of the confined and the controlled, Lockuptown, is now the second largest in the United States

This is just staggering. Don't see anyone raising this as a campaign issue unfortunately.
posted by arcticseal at 8:02 PM on January 24, 2012 [15 favorites]


I teach community college. I virtually always have a felon in each class of 25.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:06 PM on January 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


I read this article the other day; it made some sense to me. However, I didn't catch where the author actually demonstrated that "stop and frisk" actually lowers the prison population directly. There are a lot of assumptions based in that leap, and I'm not sure I follow them.
posted by koeselitz at 8:08 PM on January 24, 2012


Prison rape is so endemic—more than seventy thousand prisoners are raped each year—that it is routinely held out as a threat, part of the punishment to be expected. The subject is standard fodder for comedy, and an uncoöperative suspect being threatened with rape in prison is now represented, every night on television, as an ordinary and rather lovable bit of policing. The normalization of prison rape—like eighteenth-century japery about watching men struggle as they die on the gallows—will surely strike our descendants as chillingly sadistic, incomprehensible on the part of people who thought themselves civilized.

The whole prison rape thing infuriates me to the deepest core of my being. A co-worker made a comment related to it yesterday and I really had to work hard not to launch into a full-on diatribe of the sort which would have gotten me sent home for the day as a response.

We truly don't believe in rehabilitating offenders in this country. We only seek to punish them, to make them pay. We do that with our horrible prisons, and we do it by stripping all felons of basic citizenship rights after they have supposedly "paid their debt to society".

If a society truly is judged by how it treats the least of its members, as I've heard said, then we're coming in pretty far down the scale of what civilization truly is.
posted by hippybear at 8:09 PM on January 24, 2012 [80 favorites]


We should be ashamed of the prison system in the USA. It is an affront to civilization.
posted by entropone at 8:15 PM on January 24, 2012 [18 favorites]


Also interesting to note: the words "plea bargain" don't occur even once in this article. My understanding is that many many people who are in prison have never stood trial -- they were convinced by the system that they would do better with a plea bargain which gives them a certain amount of time "inside" rather than taking the "chance" with a jury trial and possibly being sentenced to something much longer.

That undoubtedly has a lot to do with our prison population problem. If all cases were forced to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, chances are we'd have a good number of people walking free today who instead felt it wasn't worth "the risk" to make the government prove their case in a court of law.
posted by hippybear at 8:16 PM on January 24, 2012 [11 favorites]


I'll take solitary over life in gen pop and the risk of getting "shawshanked" any day of the week.
posted by Renoroc at 8:16 PM on January 24, 2012


The solution is obviously to invest more money and power in our elected officials.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:17 PM on January 24, 2012


It makes for depressing reading: If mass incarceration is considered as a system of social control—specifically, racial control—then the system is a fantastic success.
Totally agree with hippybear's comment on how it reflects on the civilisation of US society.
posted by arcticseal at 8:17 PM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


@hippybear It's going to take Americans realizing that if an American is sent to jail, it is our society that has failed in some way, even more than that person.
posted by Celsius1414 at 8:19 PM on January 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


I agree with OP that this is a tragic scandal, but it's worth noting that the analogy to Stalinist deportations is a little misleading considering that the population of the USSR in 1938 was around 168 million vs. the current US population of over 300 million. Equating the US's policies to Stalinism is a good way to make people you're trying to educate about this problem stop listening. Also should be noted that "correctional supervision" includes parole/probation.

A better analogy is to modern China, which has quadruple the US population but is a distant second in incarceration rates. See this NYT article.
posted by Wretch729 at 8:20 PM on January 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'll take solitary over life in gen pop and the risk of getting "shawshanked" any day of the week.

Solitary is no picnic.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 8:20 PM on January 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


derp. China is not only a distant second in incarceration rates, it is also second in absolute number of imprisoned people. Makes the analogy about how screwed up our system is even stronger.
posted by Wretch729 at 8:21 PM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


the population of the USSR in 1938 was around 168 million vs. the current US population of over 300 million

Half a gulag is worse than none.
posted by Trurl at 8:25 PM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is a wonderful conversation with Bill Moyers, Bryan Stevenson and Michelle Alexander on the subject of institutional racism, skyrocketing incarceration rates in the United States, and the legacy of Martin Luther King, among other things.
posted by phaedon at 8:26 PM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'd like to point out that no discussion of the era of mass incarceration in the United States could be complete without a recognition of what is sending those (largely poor and coloured) individuals into custody: Illicit drug prohibition. Maybe it's time to regulate rather than prohibit.
posted by docgonzo at 8:27 PM on January 24, 2012 [6 favorites]


I'd like to point out that no discussion of the era of mass incarceration in the United States could be complete without a recognition of what is sending those (largely poor and coloured) individuals into custody: Illicit drug prohibition.

That's a point made pretty clear in the linked article from the FPP.
posted by hippybear at 8:29 PM on January 24, 2012


Solitary is no picnic.

Neither is gen. pop.

It's kind of like one of those schoolyard bully "Where do you want me punch you?" questions that doesn't really have a terrific answer.
posted by infinitywaltz at 8:31 PM on January 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


derp. China is not only a distant second in incarceration rates, it is also second in absolute number of imprisoned people. Makes the analogy about how screwed up our system is even stronger.

Maybe so, but Amnesty International says that the number of annual executions in China are believed to be in the thousands, and far more than the rest of the world combined.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 8:31 PM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


I guess my point is, don't be looking to China as a law enforcement role model.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 8:32 PM on January 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


The conclusion is interesting, that by chipping away at the issues bit by bit, we can solve the greater problem - In every case, humanity and common sense made the insoluble problem just get up and go away.
That gives me hope that we can all make a difference.
posted by arcticseal at 8:33 PM on January 24, 2012


America vs. China in terms of the rights of the incarcerated is apparently another one of those "Where do you want me to punch you?" questions.
posted by infinitywaltz at 8:33 PM on January 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


So what's the breakdown of the 50k in solitary. How many had plea bargains? What crimes are we talking about? How many were put there for crimes committed in prison?
posted by humanfont at 8:35 PM on January 24, 2012


From a QI episode, "Five percent of the world's population is American; twenty-five percent of the world's prisoners are American. The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any country in the history of the world. The rate is three time that of Iran, ssix times that of China. More than one in a hundred adults in the United States is in prison. One in nine black men ages 20 to 34 is in prison."

There has been an explosion of the prison population since 1980. The percentage of the adult population in the penal system -- in prison, on parole or probation -- is 3.2%. The Sentencing Project shows racial disparity in incarceration rates throughout the United States.

QI provided further information: "It is illegal to bring into the United States any goods produced by forced labor or by prisoners, yet American prisoners make 100% of the military helmets, ammunition belts, bulletproof vests, ID tags as well as some other items used by the US military. Although a prisoner is not technically forced to work, solitary confinement is the punishment for refusal. They alsso make 93% of domestically produced paints, 36% of home appliances and 21% of office furniture."

In Louisiana, I live in the state with the highest rate of incarceration of its citizens of any state in the union. New Orleans is the murder capital of the country. It is not the murderers who are filling up the prisons, however. Mostly that increase is attributable to the war on drugs and the three strikes laws.

My one commitment to wade into the foul comments in the daily newspaper and about the only time I will is to berate and protest the barbaric calls for prison rape as part of punishment of prisoners. I do not want the comment made without mu protesting that rape is wrong, it is always wrong and I do not want it said that rape is any part of the justice system in my country. Anyone calling for such heinous treatment is uncivilized and opposed to justice and the rule of law.
posted by Anitanola at 8:35 PM on January 24, 2012 [28 favorites]


I have a client who is a recently retired Marine. He has PTSD. He went out and got himself arrested for DWI. He spent the night in the county jail before bonding out the next day. During the night he spent in jail, he was raped by an inmate. How do I know this really happened? Well, in addition to him telling me the story through tears and being barely able to complete his thoughts or sentences, he went directly to the hospital after bonding out. There is physical evidence proving that he was raped. No one in the jail has been charged with the rape, of course.

A few days later he called 911 because he felt like he was going to kill himself. The police showed up and took him away to a hospital. Good for the police. After removing him from the house, they asked the roommate if they could search the apartment. The roommate consented, and the police found some marijuana. They then charged the PTSD-recently-raped client of mine with three felony drug charges. They will try to move him directly from the hospital to the jail -- yes, the same jail he was just raped in -- once the hospital releases him until he bonds out on the drug charges.

Welcome to the system.
posted by flarbuse at 8:36 PM on January 24, 2012 [107 favorites]


Lots of Americans are still pissed they can't feel superior to slaves, a brutal prison system is just part of that.
posted by The Whelk at 8:37 PM on January 24, 2012 [9 favorites]


His thoughts were red thoughts: I guess my point is, don't be looking to China as a law enforcement role model.
Eponyster-

No, wait, I can't even do that. This is no joke. Like hippybear, the reality of prison rape is to me one of the worst things I am haunted by, one of the worst things in the entire world, and something that engulfs me in rage- even more so because of the flip way so many people joke about it.

And the inescapability of it, that's the worst part: you are treated as a human toilet and the entire weight of the most powerful nation in the history of our planet is bearing down on your as your teeth are knocked out and your orifices torn up and bloody. This condition can go on day after day, week after week, year after year, and there'll be no reprieve except by parole or suicide. People who are too busy pissing about dick wolves won't even care about prisons, joining in the "Well, they're bad people, why should I care?" apathy brigade. Almost no politicians will even make a token gesture, preferring to gladly toss human lives into the furnace just to avoid a possible polling hit.

It's so utterly abhorrent, and yet so completely preventable... I feel like it's the modern day slavery issue that a lot of Americans are going to be on the wrong side of some day.
posted by hincandenza at 8:41 PM on January 24, 2012 [17 favorites]


Reminder that more and more prisons are run by private enterprise. Prisons are a for-profit industry now. I leave you to figure out who gets a raw deal when cost cutting measures come about.
posted by narcoleptic at 8:48 PM on January 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


A church I used to belong to has a "sister" church in Russia that they keep up relations with and collaborate with on projects. This Russian church is adjacent to a men's prison, so prison ministry is a big part of their focus, helping reform criminals, getting them job training, giving them a stake in life, etc.

Several years ago their head pastor came for a visit and asked to see a local prison. So our church leaders took her there.

She was horrified. She looked at the conditions our prisoners live in and asked one question: "How can you do this to your own people?"

I'd like to stress that this woman came from a country that popularized the word "gulag". For all that is beautiful about it, Russia is not exactly a country of extra-long hugs and unicorn rides. And yet she could not fathom our cruelty.
posted by middleclasstool at 8:49 PM on January 24, 2012 [35 favorites]


"Where do you want me punch you?"

Put that in Latin and print it on the $1 bill - it would be a much more honest motto to most Americans.
posted by ryanshepard at 8:51 PM on January 24, 2012 [10 favorites]


About half of these prisoners are serving time for non-violent offenses too.
posted by onesidys at 8:55 PM on January 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


This reminded me of spending a summer at USC between my junior and senior years of high school, in '98, as part of a theater program. there were ten or twelve of us in the program, charged with writing and putting on a show with the theme of "justice." SO we toured a lot of prisons and talked to a lot of corrections officers and the like. To a person, the corrections officers views on the rights of prisoners were basically, "just kill 'em." It was pretty horrifying.

But what I'm remembering now was when we toured the Sybil Brand Institute, at that point recently closed. It was an L.A. County women's prison, and the conditions were deplorable and unbelievably depressing, but we got a good insiders' look, including at the jumpsuits with the SYBIL BRAND notation stamped across them.

When I returned for my senior year, I noticed one or two girls wearing orange shirts with LUCKY BRAND and a prisoner number stamped on them in what was now to me an unmistakable tribute.

America. Not only are we unconcerned about our prison-industrial complex - we commodify it.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:57 PM on January 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


We revel it in, oh yes the big tough on crime man is going to pin down the awful bad men and force them to endure cold showers and beat him up with his very fists oh yes yes faster faster, mind the shaft.
posted by The Whelk at 9:05 PM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]




People who are too busy pissing about dick wolves won't even care about prisons, joining in the "Well, they're bad people, why should I care?" apathy brigade.
hincandenza

Well, I think you have it backwards. I think views on rape and sexual abuse of men and women are tied together. It's not the people "pissing" about thoughtless jokes on sexual abuse that are part of the "apathy brigade", it's the ones who insist that sexual abuse is a joke who enable the normalization of prison rape in society.

I often see this weird duality online, especially on sites like reedit, where people express the greatest of outrage on prison rape and insist that it's no joking matter but then pile on with the rape jokes and take enormous offense when anyone calls them on it.

Maybe rape, prison or otherwise, just isn't a joke?
posted by Sangermaine at 9:31 PM on January 24, 2012 [17 favorites]


A good friend of mine is doing life in Illinois. He'd been on death row -- which is how we met; I was an activist against capital punishment and he was looking for a penpal -- till George Ryan commuted all death sentences to life without parole during the state's moratorium.

The brutality he has endured has been literally unspeakable; I know he has been raped and beaten, but he won't talk about it directly, even after 10+ years. He is in his 50s now, and is losing his eyesight (one of the lesser-known ill effects of being in a prison cell for 23 hours a day is that you lose the ability to focus further than a few feet in front of you). He tries to keep himself occupied with reading, following sports, and some painting. I used to visit him in prison when I still lived in Chicago, making the long trek downstate, driving past endless corn fields and through those wide midwestern skies, so that we could talk about football and politics and he could teach me how to play chess. I found out, many months after our first visit, that he had to endure a strip search (including the humiliating "spread your cheeks" check to look in his rectum) both before and after the visit.

I asked him once if he'd rather I didn't visit so he could avoid the strip search. He answered: "I would do anything just for an hour's conversation with someone who treated me like a human being."

The U.S. prison system is quite possibly our greatest national shame.
posted by scody at 9:34 PM on January 24, 2012 [80 favorites]


scody: your experience there is much like prisoners I've defended. One of the most heartbreaking aspects of criminal defense is that many prisoners become what we call "jailhouse lawyers," reading everything they can about how they might defend themselves, but without the legal training to realize that most of their efforts have no relation to how the justice system works or what will actually be effective. And of course they will want to talk about it all - it's what they are doing to keep themselves sane, basically - and our job in those cases is to disabuse them of those notions and get them onto what might actually help.

God it's tough. Sometimes you get to give them good news though. Those days are like manna from heaven.
posted by Navelgazer at 10:00 PM on January 24, 2012 [7 favorites]


The U.S. prison system is quite possibly our greatest national shame.

You may be right, but you can't deny that there are plenty of serious contenders for the title.
posted by spacewrench at 10:12 PM on January 24, 2012 [7 favorites]


The issue of how fucking horrible the American prison system is has been kind of a thing in the more politically-minded parts of the SA forums as well. This information is mostly taken from the OP of this thread.

From reading about our prison system, I'm less and less willing to call the cops in a lot of circumstances because even somebody who steals my shit doesn't deserve this.



  • Documentary- Torture: America's Brutal Prisons

  • Prison rape survivor testimony & Human Rights Watch report on prison rape

  • In Colorado, prison system is "structured to promote failure."

  • In Massachussetts, a new policy is on its way to charge inmates rent during their stay, with additional fees for things like medications, haircuts, and GED testing. It's called the "Inmate Financial Responsibility Program."

  • From Califas: Financial Impact of Health Care for Prisoners Who Are Ill and Three Strikes

  • In Indiana, if you have two or more family members in prison you want to visit, you have to pick one or the other; because you can't be on more than one inmate's visit list.

  • Georgia beats out Texas, Louisiana, and Cali to become the nations leader in criminal punishment. In Georgia, one in 13 people are behind bars, on probation, or on parole- more than double the national rate of 1 in 31.

  • Not to be outdone by 3-strikes law, Zell Miller started 2 strikes and you're out laws in 1994- along with his "7 Deadly Sins" law. One strike for one of the 7 sins is 10 years, no parole; and the second is life with no parole. After the 10 years, ex-cons are released with $25, a bus ticket, and no post-release treatment or support. A 14-year old with a cap gun can be and is punished the same as an adult with a real gun.

  • In Montana, another private prison scam.

  • Kicking the National Habit: The Legal and Policy Arguments for Abolishing Private Prison Contracts (pdf).

  • ACLU report shows LA Central Jail is still going strong with its 30-year history of severe overcrowding, violence, and brutality. For example, when one inmate complained about being denied showers for a few weeks, the guards broke his leg and wrecked his knee bad enough to require extensive surgery.

  • Corrections Corporation of America says that despite critics & recession, business is booming.

  • For-profit prison to be built in OK with a twist- it will be staffed and run entirely by "born again Christians."

  • Doing time on their own dime: "Hurley couldn't pay the fine because she had to pay the Georgia Department of Corrections $600 a month for room and board. Hurley spent nearly a year in prison - from a 120-day sentence -- due to her inability to pay the fine before the SCHR was able to get her released."



  • That's just a sample. See also this post on the LF Effortposts blog about women's prisons, or this post from the same blog which is just a roundup of stories posted last July, or for more details, check out prominent online prison reform activist HidingFromGoro's posts in the prison category on rethinkamerica.net. I wish I could find someplace to link you which displays the output of the BB code in this pastebin, but anybody with basic internet skills should find it readable, and horrifying. A sample:
    Black guys picking cotton at gunpoint in LA. Swarms of rats chewing off fingers & eyes in IL. Indefinite sensory deprivation. Bags of feces thrown on people in VA. Arms held out of feeding-slots to shatter elbows in VA. Pregnant women beaten so hard the braces get knocked off their teeth in TX. Men forced to fight to the death in gladiator matches in CA. Men shot for sport in CA. Men overcrowded at 300% capacity nationwide. Children given life sentences without the possibility of parole- nationwide. HIV+ inmates beaten and sent to sensory-deprivation isolation with biohazard stencils and no medical treatment. Men put in sensory-deprivation isolation for up to 36 years with no contact with the outside world (including lawyers). Secret medical experiments performed on thousands of inmates in PA. Cops running brutal abuse schemes and creating their own gangs in NY. Penises amputated in WA. Feces mixed into food in CO. These are just the things which I've provided links to on major news outlets in this subforum in the past few weeks.

    Activist and outreach orgs-

  • Prison Activist Resource Center
  • CURE
  • Justice Policy Institute
  • Penal Reform International
  • The Center for Prisoner Health & Human Rights
  • The Sentencing Project
  • Commission on Safety & Abuse in American Prisons
  • Critical Resistance
  • Prison Policy Initiative
  • Death Penalty Focus
  • California Prison Focus
  • Middle Ground(AZ prison reform)
  • CAADP(AZ death penalty abolition)

  • posted by Pope Guilty at 10:58 PM on January 24, 2012 [99 favorites]


    it's depressing that theres a buck in it . with private operators and communities dependent on the prison for employment, reform isn't going to happen. locking people up for recreational drug use or because they have an addiction is utterly pointless, unless theres a buck in it.
    posted by the noob at 11:10 PM on January 24, 2012


    Yeah there's a buck in it. More importantly, there's a political buck in it. Possession is the easiest crime in the world to prosecute, and as long as there's not a strong movement to decriminalize, politicians can make their bones on being "tough" by putting away addicts.

    Easiest thing in the world, from a political point of view.
    posted by Navelgazer at 11:44 PM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


    I liked the quote from Dickens in the article.

    I also liked this excerpt from a book by William J. Stuntz:

    The trouble with the Bill of Rights, he argues, is that it emphasizes process and procedure rather than principles. The Declaration of the Rights of Man says, Be just! The Bill of Rights says, Be fair! Instead of announcing general principles—no one should be accused of something that wasn’t a crime when he did it; cruel punishments are always wrong; the goal of justice is, above all, that justice be done—it talks procedurally. You can’t search someone without a reason; you can’t accuse him without allowing him to see the evidence; and so on. This emphasis, Stuntz thinks, has led to the current mess, where accused criminals get laboriously articulated protection against procedural errors and no protection at all against outrageous and obvious violations of simple justice
    The defence of "band-aid solutions" and "chipping away at the problem" also made me think. In short, a good article!
    posted by Harald74 at 12:20 AM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


    I'm curious for non-American mefites: Is being "tough on crime" seen as a good thing in your societies or countries, as a virtue as and of itself, with disproportionate punishments and huge money spent on enforcement? In the US, being "tough" forgives any vice or moral failing. Everything from the endless cop shows on TV to our sports emphasize that "being a tough guy" is the highest achievement a human can aspire to.
    posted by maxwelton at 1:17 AM on January 25, 2012


    Here in Norway, what passes for right wing (seriously, it's still left of the Dems in the US) occasionally brings up harsher sentencing, but equally often stress more policing and a quicker turnaround in the justice system as solutions. Feed the Progress Party's policy page into Google Translate to get an idea. Here's the most radical proposal for reform from them, concerning how they think foreign criminals view the cushy Norwegian prisons. AFAIK, the idea of segregated prisons has not caught on with any other political party.

    The recent major crime-related news I can recall are a spate of rapes in Oslo, and B&E sprees by foreign criminals, who quickly transfer stolen goods out of the country.
    posted by Harald74 at 1:49 AM on January 25, 2012


    hippybear: My understanding is that many many people who are in prison have never stood trial -- they were convinced by the system that they would do better with a plea bargain which gives them a certain amount of time "inside" rather than taking the "chance" with a jury trial and possibly being sentenced to something much longer.

    It's even worse than that - many who are in prison are there because they naively accepted plea bargains with deferred sentences - the idea being that the defendant avoids incarceration as long as he's able to successfully complete his probation - not realizing that probation is a catch-22 scam designed to drain your funds and put you into prison in the end, anyway.

    When I first came to Europe 11 years ago, I planned to stay a year or two to experience another culture, then return to live in the States. Not too terribly long after I arrived here, a close friend of mine in the US was charged with a felony - their first criminal charge, ever. Having a close second-hand view of the criminal justice system in the US during that process is one of the main reasons I will most likely never again be a permanent US resident.

    Probation is designed in such a way that it's practically impossible to complete successfully. While you're on probation, you're paying fines, fees to the county, fees to mandated recovery programs, fees to lie detector operators, fees to drug test administrators, fees to the company that provides and monitors ankle bracelets - you name it, you're paying someone.

    And the terms of probation can be changed at any time, at the whim of a judge. Fail a lie detector test? A new condition of your probation is to attend an Addicts Anonymous meeting every night of the week, with no set end date. The only Addicts Anonymous meeting on Thursday night is an hour and a half away from your home? Tough luck. Seven days a week, and don't forget that having gainful employment is another condition of probation (tough for a convicted felon in any economy).

    The probation agreement says you have to finish a mandatory recovery program. You ask how long they last, 'oh, usually two or three years, max.' Which is true and a lie at the same time. The state approves a number of specific recovery programs. Each program is based on a book, worksheets, group exercises, etc. Any given program will generally take no more than two or three years to complete - but here's the catch: The private counselor who administers the program can choose, at any time, to 'reset', switching to a new program. 'Strangely' enough, the counselors seem to have a penchant for moving to a new program just before the one they're on runs out. One exercise away from finishing the current program and satisfying the mandatory recovery program part of your probation? Tough luck - we're starting over from scratch next week with this new and better book.

    And the regular lie detector tests - there are only a handful of county-approved lie-detector operators in one of the largest counties in the US. You can choose which one you go to, but they know each other. As a matter of fact, your counselor informs you that his brother is an approved lie-detector operator (hint, hint). Now, if you fail a lie detector test, or your counselor reports that he's not satisfied with your participation in the recovery program... You may be required to take lie detector tests on a more frequent basis, and/or may be required to attend additional counseling session (all of which you're paying for).

    The stories I could tell. My friend is halfway through his probation. He's already spent 6 months of time in jail for minor infractions during that time. Those six months don't count toward his probation time. While he's in jail, social security stops sending him checks, which, how are you supposed to continue to pay your bills? I'm pessimistic about the whole thing - I fear that my friend will make it almost to the end of probation and end up doing his full sentence in prison, anyway.

    So yeah, the criminal justice system in the US is a farce. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy.
    posted by syzygy at 1:53 AM on January 25, 2012 [30 favorites]


    With those stats, we must have at least a couple of mefites that have spent time in a US prison. If anyone's up for it, I would really value hearing about your experiences.
    posted by smoke at 2:08 AM on January 25, 2012


    My mother, when she was a corrections officer, explained that the reason she was anti legalizing marijuana was for the job security. (I never said she was kind or bright.)
    posted by _paegan_ at 3:08 AM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


    The Bible has some pretty strong hints (particularly in Matthew 25) that treating prisoners humanely is a direct sign of whether or not one knows Christ in any saving sense, and that treatment directed at "the least of these" is considered on par with treatment of Jesus himself.

    But judging by how we do things, if there's anybody we look down on more than the poor, it's prisoners.

    Some Christians like to claim the US is a christian nation. I wish there were more evidence.
    posted by weston at 3:29 AM on January 25, 2012 [12 favorites]


    You know, when you finally successfuly revolt, the old order will release all of these prisoners on the general population.

    Karma.
    posted by CautionToTheWind at 4:34 AM on January 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


    I'm curious for non-American mefites: Is being "tough on crime" seen as a good thing in your societies or countries, as a virtue as and of itself, with disproportionate punishments and huge money spent on enforcement? In the US, being "tough" forgives any vice or moral failing. Everything from the endless cop shows on TV to our sports emphasize that "being a tough guy" is the highest achievement a human can aspire to.

    In France, in general, no. However, Sarkozy sometimes talks like that. What's refreshing (for me as an American, though I have dual French citizenship since last year) is how Sarkozy's "hard on crime" stuff is regularly analyzed and criticized for being ineffective bluster, alongside a focus on how important rehabilitation is. But France is nowhere near as good as, say, Norway is about rehabilitation. Better than the US, yes, but lots of work to do still.

    Anecdotal, but: I grew up in Springfield, Oregon. I knew of at least three prisons in Spfld and Eugene, because we'd drive past them. Springfield's population was between 30-40,000 people in the 20 years I lived there (my family actually lived outside Spfld city borders, so we always went past the sign w/the population when we went into town), and Eugene is the seat of Lane County; its current population is just over 156,000. In comparison: currently I live in Nice, France, which is the seat of the Alpes-Maritimes département (roughly equivalent to a county), and Nice has a population of 955,000 people. Just under one million. I have no idea where there's a prison. I have never driven past a prison sign (there are several different designations for prisons in French, so it's not out of ignorance of that), I've asked people and gotten shrugs, I just did a web search solely for this comment because in my 10 years in this part of France, and my year in Lyon, and my travels across the country, I've just never even crossed one. In the US, you see them, y'know? So: in France, there's this Wikipedia article (in French): Prison en France, as well as an article on the prison population: Population carcérale en France. Still don't know where they're located (don't have time to search more).

    Back to the original question: the "be a tough guy" mindset isn't so ingrained here, no. Soccer (football for us Europeans) and rugby are the two biggest sports, but in both, it's usually the quick and precise players who are looked up to. "Tough" ones are seen as a little brutish, which is not a positive quality here. Much more value is placed on keeping relationships running smoothly, and certain sacrifices that can entail, as opposed to the American (speaking from my own experience) value of "tough love". Just thinking about why I call it "American", it's because I've never seen it lauded anywhere else on such a large scale. You can find individuals who think like that anywhere, but interestingly, their larger societies accept them to the point that things can still run smoothly around them. It's only in the US I've seen it so widespread and accepted to the point where the opposite happens: people who try to get things to run smoothly, and who accept making certain sacrifices, are railroaded by the "TOUGH LOVE" train. (See also: US politics.)
    posted by fraula at 5:24 AM on January 25, 2012 [8 favorites]


    If all cases were forced to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, chances are we'd have a good number of people walking free today who instead felt it wasn't worth "the risk" to make the government prove their case in a court of law.

    Problem one: Public defenders are overwhelmed, and probably can't do the work it takes to prove you innocent, so getting a plea bargain saves you years in prison.

    Problem two: Mandatory minimum sentences, which take sentencing away from judges and puts it in the hands of prosecutors, who get to decide your sentence simply by picking which one of several overlapping charges they're going to actually indict you for. They use this to make sure you'll plea -- if you don't, they'll charge you with the sentence that's going to lock you up for 20+ years.

    Problem three: The US, by and large, thinks "those people" deserve it.
    posted by eriko at 5:25 AM on January 25, 2012 [6 favorites]


    Maybe so, but Amnesty International says that the number of annual executions in China are believed to be in the thousands, and far more than the rest of the world combined.

    If my choice is 20+ years in prison or death, call me Danny Deever and hand me over to Mr. Ketch forthwith.
    posted by eriko at 5:29 AM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


    Stories like this make me sick.

    I've commented here before about how I volunteer at a prison here in town. It is a minimum security prison. It has a fence with razor wire but there's now towers with guns. Most of the guys there are on work release or leave for the day to work at different government facilities. All the men there have less than five years on their sentences, some of them had short sentences to start with and others are folks who have done 20+ years and are transitioning out.

    I've gotten to know some of these guys (about half a dozen) pretty well. They don't have any stories of out-and-out brutality that's done to them. But what I have learned, that I didn't know, is that while the violence is bad, it's all the demeaning things they put up with every day and all the little stuff they miss.

    I get to take these guys out on passes for a few hours. Some things they have been really grateful to be able to do:

    Sit on a couch! (First time in seven years).
    Pet a dog.
    Help themselves to something in my refrigerator (First time in 17 years, dude started crying).
    Have a waitress look at you, smile, and say "Can I help you?"
    Chew gum.

    These guys use M&M's as crayons to make cards for their kids.

    Everything in prison is difficult. Think about it the next time you reach over and grab a piece of tape from a tape dispenser. Or use a paper clip or a post-it note. Put on some pants or a shirt that aren't green.

    I took a guy out to a chain restaurant where the menu is a riot of bright color pictures with all different sections and cards with specials on them falling out and shit. He took one look at it and said to the waitress "I'll have what he's having."

    Of course the food sucks, and as we know Texas Pete can make almost anything edible. Oops, can't have that! Someone "weaponized" it by throwing it someone's eyes.

    Of course all that stuff is nothing compared to be raped and beaten, but that's the kind of stuff that wears these guys down, even if you're in a "good" camp.

    And no, they don't have fucking cable TV. And yes, most of them are in for drugs or doing something illegal to get the money for drugs.

    Every single fucking problem in my life these guys would love to have.
    posted by marxchivist at 5:45 AM on January 25, 2012 [36 favorites]


    Oh hell, that's NO towers with guns.
    posted by marxchivist at 5:45 AM on January 25, 2012


    Yet another essay showing that U.S. prisons are the disgrace of the nation. I suspect the audience for these essays is both small and already sympathetic to the argument. Perhaps this will eventually lead to some policy changes. Frankly, I doubt it and if it does occur it will be slow in coming. Most people simply don't give a damn and while our prison population is huge, there's a lot of people who don't know anyone that's ever been to prison or if they do know someone, they don't know that about them. Felons aren't real people to a lot of Americans. And when you break it down between regular voters and non-voters which group do you think is less sympathetic to the convicted? The explanations offered for the reduced crime rate, low income abortions, broken windows theory of policing and the increase in the prison population, are convincing to most Americans who are willing to consider the matter. That our ratio of incarcerated to total population is out of line with the rest of the world is fairly well known, and makes as little impact as the similarly skewed proportion of defense spending to GNP.

    More needs to be done than just ending the War on Some Drugs, but that's where the biggest difference will be made. Unfortunately, I'm not all that optimistic about a change there either. There's a substantial economic investment in the War on Some Drugs continuing beyond the prison operator corporations. It would be hard to justify all the jobs in law enforcement without consensual activities being considered crimes, but that's really just the start. Charles Bowden has argued that Mexico is economically dependent, and has been for decades, on certain drugs remaining illegal. From his book, 'Down by the River',

    "A Mexican study [2001] by the nation's internal security agency, CISEN (Centro de Investigacion y Seguridad Nacional), that has been leaked to the press speculates that if the drug business vanished, the U.S. economy would shrink 19 to 22 percent, the Mexican 63 percent.

    ...

    In 1995, one Mexican drug-trafficking expert guessed that half the hotel revenues in his country were frauds, meaning empty rooms counted as sold in order to launder drug money."

    Charles Bowden also speculates that if it was somehow possible to win the War on Some Drugs it would destabilize Mexico. There's more to the resistance than Puritan American attitudes towards pleasure.

    Of course I agree with everyone else, the national fetish, prison rape, is as vile as it gets. A friend of mine who did a number of years in some bad places in California, including San Quentin and Pelican Bay, claimed that prison rape was overly hyped. I don't know about that, but on the other hand he was quick to add that it was rampant in the juvenile justice system. So even if he's right, cold comfort.

    The whole criminal justice system is a clusterfuck of absolutely epic proportions. Where does one even begin: mandatory minimums, prosecutors threatening prison rape, prosecutors stacking charges for the same act, militarization of police, civil forfeiture, etc., etc.

    -----

    Quick anecdote I heard third hand: Low level dealer gets busted and the DEA is trying to get him to roll over on his supplier. Supposedly the DEA guy said "feed the machine" as in, and this is of course paraphrased, "You don't feed the machine. We'll push you through because we've got you, but we're not really interested. Now your buddy, he'll feed the machine."

    Shameless.

    -----

    FAMM is another organization deserving attention. The stories on that website are some of the most tragic I've read.
    posted by BigSky at 5:57 AM on January 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


    My mother, when she was a corrections officer, explained that the reason she was anti legalizing marijuana was for the job security. (I never said she was kind or bright.)

    Oh man, I once made that comment as a total joke to some coworkers when I was working at a public defender's office. Not only did it not go over well, there's was one guy who I'm not even sure understood what I was saying.

    That said, put me in the "I'm not sure I'd call the cops" camp for anything that didn't require an immediate intervention to protect someone's safety. Incarceration, even for short periods of time, even without being convicted, can seriously screw people up. Even if the person is not raped, they might lose their home, their jobs; this happens to people every single day for crimes of shockingly minor significance, like driving on a license suspended for failure to pay child support.
    posted by Bulgaroktonos at 6:07 AM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


    However, not all the inmates housed in the SHU are alleged gang leaders. For example, Ernesto Lira was a petty thief serving time for minor drug possession. He was sent to Pelican Bay for an indefinite term, after authorities determined he was associated with a violent Latino prison gang.

    But Lira was not accused of actually doing anything tangible for the group. The key piece of evidence against him: a drawing found in his locker that allegedly contained gang symbols.

    "My first two months it was hard to get used to the fact that I'm going to be here," Lira said. "I looked and thought?maybe in a month or two they'll realize that this is all a mistake and kick me out of here."

    There was a way out of isolation, officials told Lira. He could debrief, or snitch, on other gang members. But as a judge later determined, Lira couldn't do that because he wasn't a member of any gang. He wasn't released from the SHU until his release from prison eight years later.
    link
    posted by rtha at 6:14 AM on January 25, 2012 [5 favorites]


    But Lira was not accused of actually doing anything tangible for the group. The key piece of evidence against him: a drawing found in his locker that allegedly contained gang symbols.

    Oh man, quick former public defender story time: I once had a client who was charged with something like three counts of trespass for going to this McDonald's that he had been banned from. The charges were fairly minor, the witnesses were all there and the case was solid. The client had a long list of priors including something like two trespass charges a year since he turned 18 (he was banned from a lot of McDonald's), so he almost certainly going to be looking at some jail time, but he wasn't too concerned. He was one of those "I can eat 90 days" types, and he really wanted to avoid probation(a very good idea for him). All in all it was looking like an easy plea, even if he was going to have to stay in jail when the day was over.

    I get there, and find out that a different prosecutor is coming in to handle the case, instead of the guy who was in that courtroom that day. Now, this is not unusual; a lot of prosecutors' offices have special units, so you'll have one prosecutor who just handles car thefts or sex crimes or domestic violence. Only, I'm new, so I don't know who this woman is or what her special case load is. Turns out, she's the gang prosecutor.

    I meet with her and she hands me some special materials on my client's gang membership that she intends to present to the judge at sentencing. So we go for sentencing and she does her best "I am zealously protecting the people" routine; she gets up and says "Your Honor the people are VERY concerned about this defendant's criminal activity because he is a known member of a DANGEROUS criminal street GANG; Your Honor he is a member of the BLOODS."

    The damning evidence? Well, he was friends with some people they also believed to be in the Bloods, plus his Myspace page had a red background.
    posted by Bulgaroktonos at 6:29 AM on January 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


    The roommate consented, and the police found some marijuana.

    Don't be that guy. Don't consent. If the cops are not allowed in, they can't "find" the evidence they brought with them, let alone your roommate's stash.
    posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:07 AM on January 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


    If you really want to be depressed, watch The New Asylums episode of Frontline from 2005, about how the severely mentally ill, who once were warehoused in state psychiatric facilities, are now locked away in the prison system.

    The case can be made for the severe punishment of criminals (although not by me). There is simply no excuse for punishing the mentally ill, people who are so psychotic and delusional that they have little to no understanding of what they've done or where they are.

    I know a little about what I speak- I work at a private psychiatric facility on a unit that treats mainly psychotics and schizophrenics. The biggest shock to me when I first started there was the routine lack of compassion from even those staff who weren't completely jaded. Some things really bothered me when I started, but I try not to let them get to me:

    1. Working with the per diem employee who also works full time at the state correctional facility who often laments the lack of punishment for the delusional patients and that prisoners- and by extension, patients- should have to work off their room and board. I can't talk to her about things like this because eventually, I'll say something I shouldn't.

    2. The routine calls for prison time for delusional patients who assault staff. One staff member was badly injured a few weeks before I started by a violent patient and the almost rote calls for prison time and gang rape was a little jarring at first. That's died down now, although there is a tally kept of ex patients who've been arrested for assault.

    3. The inability for most of the staff to connect on any sort of human level with the patients they treat.

    I get why this happens and I admit that I am still new to both this place and this field. But Christ, if you can't even muster the compassion to look a delusional patient in the eyes, then what the fuck are you doing caring for this population?

    This may seem like a tangent, but I think it ties in directly to the issue at hand. The absence of compassion that eventually leads to brutality exists when people are looked at as less than human. If that mentality festers in a nursing environment, I can only imagine how it must flourish in a prison.
    posted by dave78981 at 7:11 AM on January 25, 2012 [5 favorites]


    if you can't even muster the compassion to look a delusional patient in the eyes

    This is meant metaphorically rather than literally. It's not always wise to look delusional patients in the eyes...
    posted by dave78981 at 7:17 AM on January 25, 2012


    I found out, many months after our first visit, that he had to endure a strip search (including the humiliating "spread your cheeks" check to look in his rectum) both before and after the visit.

    Last year I followed a murder trial in my hometown that resulted in conviction/life w/o parole. A lot of other people were watching(streamed online) and there was NO evidence that this man killed his wife, instead the trial was full of gossip about an affair, other bullshit, and a key defense witness was not allowed to testify. The guy was able to testify for appellate purposes - so the jury didn't see it but those of us watching did - and his testimony would likely have resulted in an acquittal. You can read more about the case here - it was ridiculous.

    Anyway I, along with the others who had followed the trial, was so upset I could barely eat or sleep for over a week after the conviction. I started watching prison documentaries, reading about prison life, and it sounds like the prisoners are strip searched all the time to the point that they become numb to it. I don't see how prison life in this country isn't considered cruel and unusual punishment.

    After watching this trial I lost almost all faith in our justice system. It's not just the prison system that is a disgrace, it's the entire justice system.
    posted by fromageball at 7:49 AM on January 25, 2012 [6 favorites]


    Excellent article by Atul Gawande- Is solitary confinement torture?
    posted by cynicalidealist at 7:59 AM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


    Last year I followed a murder trial in my hometown that resulted in conviction/life w/o parole.

    Damn it, when I check where something like this happened, I hate when it turns out to be my home state. I love you, North Carolina, stop making me wish I didn't.
    posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:00 AM on January 25, 2012


    We always do something horrendously wrong. Sometimes we catch it, sometimes a generation or two passes before it comes to anybodies attention.

    Other times; like with the problems associated with Indian reservations on non-economically viable land, the problems still stemming from two centuries of slavery and half a century+ of Jim Crow, and similiar situations, the problem gets a partial fix and everyone pretends that its solved forever.
    posted by Slackermagee at 8:02 AM on January 25, 2012


    Formerly Stop Prison Rape, founded by Donny the Punk, here's Just Detention.
    posted by Goofyy at 8:14 AM on January 25, 2012


    I don't see how prison life in this country isn't considered cruel and unusual punishment.

    More then likely, because not many people care. Sad but true, the prison system in this country has been screwed up for a very long time; and yet we keep on trucking. As long as the bad guys stay in there, and the law abiding citizen stay out here, everything is peachy. Without degrading into this a political thread, let's admit that money buys politics and policies. Yet the majority of people in prison are not wealthy Americans but instead poor/lower middle class. The people who actually matter very rarely see the inside of a prison, and if they do, are usually protected i.e. Bernie Madoff, celebrities, etc. Of course the argument could be made that they would become targets, so this is a weak argument. However, my point is simply that there are two judicial systems, and to an extent - two different prison systems. Those that favor wealth, and those that favor the rest of us. So long as this stays, nothing will really change. For example, it was well known for a very long time that the Eastern State Penn in Philadelphia drove people crazy, and was generally ineffective at behavioral correction. Yet it remained open for over 100 years!

    So as long as prisons are seen as keeping the bad guys in, and the good guys protected - everything is ok. Never mind the mental fuck that happens when you're so use to being paranoid all the time from being in prison that it doesn't leave when you step outside the walls, so you end up back in the prison. I've never been to prison, and have had friends only spend a couple of days max in county; so I'm by no means an expert but yes, I do feel that eventually we will head our head in shame at the total clusterfuck we have right now.
    posted by lpcxa0 at 8:14 AM on January 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


    Why California's prisoners are starving for solitary change Californian prisoners have repeatedly gone on hunger strike over the solitary confinement in which some spend decades
    posted by fearfulsymmetry at 8:23 AM on January 25, 2012


    TL;DR You can be snitched into solitary on very little evidence, it's almost impossible to get back out again, which is handy because it increases the profits of the jailers.
    posted by fearfulsymmetry at 8:25 AM on January 25, 2012


    Wisconsin used to lead the nation in prisoners being sent out of state to private prisons, but in 2005 they brought them back due to horrid abuses. I can't find an article, but as I recall, prisoners were gassed, dragged naked across floors, beaten, etc. I don't know that Wisconsin prisons are significantly better, but I'm glad at least we made some effort to protect our citizens.

    One major problem with exporting prisoners to other states is that their families can rarely afford to visit. I can easily understand feeling like you have nothing to live for, nothing to lose, when you're trapped in a cage and can't even see your family. No wonder there's so much prisoner-on-prisoner violence.
    posted by desjardins at 8:43 AM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


    Several years ago, I had a cousin in prison in Florida who called our house randomly one day. He was probably just going through his list of family phone numbers trying to reach someone.

    I can still remember the desperation and fatigue in his voice that sat under the joy at finally reaching a family member. He so badly wanted to talk to anyone - anyone -- outside the prison system and shoot the shit about anything and everything under the sun during his allotted phone time.

    I have a friend who is currently in the Texas prison system. He says there are all kinds of stories he could tell about the corruption of the guards, and he even proposed working together with me on a book describing his experiences. I declined because I'm the sole breadwinner for my wife and 2 kids, and there is absolutely no goddamn doubt in my mind that the state of Texas would take retaliatory measures against me for contributing to any sort of work that exposes the shit that goes on in its prisons.

    (Strangely enough though, he asked for a copy of my indie-published sci-fi/fantasy novel that is full of crime, drug use, and expressions of anti-cop/anti-legal system/anti-prison sentiments, and the authorities let him read it without giving him any trouble.)
    posted by lord_wolf at 8:59 AM on January 25, 2012


    I don't think it helps that your cop shows are, in general, un-nuanced good/evil tripe. It's all about putting away the "bad guys". Whether that's a reflection of society or whether it influences how people think about the criminal justice system, I don't know.
    posted by salmacis at 9:01 AM on January 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


    This article is a little late in terms of talking about actual trends in mass incarceration in corrections; in contrast to the 30-year increase in the prison population that was going on until the early 2000s, the past couple of years has seen a decline in the incarcerated population--it began with the jail population, but has also started to happen in prisons. It's driven more by budgetary considerations than any kind of moral issue, but it is a reversal of a long-standing trend that was really kicked off by the War on Drugs and changes to sentencing policy.

    Both political parties have been involved in developing policies that led to the prison boom; historically being characterized as 'soft on crime' was really problematic. That seems to be changing now; for instance, there was a case in Michigan where a large number of offenders were released before the end of their sentences without any major recidivism issues. It seems likely that more states are going to consider those types of measures.

    However, I didn't catch where the author actually demonstrated that "stop and frisk" actually lowers the prison population directly.

    The research is behind the paywall, but there was recently a major study talking about how shifting resources from incarceration to policing would deter offenders and reduce the correctional population over time. Stop and frisk and similar strategies are one way to increase the visibility of the police in places that host a disproportionate amount of crime and deter offenders. Of course you could argue whether more intensive police activity is more or less morally questionable than what happens in the prison system.
    posted by _cave at 9:12 AM on January 25, 2012


    If a society truly is judged by how it treats the least of its members, as I've heard said, then we're coming in pretty far down the scale of what civilization truly is.

    I totally agree that our incarceration system is fucked up and inhumane, but I don't think that necessarily puts us low on any comparative scale. I know it's just a nitpick, because otherwise I completely agree with you, but I feel it's crucial to keep some perspective. For instance...

    derp. China is not only a distant second in incarceration rates, it is also second in absolute number of imprisoned people. Makes the analogy about how screwed up our system is even stronger.

    Others have pointed out that China's execution rates are higher than the US, but I don't feel people have highlighted how dramatic the difference is. Estimates of ten thousand executions per year are not considered wild conjecture. Of course, we're left to guessing because China's legal system is notoriously opaque. If you think due process in the US is in a terrible state, how about a place that laughs at such concepts? And do Chinese incarceration rates include people held in "administrative detention," which is essentially jail without a trial?

    Sorry, I'm not trying to minimize the problems in this country. But I think it is valuable to have some perspective, here. Personally, I really liked the way the author closed out the article. By pointing out that seemingly intractable problems may not be so intractable, the article is aggressively proposing positive and realistic action. Talking about us being low on the scale of civilizations or how jail in China is totally better than jail in the US is not just incorrect, but adds to the sense of intractability and undirected outrage.
    posted by Edgewise at 9:12 AM on January 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


    I have a fearful suspicion that one of the problems is, things are so terrible that good people recoil and believe you are making stuff up. They can't believe that their prisons are that bad. It's just "liberal nonsense".
    posted by Goofyy at 9:12 AM on January 25, 2012


    One major problem with exporting prisoners to other states is that their families can rarely afford to visit. I can easily understand feeling like you have nothing to live for, nothing to lose, when you're trapped in a cage and can't even see your family.

    This is a serious problem here in DC, where we've got the DC jail, which functions basically as a county jail (people pending trial and short sentences) and everyone else winds up in the Federal system. So, if you get a two year sentence, you might serve it anywhere in the US. Given the socioeconomic background of most prisoners, you can imagine how often family are able to visit.
    posted by Bulgaroktonos at 9:14 AM on January 25, 2012


    I don't see how prison life in this country isn't considered cruel and unusual punishment.

    Every time the barbarity of the American criminal justice system comes up for discussion, I imagine that someday soon, some enterprising defense attorney is going to make the argument that her client shouldn't be sentenced to prison for any length of time on the grounds that, in the United States at least, prison itself is cruel and unusual punishment. She would have ample evidence to support her case. Maybe she would pair that argument with a version of Peter Moskos' call for replacing prison time with flogging -- which I imagine most people would actually consider more humane than prison. I don't expect this argument to fly anytime soon -- as Gopnik observes, American constitutional law is less concerned about cruelty than we think it is -- but I'd be interested to hear from lawyers out there about the validity of this line of reasoning.
    posted by Cash4Lead at 10:19 AM on January 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


    So as far as cruel and unusual punishment goes, doesn't it have to BOTH to count? My understanding is that punishment could be as cruel as is possible to imagine, so long as it's applied relatively universally. At any rate, that seems to be the direction we're heading, and there's absolutely no civic or political will to change course.

    One thing I don't get about the "lock 'em up and throw away the key" crowd . . . while most of them would probably admit innocent people can get caught in the system, none of them seem to realize that it could happen to them. Because the system can make mistakes, every citizen -- even the ones most lacking any sort of empathy or humanity -- should have a personal, vested, purely selfish interest in ensuring that the system is as fair and humane as possible.
    posted by treepour at 10:55 AM on January 25, 2012


    it was well known for a very long time that the Eastern State Penn in Philadelphia drove people crazy

    I came in here to mention Eastern State. If you're ever in Philadelphia, take the tour --- it's absolutely fascinating, and the history of that place goes a long way to explain how fucked up America's prisons are today.

    The heartbreaking part is that Eastern State was created by brilliant people with noble intentions, directly tied to the spirit of the founding fathers and the new American Experiment. It was to be the first "penitentiary"; a place for reform of the soul through quiet contemplation, which stood in stark contrast to America's other jails, whose style had been inherited from England and which at the time were rife with gambling, drinking, and violence facilitated by endemic corruption among the guards. Over time, it became clear that the experiment wasn't working, and the focus shifted from reform to punishment.
    posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 11:24 AM on January 25, 2012


    Because the system can make mistakes, every citizen -- even the ones most lacking any sort of empathy or humanity -- should have a personal, vested, purely selfish interest in ensuring that the system is as fair and humane as possible.

    I think the problem is, as someone mentioned upthread, the cop and lawyer procedural shows.

    I swear to God, I think a great many Americans are convinced that if they were innocent and about to be railroaded by the system, the beautiful but tough as nails lawyer who's trying to balance her career and her love life and the tough, brusque cop with the secretly kind heart will put aside all of their other work and concerns to decipher the one random clue or security camera clip that proves their innocence.

    In short, innocent people are always saved; and even the truly bad people who are convicted don't suffer that much, since in addition to fighting the death penalty and reducing sentence lengths, the liberals have turned prisons into the basic equivalent of a cheap hotel, with fully stocked exercise rooms, cable television, and better food than our kids get in public schools.
    posted by lord_wolf at 11:39 AM on January 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


    @treepour: My understanding is that punishment could be as cruel as is possible to imagine, so long as it's applied relatively universally.

    That's what Gopnik argues, too: American law's obsession with process blinds it to the possibility that some punishments are violations of human dignity no matter how consistently applied.

    At the same time, the US is party to several international treaties prohibiting torture. It'd be crazy for a defense lawyer to cite such precedents against the use of prisons as punishment, but then, the current system seems far crazier.

    Perhaps jury nullification is also in order: Until prisons are reformed, no one goes to prison. Again, pie-in-the-sky thinking, but we need to start shocking people out of their complacency.
    posted by Cash4Lead at 11:45 AM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


    Man in New Mexico spends two years in solitary confinement after DUI arrest. Never saw a judge. Never went to trial. Won a $22 million lawsuit against the county. The county is appealing the verdict.
    posted by BitterOldPunk at 12:01 PM on January 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


    I would argue that American prisons are full simply because some Americans choose to break the law and law abiding citizens choose to have said laws enforced. Incarceration is an attempt to allow an individual to accept responsibility for the choices he/she has made, as well as a consolation for the victims they have affected. Although there are certain truths contained in the article there are also gross misrepresentations. There is no mention of the reform opportunities offered to inmates. And if your in solitary.......it is quite likely you deserve to be there.
    posted by pelican at 12:06 PM on January 25, 2012


    Oh, hey, I knew someone would come along and say something like that!

    From today's NYT:
    They were known as Miller’s Boys, police officers who worked the 4-to-midnight shift, patrolling the largely working-class town of East Haven, Conn., including the small but growing Hispanic community that has spread out in recent years from New Haven.

    The officers were more than well known in that community; according to residents and federal authorities, they were feared. They stopped and detained people, particularly immigrants, without reason, federal prosecutors said, sometimes slapping, hitting or kicking them when they were handcuffed, and once smashing a man’s head into a wall. They followed and arrested residents, including a local priest, who tried to document their behavior.

    [snip]

    Janice K. Fedarcyk, assistant director in charge of the F.B.I. office in New York, called the officers “a cancerous cadre that routinely deprived East Haven residents of their civil rights.”

    The misconduct, according to prosecutors, reached to the highest ranks of the department and the police union. A high-ranking officer described as “Co-Conspirator No.1” — apparently the police chief, Leonard Gallo — made several calls to the supervisor of the priest, the Rev. James Manship of St. Rose of Lima Church, asking that he be moved out of his parish, the indictment said. The same commander also barred members of East Haven’s police commission, a supervisory body that was trying to investigate the complaints, from entering the department without his permission, but later rescinded the order.
    But anyone who gets arrested and thrown in jail deserves it, right? The justice system is never corrupt, never looks first to its own self-interest, never protects is own when there are fuckups, right? Also, if you're in prison and you deserve to be there (because you do, if you're there, that's how it works), you deserve any and all horrendous treatment you get. Because you are scum and not-human.
    posted by rtha at 12:11 PM on January 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


    pelican... you're joking, right? please tell me you're joking.
    posted by desjardins at 12:14 PM on January 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


    rtha - possibly one of the worst parts of that story:
    When Diaz asked Maturo what he planned to do for the Latino community in response to the arrests of four East Haven police officers on federal charges that they discriminated against Latino residents and others, Maturo said, "I might have tacos when I go home. I'm not quite sure yet."
    (source)

    He's apologized but still, omg, someone said that out loud?
    posted by desjardins at 12:18 PM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


    I'm sorry, I admit I used metafilter to get an articulate response to my friend's comment to this article when I posted it in my social network. I was unsure how to respond to my friend who said this.
    posted by pelican at 12:21 PM on January 25, 2012


    Just ask outright for an articulate response. You're more likely to get one that way, instead of incoherent spittle-flecked ranting, like I did.
    posted by rtha at 12:25 PM on January 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


    rtha, that's how I felt to when I read the comment. My face started burning and I felt like something had to be said, but I was confuddled. You're right though, next time I will think better of it.
    posted by pelican at 12:29 PM on January 25, 2012


    pelican: “I'm sorry, I admit I used metafilter to get an articulate response to my friend's comment to this article when I posted it in my social network. I was unsure how to respond to my friend who said this.”

    I think at that point articulation is a bit much to ask for. You may do what you wish, but in your position, I would consider the fact that most social networks have an "unfriend" function.
    posted by koeselitz at 12:29 PM on January 25, 2012 [7 favorites]


    while most of them would probably admit innocent people can get caught in the system, none of them seem to realize that it could happen to them.

    I think it's a deep human problem.

    You see it in how people look at parents of kids who accidentally left their kids in a hot car -- go to page 3 of that article where they're interviewing a prosecuting attorney and he's asked if this could *ever* happen to him: "I have to say no, it couldn't have happened to me. I am a watchful father." He's convinced the people who have accidentally killed their own children are fundamentally different than he is -- *not* watchful, somehow careless in a way he could fundamentally never be.

    You see it in how we look at the poor: they don't work hard, they're not disciplined, they didn't value education, they don't have impulse control, they don't make smart choices... they're not like me.

    Criminals? Just bad people, man. Not like you and me. And police officers and prosecutors know the difference.
    posted by weston at 12:52 PM on January 25, 2012 [9 favorites]


    I've never stayed in prison, but had the opportunity to tour a federal maximum and minimum security prison in southern Illinois about 5 years ago (they were adjacent to each other) as an intern at the US Attorney's office. The maximum security wing was insanely secure and for the love of Christ I would never want to stay there, but it seemed clean, the prisoner's who lived in the "good behavior" wing seemed to have a decent environment to interact, had their own belongings, card tables etc. Everything was spotless.

    The minimum security area of the prison had no fences. There was cable TV, a work out gym and lots of room to walk around. You had to check in at 6am and 6pm every day. It certainly seemed humane.

    I'd be curious to see the difference between what I saw and some of the shit-holes talked about in this thread. If every prison in the US was run like the Marion County federal prison, which was built to replace Alcatraz by the way, there would be some hope I think.
    posted by gagglezoomer at 1:33 PM on January 25, 2012


    This article, and the information provided in the follow up comments, make me feel sick, so terribly sick in the depths of my soul, that I cannot really allow myself to think about it. I will certainly try to follow up with the links in Pope Guilty's comment, and DO something about it.
    posted by exlotuseater at 3:44 PM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


    The best part of all: how much all this 'correction' costs.

    In 2006, $68,747,203,000 was spent on corrections.... (WP)

    Despite this increased spending, recidivism rates have remained largely unchanged. (Pew)

    Sounds like a jobs program to me.
    posted by Twang at 4:41 PM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]




    Same story on CNN.
    posted by ODiV at 4:55 PM on January 25, 2012


    My greatest fear on earth, which I do not say with even one iota of hyperbole, is that my husband—the most law-abiding and conscientious and moral person I've ever met—might be wrongfully imprisoned one day, swept into one of these hellholes in a case of mistaken identity or misplaced evidence, and I will not have the money to buy his freedom.

    I can't watch prison films or programs, can't stand to consume media about incarceration. I can't read the linked article, in fact. When I think about this too much, I grow nauseated and I have nightmares. Like hippybear and entropone said, I can't wait for the day to come when Americans are disgusted and mortified that we ever allowed other humans to be treated this way, made possible by our very own tax dollars.

    The end will only begin to reveal itself when some revolutionary thinker gets a grant to develop a small program that proves over years that the only real way to rehabilitate criminals is to reduce prison violence, to use fair discipline and only when positive incentives fail, and to help mold the offenders into productive people who can go out into society and take care of themselves while not re-offending.

    And only then when some enterprising person figures out how to make the revolutionary rehabilitation profitable.
    posted by pineapple at 7:52 PM on January 25, 2012


    What about jury activism as a response. One person can hang a jury. We have a responsibility to never convict a person for non violent crimes.
    posted by aychedee at 1:16 AM on January 26, 2012


    If you're looking for a reply to somebody saying the prisons are full because people choose to break the law, listen to the story Wire-creator David Simon tells during the last ten minutes of this lecture. To paraphrase:
    Felicia "Snoop" Pearson, actor on the Wire, grew up on the street in Baltimore. She did some stuff, went to prison, but after she came out she started acting on the Wire and tried desperately to stay away from the drug corners. But she lives in East Baltimore and everyone she knows is involved in the game.

    She was caught talking one the phone to a drug dealer. She says she'd loaned him some money and she wanted it back. But the government says she was buying a package of heroin. We don't know what the truth is. I don't, but neither does the government. Luckily we have the courts for that.

    But we have to decide what we do with Snoop while we wait for the wiretap case to come to court, which takes about 24 months. We can give her a bail, considering she's not likely to run since she's a famous actress since the Wire, but we won't, says the government, because there's still a chance she might run. We could put her in women's detention for two years, but she's got a movie she wants to do and she's got a big part in it so that would not be good for her career. Well, there's another solution.

    Let her call this company in Tulsa. They'll put a bracelet on her, so then we'll know where she is. This will cost her $400 a week. But if she's found innocent in two years, will she then get the money back? No, she won't get the money back.

    So for Felicia Pearson to have her day in court, to prove that she's innocent, she either has to pay $40.000 dollars up front or spent two years in jail.

    So then the government comes to her and says: how would you like to plead guilty and we'll give you probation. This means you'll be able to stop paying $400 a week, you'd only have to plead guilty.
    posted by mahershalal at 3:03 AM on January 26, 2012 [13 favorites]


    The United States now spends some $200 billion on the correctional system each year, a sum that exceeds the gross domestic product of twenty-five US states and 140 foreign countries. An ever-increasing share of domestic discretionary spending, it would seem, is devoted to building and staffing earthly hells filled with able-bodied young men who have been removed from the labor force. If we added up all the money federal, state, and local governments invest in the poorest zip codes through credits and transfer payments—food stamps, Medicaid, teacher salaries, et cetera—and balanced that against all the value the government extracts from those zip codes through sin taxes, lotteries, and the incarceration complex, we might well conclude that the disinvestment outweighs the investment. Any apparent gains made in the last thirty years in narrowing the employment and education gap between African Americans and whites vanishes once you include the incarcerated population. Before asking the government to spend a fortune improving student-to-teacher ratios, it may be prudent to first ask the government to stop devoting public resources to ripping the heart out of inner-city economies.

    n+1: Raise the Crime Rate.
    posted by gerryblog at 3:58 PM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


    This is sickening.
    posted by twirlypen at 9:28 PM on January 27, 2012


    I live in Nice, France, which is the seat of the Alpes-Maritimes département (roughly equivalent to a county), and Nice has a population of 955,000 people. Just under one million. I have no idea where there's a prison.

    The closest one I could find is Baumettes, which is not exactly a shining example of the French justice system:

    The Council of Europe has condemned the unsanitary and overcrowded prison as the worst detention centre in France. After Álvaro Gil-Robles, former human right commissioner of the Council of Europe, visited the prison in September 2005, he was "shocked by the living conditions ... the inmates' living conditions are on the borderline of the acceptable, and on the borderline of human dignity".

    A 10-year renovation project, proposed in 1999, did not start until 2006. The project will cost approximately €133 million and should bring the prison up to modern standards of hygiene, safety and security. The first phase, from 2006 to 2010, involves renovations to the main entrances, watchtowers, visiting rooms, and the construction of a new mess hall and workshops.

    posted by mattbucher at 2:17 PM on January 31, 2012


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