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The longest sentence ever served in an American prison: 64 years.
March 16, 2013 10:28 PM   Subscribe

William Blake has been held in solitary confinement at Elmira Correctional Facility in New York State for nearly 26 years, after he murdered a Sheriff's Deputy and wounded another in a failed escape attempt back in 1987. Sentenced to 77 years to life, he will be eligible for parole in 2064. But Blake has no chance of ever leaving prison alive, and almost no chance of ever leaving solitary — a fate he considers "a sentence worse than death." (Via)

For other essays like this one: Voices from Solitary

Interview with Mr. Blake: Part 1, 2
posted by zarq (79 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
extended solitary confinement is unconstitutional and morally wrong. the american prison system is insane, pure and simple.
posted by facetious at 10:46 PM on March 16, 2013 [14 favorites]


If a prison system is aimed at rehabilitation and reducing recidivism, the American prison system is an appalling failure.

If a prison system is strictly to punish, demean, and dehumanize, the American prison system arguably the most effective in the world. Blake himself seems to feel that death would've been kinder, but let's face it--we as a society don't want to be kinder, because we're not actually interested in rehabilitation, we're interested in making sure that people pay.
posted by MeghanC at 11:28 PM on March 16, 2013 [14 favorites]


Damn, just... damn. This essay describes a life so profoundly disturbing and hopeless that I'm just... speechless, really.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 11:42 PM on March 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


because we're not actually interested in rehabilitation

You know, I actually wonder if that's true or if it just sounds good.

Asking sincerely: Is there research that demonstrates that rehabilitation actually works (as opposed to political statements appealing to the reader's emotions)?

The reason I ask is that, at least as far as I can tell, the answer is no.

I read Rethinking Rehabilitation by Farabee quite some time ago and, further, some Urban Institure studies on recidivism (the conclusion there pretty much seems to be that there needs to be very substantial and invasive post-incarceration restrictions - specifically, not allowing people to return home would seemingly be vastly more effective in terms of outcome).

Farabee is actually quite sympathetic to the idea of rehabilitation (though not at all sympathetic to the unproven and ineffective programs that tend to come up when people talk about rehabilitation) and the need to reform the US criminal justice system but his analysis is as much an takedown of the common tropes of the left (especially the section on the simple explanations of crime and the more ludicrous programs like those to increase self esteem) as it is a slam on the horrible system we have.
posted by rr at 11:48 PM on March 16, 2013 [6 favorites]


I sincerely hope that drone surveillance will make prison obsolete.
posted by silby at 11:56 PM on March 16, 2013


You know, I actually wonder if that's true or if it just sounds good.

Perhaps I'm reading too much into it, but the whole idea of running prisons for profit (particularly when paid for using count of prisoner-days as the metric) seems, to me, a pretty solid refutation of the idea that rehabilitation is a priority.

Is there research that demonstrates that rehabilitation actually works

Well, there are systems which have higher recidivism rates, and systems with lower recidivism rates. It's not going to be Boolean.
posted by pompomtom at 11:58 PM on March 16, 2013 [11 favorites]


I sincerely hope that drone surveillance will make prison obsolete.

That, to me, sounds like trying to cure cancer with AIDS. The prison system must be reformed, but I would hope for a solution that produces fewer problems than it solves.

The system is undeniably about retribution. It's not a coincidence that cop killers get far stricter sentences than criminals that merely kill innocent civilians.

The tragic irony about life sentences is that, if you attempt suicide, they'll revive you and put you under stricter confinement. You are literally sentenced to life, if you can call it that. In general, I oppose capital punishment, but life in solitary sounds far worse than state-imposed death.
posted by dephlogisticated at 12:15 AM on March 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Well, there are systems which have higher recidivism rates, and systems with lower recidivism rates. It's not going to be Boolean.

Quite. Please steal as many ideas from other western societies as you want to make your system better. No, you're not going to be able to use every idea out there, and no, you're not going to get recidivism to zero.

But to say there's room for improvement would win me an understatement of the week award.
posted by DreamerFi at 12:39 AM on March 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


And they won't even let you commit suicide.
posted by dunkadunc at 12:40 AM on March 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


[Early comment deleted to avoid derail based on misunderstanding / not following all the links.]
posted by taz at 12:43 AM on March 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's interesting that for a good chunk of the US population, we're a Christian nation (which is ostensibly based on New Testament forgiveness of sin), and yet we have a vindicative judicial system based on Old Testament "eye for an eye" revenge. In my experience, the same people who believe the former are likely a-okay with the latter, without experiencing any cognitive dissonance.
posted by spiderskull at 12:59 AM on March 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


You could pick up your phone and call a friend; I don’t know if I’d be able to remember how to make a collect call or even if the process is still the same, so many years it’s been since I’ve used a telephone.

For some reason, this was the line that most chilled me. So isolated is this man that he doesn't even have full comprehension of what he's been deprived.
posted by Apropos of Something at 1:58 AM on March 17, 2013


Asking sincerely: Is there research that demonstrates that rehabilitation actually works (as opposed to political statements appealing to the reader's emotions)?

Well, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 2/3 of US prisoners are re-arrested within three years. Norway, which has one of the most humane and rehabilitation focused justice systems in the world, has a recidivism rate of 20% re-arrested within two years. Australia sees about one in three prisoners re-arrested within two years. Canada sees about 43% re-arrested within three years.

You'll notice in the Australia link that they did a study examining the impact of education received while in prison on re-offense rates, and found that people who were given additional training were nearly 10% less likely to end up back in prison within two years. California has seen a small but significant drop in re-offense rates, which they attribute to, basically, providing counseling and substance-abuse treatment.

Obviously we (well, I, anyhow) can't say that the difference in recidivism rates are necessarily due to better rehab services, but I do think that they make it clear that either we accept that the US is a significant more violent and crime-happy society than most other western countries, or we accept that our prison system is doing something wrong. My feeling, honestly, is that the current system is so flawed that very nearly anything would be an improvement. We drop $47 billion a year on "criminal correctional spending", and it's a system that fails two-thirds of the people who enter it. There have to be other, better ways to do this.
posted by MeghanC at 2:01 AM on March 17, 2013 [30 favorites]


EU figures are skewed by the fact that a large percentage of the prison system are foreigners who are immediately deported upon release and banned from ever returning. Exporting the problem is not solving it.
posted by three blind mice at 2:10 AM on March 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


three blind mice: "EU figures are skewed"

None of the three nations mentioned by MeghanC are members of the EU.
posted by vanar sena at 2:25 AM on March 17, 2013 [14 favorites]


.
posted by Gotanda at 2:31 AM on March 17, 2013


"It's interesting that for a good chunk of the US population, we're a Christian nation (which is ostensibly based on New Testament forgiveness of sin), and yet we have a vindicative judicial system based on Old Testament "eye for an eye" revenge. In my experience, the same people who believe the former are likely a-okay with the latter, without experiencing any cognitive dissonance."

Christianity takes this quite a few steps further. Those who have prisoners for neighbors and do not visit them, have the hungry for neighbors and do not feed them, have the naked (or I suppose in a more modern context visibly disgraced) for neighbors and do not clothe them, or have foreigners for neighbors and do not welcome them into their homes cannot plausibly claim to be Christian. Yet this is a nation that clearly not only neglects the duties it would need to fulfill to be even close to describable as Christian but says that there are prisoners who should not be visited, hungry people who should not be fed, people who should not be clothed with dignity, and foreigners who should not only be unwelcome but hunted. America is not a Christian nation and no number of beautiful churches, comfortable congregations, or pious speeches about the supposed sin of others could convince me otherwise.

Here is more on the Judge involved in the sentencing, elected for being the son of somebody and removed for using racial slurs in his courtroom.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:33 AM on March 17, 2013 [29 favorites]


I sincerely hope that drone surveillance will make prison obsolete.

I sincerely hope that explosive neck collars like in the classic Rutger Hauer film 'Wedlock' make prison walls obsolete.
posted by biffa at 2:40 AM on March 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


Asking sincerely: Is there research that demonstrates that rehabilitation actually works (as opposed to political statements appealing to the reader's emotions)?

There's this thing called criminology where people have dedicated their lives to studying this very question. The answer is, resoundingly, YES. That this is even up for debate is shocking.
posted by mek at 2:44 AM on March 17, 2013 [32 favorites]


It's interesting that for a good chunk of the US population, we're a Christian nation (which is ostensibly based on New Testament forgiveness of sin), and yet we have a vindicative judicial system based on Old Testament "eye for an eye" revenge.

I don't want to be partisan, but it was Christians (specifically, Quakers) who came up with the idea of solitary confinement.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:56 AM on March 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


Thanks vanar sena. I read Australia as Austria and indeed Norway is not an EU member, but the point is that statistics can be misleading. Here in Sweden with our country club prisons, the crime rate is high due to the country club prisons full of Russians, Serbs, and Baltic state criminals who choose to rob banks and more recently jewlers in Sweden instead of in Russia where a prison sentence is long and harsh. Taxpayers even provide the plane ticket home at the end of the holiday. There is growing awareness and dissatisfaction with this state of affairs so one should be cautious to look here for solutions.
posted by three blind mice at 3:19 AM on March 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Surely revenge and punishment figure strongly in the US, but is it not also a practical problem that some people are dangerous and society must separate themselves from such people? Unless you are OK with having such a person as a neighbor is it really fair to do it to someone else? Perhaps if all released violent criminals were housed next to college dorms upon release attitudes would be different?
posted by three blind mice at 3:28 AM on March 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Here is more on the Judge involved in the sentencing, elected for being the son of somebody and removed for using racial slurs in his courtroom.

Guy was a real mensch, eh? He died, by the way, in 2005, at age 53.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:01 AM on March 17, 2013


MeghanC: You'll notice in the Australia link that they did a study examining the impact of education received while in prison on re-offense rates, and found that people who were given additional training were nearly 10% less likely to end up back in prison within two years.

The original source appears to be this study tracking about 6000 offenders in the Queensland correctional system about 10 years ago. Although it's a correlational study (for obvious reasons), which makes causal attributions tricky, judging by the analysis in Appendix F it looks like quite a striking result. Not only was the recidivism rate lower in people who had undertaken vocational educational training (VET), the effect remains statistically significant after you control for gender, age, level of education, race, severity of original offence, sentence length, degree of literacy/numeracy before offending, and whether they participated in a post-release employment program. The effect size is respectable (odds ratio is about .7) and appears to exist only with respect to VET before release, rather than being something that attaches to VET generally.

The wonderful thing about this is that it seems to imply that pre-release training programs are useful, regardless of which way causality runs here: either (a) the programs genuinely rehabilitate offenders, or (b) the programs provide socially-desirable skills to precisely those offenders who aren't going to end up back in prison. Either way, it seems like a winning proposition to me.
posted by mixing at 4:15 AM on March 17, 2013 [5 favorites]


three blind mice: "Surely revenge and punishment figure strongly in the US, but is it not also a practical problem that some people are dangerous and society must separate themselves from such people?"

It's a false dichotomy. Even if segregation of the incurably criminal-minded is the goal, I can't see any benefit to anyone in treating them the way outlined in TFA. Even with the most generous view it's a wasted life being squandered further. Less generously, it's unrelenting torture.
posted by vanar sena at 4:48 AM on March 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


Not to intrude on the usual punishment versus rehabilitation argument, but note that Blake is most likely a clinical sociopath and expressing things he believes will help him in the long run. If he were in general population, it's likely that other prisoners or guards would be hurt or dead.
posted by sonic meat machine at 5:40 AM on March 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


Did the US prison system ever peak at some point with intent to rehabilitate? I'd guess the 1970s before drug wars and marginalization of the poor really kicked in, but I've been wrong about things before.
posted by crapmatic at 5:45 AM on March 17, 2013


WTF is 'rehabilitation' for most prisoners beyond instilling the idea that getting caught is a bad idea? People don't do things they think are unethical to start with, so you can be pretty sure that whatever you're jailing people for they did either a) because they don't think it's wrong, b) because they were so desperate they did it anyway, or c) more of (a) only with psychological issues. 'a' might be solved with education or equally likely with law reform, 'b' with social justice, who knows about 'c'.
posted by overyield at 6:24 AM on March 17, 2013


WTF is 'rehabilitation' for most prisoners beyond instilling the idea that getting caught is a bad idea? People don't do things they think are unethical to start with, so you can be pretty sure that whatever you're jailing people for they did either a) because they don't think it's wrong, b) because they were so desperate they did it anyway, or c) more of (a) only with psychological issues. 'a' might be solved with education or equally likely with law reform, 'b' with social justice, who knows about 'c'.

It's mostly (b) in the sense of giving people resources (education or training or drug rehabilitation or whatever) so they don't find themselves in the same situation again.
posted by hoyland at 6:43 AM on March 17, 2013


People don't do things they think are unethical to start with

I certainly have, and likely will again, depending on desperation and weakness, but I suppose I could be the only human in the entire world whose behavior is highly influenced by circumstances and available options, as well as the presence or lack of a social support system. And here I thought that was common.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 6:58 AM on March 17, 2013 [31 favorites]


it was Christians (specifically Quakers) who came up with the idea of solitary confinement

I'm actually in the process of getting connected with Quakers who are trying to abolish prisons altogether (I don't believe in prisons). To the best of my knowlege the Quakers have a looong history of social justice activism, specifically for the improvement of prison conditions. I'd be interested to know where this information is from, do you have some sources I can check? If this information is correct, do you know why?
posted by windykites at 7:11 AM on March 17, 2013


I'm actually in the process of getting connected with Quakers who are trying to abolish prisons altogether (I don't believe in prisons). To the best of my knowlege the Quakers have a looong history of social justice activism, specifically for the improvement of prison conditions. I'd be interested to know where this information is from, do you have some sources I can check? If this information is correct, do you know why?

As far as I know, it's actually part of that history. See here.
posted by hoyland at 7:15 AM on March 17, 2013


Yikes. Thanks.
posted by windykites at 7:24 AM on March 17, 2013


I don't feel like I understand what the justification for holding him in solitary for so long is.
posted by windykites at 7:27 AM on March 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't feel like I understand what the justification for holding him in solitary for so long is.

Billy Blake was a repeat offender, violent, unrepentant. He'd been out of jail for fifty days when he was arrested again, and during the process of transport, he stole an officer's gun, shot him and another, and tried to escape. This attack illustrated an inability to understand (or care about) the probability of escape: it was a risky, insane move that nearly worked purely because it was so nuts. Someone capable of doing this, with a history of demonstrated recidivism, is likely to attack guards or other prisoners, because they lack the empathy that limits even most criminals. (Sociopathy is more common in criminals, obviously, but it's not universal.)
posted by sonic meat machine at 7:38 AM on March 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


but note that Blake is most likely a clinical sociopath and expressing things he believes will help him in the long run.

What is the basis of your internet diagnosis?
posted by murfed13 at 7:38 AM on March 17, 2013


What is the basis of your internet diagnosis?

Juvenile delinquency (conduct disorders in a minor), poor impulse control, violence and lack of empathy, the projection of blame onto others, reckless disregard for personal safety, and the lack of evidence of a psychotic episode or schizophrenia.
posted by sonic meat machine at 7:43 AM on March 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


If you were unlucky or rash or mentally ill enough to commit a crime that landed you in the criminal justice system, you'd probably end up a "recidivist" too. I know I would.

Imagine you got arrested for some crime you've committed. And we've all committed crimes. Smoking pot, getting too drunk, fighting (physically or with words in a way that someone found threatening) with someone. If you're homeless, it could be loitering or stealing something you needed. If you're mentally ill, it could be the street drugs you use to make your symptoms bearable. It could be the prostitution you engage in to keep your kids fed. If you're black, it could be that you refused to submit when a cop harassed you for no real reason, and you're charged with resisting arrest or assaulting a police officer. If you're a teenager, it could be fighting or stealing something or cutting school or drugs or hanging out with other kids who commit crimes. Petty stuff. Nearly everyone starts off with petty stuff. Almost no one commits murder or armed robbery or gun running as their first crime.

Nearly every place in America, you're going to spend at least a day, and probably more like 2-3 days, in jail. Would you lose your job if you just suddenly didn't show up for work for 2-3 days without calling anyone, and then when you got back you had to explain to your boss that you had been in jail? Because most people would, especially people whose jobs are hourly shift work and who are easily replaceable.

Then you go to court, and you have about 10 minutes to meet with your lawyer, who explains to you that you have a few options: you can spend the next several weeks/months in jail in order to go to trial and possibly lose, you can pay the court an amount of money that neither you nor anyone you know can afford in order to be allowed to go home until your trial, or you can go home right now if you plead guilty and take a year on probation. Most people take the year on probation.

Here's what supervised probation involves in a lot of places: a person who works for the government who likely is not inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt has the right to order you to do pretty much whatever she wants from a long list of possible options, and if you don't do it, she can recommend that you go back to jail. She can order you to get a job (but remember, you lost your job, and now you have a criminal record, and every time someone asks you "why did you leave your last job?" your reason is "because I got arrested.") She can order you to come to her office in person for about an hour as often as she wants (and her office is not near where you live, and you have to take two buses to get there, and you don't have childcare). She can order you to be home at particular times so that she can come see your house and make sure you live there (and because she works 9-5, chances are she'll require you to be home sometimes when your new boss wants you at work). She can order you to pee in a cup as often as she wants (and that's supervised, so you have to pee in front of strangers, and it also takes place during business hours).

She can order you to stay away from anyone else who has a criminal record (and basically everyone you know, including your family members and your kids' babysitter, has some kind of criminal record, so there goes your support system.) She can order you to go to therapy or parenting classes or drug treatment or whatever other "services" she wants. She can give you a curfew (which could be as early as 6 pm), and violate you if you leave your house after it. If she thinks you're not doing what you're supposed to do, she can put you on an electronic GPS ankle monitor to keep track of you (that ankle monitor, by the way, needs to be charged by plugging it in for at least an hour every 8 hours, and if you happen to have a job where you work longer than that and aren't next to an electrical outlet the entire time, you can be violated for that). Basically, she runs your life. And on top of all of that, you may have to pay court fees in an amount you can't afford, or do community service you literally don't have time to do. Oh, and every couple of months, you have to take another day off of work to go back to court, where she reports to the judge whether you've been doing all the things you're supposed to do.

If you don't do all the things you're supposed to do on probation, the supervision escalates. The conditions become more onerous. And you'd screw up on probation. I know I would. I'm just not nearly as responsible and organized and compliant as you have to be in order to be perfect on probation. And eventually, after screwing up a few times, you get found in violation of your probation, and that's a crime, and a warrant goes out for your arrest, and you go back to jail, and back in front of the judge, and the whole thing starts over again. And you can't find a job with a criminal record, and so you live in public housing where everyone does drugs and where the best way to protect yourself is to hook up with a gang. And when you can't find a job and your kids' shoes don't fit, you steal so that they have something to wear. And violence is rampant in your life because you can't afford to get out, and guns are everywhere, and you just don't have options. And that's recidivism.

Now imagine doing all of this if you have a mental illness and are taking medication that makes it really hard to remember dates and times, or if you have a physical illness that means that sometimes you just can't get out of bed in the morning, or if you have five kids, or if you're homeless. The people I know who have criminal records and are "recidivists" didn't get there because they are stupid, or because they are bad people, or because they don't understand or care about the difference between right and wrong. They got there because basically everything in their lives from the moment they were born set them up to fail, and then the criminal justice system set them up to fail more.

There are bad, dangerous people in the world who need to be kept away from the rest of us so that we can be safe. But most people who commit crimes, even repeatedly, don't fall into that category, and most of the people who do fall into that category didn't start out that way. Keeping as many people as we possibly can from ending up in that category is what rehabilitation is for. If we can give kids who commit petty crimes a better education and some hope for the future, if we can give young adults good jobs and safe places to live and real skills to support their families, if we can give people who are mentally and physically sick real treatment, if we can give people some reason to believe that their lives aren't going to turn out screwed up and crummy like the lives of basically everyone else they know, that's rehabilitation.
posted by decathecting at 7:48 AM on March 17, 2013 [103 favorites]


Wow. That really hit hard. I have always been an advocate of getting rid of the death sentence, but I hardly ever think about what it would be like to spend a lifetime in solitary for a fatal mistake. Mr. Blake's point about not having seen a blade of grass since 1987 really got to me. And THEN he got to the point about the smell.

Thank you OP for posting this, and to Yale for having the contest.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:54 AM on March 17, 2013


Juvenile delinquency (conduct disorders in a minor), poor impulse control, violence and lack of empathy, the projection of blame onto others, reckless disregard for personal safety, and the lack of evidence of a psychotic episode or schizophrenia.

Are you getting to "lack of empathy" because he committed a violent crime? I work with felons and your description above could cover half of the prison.
posted by murfed13 at 7:59 AM on March 17, 2013


Are you getting to "lack of empathy" because he committed a violent crime? I work with felons and your description above could cover half of the prison.

That's not surprising. A large number of felons are sociopaths; or, precisely speaking, diagnosed with "Antisocial Personality Disorder." And yes, the commission of murder is evidence of a lack of empathy. Violently harming another person is so antithetical to normal people that the military must specifically train its volunteers to overcome the prohibition.

Often, in an attempt to get parole or improve their conditions, sociopaths later express remorse; but the degree to which they genuinely feel this remorse is impossible to know.
posted by sonic meat machine at 8:12 AM on March 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


The longest sentence ever served in an American prison: 64 years.

This is not accurate. It refers to Richard Honeck, who at the time of his release in 1963 had served 64 years and one month.
Longer sentences were served by:
--Johnson Van Dyke Grigsby (1885-1987), who served 66 years and 123 days from 1908 to 1974. (Scroll to afterword at link.)
--William George Heirens, 65 years from 1946 until his death in prison in 2012
--Paul Geidel spent even longer (68 years and 245 days) incarcerated, but much of that time was in a hospital for the criminally insane rather than a prison.
There do not appear to be longer records of incarceration in other countries. And it is unlikely that longer times were served earlier in history when death sentences were more prevalent than life sentences.

These records are sure to be broken. Here's a list of the longest-serving inmates in the US by state. The current dean of this college is Francis Clifford Smith of Connecticut, incarcerated since June, 1950, nearly 63 years.
posted by beagle at 8:19 AM on March 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


sonic meat machine, if this guy has a mental illness/personality disorder, could there possibly be, in the entire universe, a worse way to handle him than putting him in a situation specifically designed to damage people's minds and humiliate them? it's like anti-rehabilitation.
posted by facetious at 8:45 AM on March 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


sonic meat machine, if this guy has a mental illness/personality disorder, could there possibly be, in the entire universe, a worse way to handle him than putting him in a situation specifically designed to damage people's minds and humiliate them? it's like anti-rehabilitation.

Have you looksd at the evidence that treatment programs work for sociopaths?
posted by rr at 9:46 AM on March 17, 2013


Beagle, thanks very much for the correction and additional info/links. I did a cursory search before I posted but only saw references to Honeck.
posted by zarq at 9:49 AM on March 17, 2013


Earplugs cost about $5 and allow you to sleep anywhere there is noise - hospital, plane, movies, prison.
posted by stbalbach at 10:00 AM on March 17, 2013


> Earplugs cost about $5 and allow you to sleep anywhere there is noise - hospital, plane, movies, prison.

They're not allowed.
posted by desuetude at 10:21 AM on March 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


No Way Out: A Special Report on Solitary Confinement From Former Hostage Shane Bauer
posted by homunculus at 11:31 AM on March 17, 2013


Excuse my ignorance and laziness, why are earplugs not allowed?
posted by Clementines4ever at 11:38 AM on March 17, 2013


Excuse my ignorance and laziness, why are earplugs not allowed?

Because you might not be able to hear a guard's commands. Because you might use them in some ingenious way to try to kill yourself. Because they cost money. Because they're not on the list of items available from the highly secure company your facility uses to order items for its commissary. Because every item you have in your cell raises the security risks ever so slightly in some nebulous, unexplainable way. Because you're being punished, and so you don't deserve to be comfortable. Pick your reason. But mostly, because there's no court or authority that requires the prison to provide them, and the prison only provides what they're required to provide, because dealing with anything is just a hassle.

In prison, if you need anything, like earplugs or Tylenol or or kleenex or a new pair of socks that don't have holes in them or an extra blanket or tweezers or dental floss or any of the thousands of tiny things you reach for every day for your comfort and health and well-being, you can't just get them. You have to ask for them, often in writing in advance, and then it's up to someone else's whims to decide whether you get them. And unless they're required to give you those things for health or safety or security or because a court has said inmates have a right to them (and sometimes not even then), you're not getting them. Because the point of view of the prison is that everything is prohibited unless it's explicitly required, and they have no incentive to make exceptions to that policy.
posted by decathecting at 11:44 AM on March 17, 2013 [10 favorites]


People don't do things they think are unethical to start with

Have you ever met a person?
posted by enn at 11:52 AM on March 17, 2013 [14 favorites]


I suspect that access to earplugs is different in different facilities, but in this article, Prison Made, from January 25, in the SaltLake City Weekly, about another prisoner who has been in long-term solitary:
Part of that darkness comes from Payne having to endure the ranting and verbal abuse of mentally ill and predatory individuals in neighboring cells, whom he cannot see and can only communicate with by shouting. He cites an example in a court filing: “For the last two months I have been exposed to a deaf child-molester-rapist who rants and raves that ‘having sex’ with a 6-year-old little girl is not rape/molestation because she ‘consented.’ ” Uinta 1 inmates are not allowed earplugs. Payne fashioned some from cardboard, “but they’re rough on the ears.”

The prison’s response to his complaint is simple, according to a motion by the Attorney General’s Office, the counsel for the prison when it comes to inmates’ civil-rights complaints. “There are depressed and suicidal inmates throughout the prison. Plaintiff has no constitutional right to live in a ‘happy’ housing unit.”
Now, having murdered another prisoner, or possible two, while incarcerated, this guy isn't exactly a poster child for lenient strategies, but the article is very interesting.
posted by taz at 12:01 PM on March 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Earplugs cost about $5 and allow you to sleep anywhere there is noise - hospital, plane, movies, prison.

How does the cost factor into it? Where is a prisoner in solitary going to get $5 much less leave his cell to pop down to CVS to pick up some ear plugs? Ear plugs might as well cost a trillion dollars, they'd be just as accessible to a prisoner in solitary confinement.
posted by sonika at 12:54 PM on March 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's interesting that for a good chunk of the US population, we're a Christian nation (which is ostensibly based on New Testament forgiveness of sin), and yet we have a vindicative judicial system based on Old Testament "eye for an eye" revenge. In my experience, the same people who believe the former are likely a-okay with the latter, without experiencing any cognitive dissonance.

The point of 'eye for an eye' was that a victim's eye was worth an assailant's eye, whether the victim was a slave and the assailant was a lord, or vice versa. It was actually a progressive move (from a justice system that assigned penalties based very much on social and wealth status) and from very early on was understand in a metaphorical way that actually implied fines rather than a strict replication of the crime (in many if not all jurisdictions).

The aspects of our system now where the better lawyer you can afford (or the more privilege you benefit from at every step of the way) arguably make 'eye for an eye' look positively advanced.
posted by Salamandrous at 1:24 PM on March 17, 2013 [6 favorites]


He is getting what he deserves and I totally don't care.
posted by knoyers at 4:25 PM on March 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


People don't do things they think are unethical to start with

This is obviously wrong, of course, but it's even wronger on further consideration. The idea that everyone thinks there is such a thing as "ethics" is quite optimistic.
posted by spaltavian at 4:31 PM on March 17, 2013


knoyers, you hold a value system so different to mine I can't even begin to understand it.
posted by ambrosen at 5:16 PM on March 17, 2013 [5 favorites]


Murder merits life in prison without parole in lieu of death, if not death. Since he murdered a law enforcement member while escaping, it's reasonable that his incarceration is equivalent to super max.
posted by knoyers at 5:38 PM on March 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


The whole "Rehabilitation vs. punishment" argument seems like kind of a derail here, insofar as we're talking about someone who is never, ever getting out of prison, and indeed won't likely even be able to join genpop before he dies.

Rehabilitation ought to be a goal for most prisons/prisoners, but it really doesn't apply in a case like this (or Thomas Silverstein, for another example.) These guys are being made examples of, pure and simple. Certainly there ought to be limits on solitary terms, and the conditions therein, but it does at least serve a theoretical purpose in deterring inmate crime. The astounding thing is how ineffective it is, even at that.
posted by ShutterBun at 6:11 PM on March 17, 2013


Solitary confinement... It seems like the worst way we as a country could deal with a problem.

And you know why we do it? Because at a glance the idea seems to make sense.

It seems like the perfect crossroads of

Ethical - "Hey we're not killing them right? How big and white of us!"
Fiscal - Fewer rights and smaller cells mean it'll be cheaper right? Nope.
and Social - They'll have time to think about it. ...and also likely lose their mind, if they weren't already mentally unstable/ill already of course, in the process.

It's a cornucopia of fail and it falls in the exact place that's the worst, the absolute worst, for the people behind bars. It even exists to justify the shitty place we put normal prisoners by providing a first hand experience with something that's worse than where they currently are. I honestly, really and truly, think a better solution lies to either extreme than this hell of purgatory we've found in the middle.

Either go the more humane route and actually give a shit about the people you put behind bars and put some resources towards correcting the problem that got them there via economic reforms and social, dare I use the word, welfare systems that aren't practically setup to keep people in poverty. Or quit messing around and make them fight for public sport or for their very survival because it's less of an injustice than the wonderfully innocuous torture situationwe've come up with that can generate a statement such as the following from a human being. I know which one I'd like to see modern people put forward but I'm not optimistic.

I can come up with nothing. Set me afire, pummel and bludgeon me, cut me to bits, stab me, shoot me, do what you will in the worst of ways, but none of it could come close to making me feel things as cumulatively horrifying as what I’ve experienced through my years in solitary. Dying couldn’t take but a short time if you or the State were to kill me; in SHU I have died a thousand internal deaths. The sum of my quarter-century’s worth of suffering has been that bad.

To those that say "Well of course he says that, he's trying to get himself out of prison." I say this:

Balls.

You're either making a taciturn acceptance of the fact 25 years in solitaire isn't enough punishment for his crimes, saying that he's the same person he was when he committed the crimes and why are we discussing this because he's such a danger to society, or you're saying he's deeply mentally ill. If it's the first then god help your sense of justice because I shudder to think what sort of viewpoint justifies that sort of thinking, the threat aspect just doesn't jive either because this guy seems more scared of a cell phone or a PC than I am of him, and the latter deserves a completely different set of treatment and care than a box with a one way slot in the door so food can go in and feces can't come out.

I'm going to bed sad and depressed for humanity in general, I wish there was a god up there who could help us but it's things like this that convince me, in so many ways, that we're on our own.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:26 AM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't feel like I understand what the justification for holding him in solitary for so long is.

He's a security risk. One who shot and killed two law enforcement officers during his last escape attempt.

If I was the person responsible for ensuring he didn't try and escape again, and possibly shoot me in the process, you can be damn sure I'd be doing everything I could to thwart that attempt.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 12:52 AM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's interesting that for a good chunk of the US population, we're a Christian nation (which is ostensibly based on New Testament forgiveness of sin), and yet we have a vindicative judicial system based on Old Testament "eye for an eye" revenge. In my experience, the same people who believe the former are likely a-okay with the latter, without experiencing any cognitive dissonance.

That's probably because the state doesn't have the capacity to forgive sins. Not really what it's for, is it? You want your sins forgiven? You and God can work that out. But the state's gonna take what it's owed out of your hide regardless. Indeed, the criminal justice system in medieval and early-modern Europe was significantly coupled with efforts to ensure that the condemned had every opportunity to save their soul, even if they were being executed. It's even why those few states that still execute people provide access to whatever sort of clergy the condemned wants at that final step.

So I can say, without any cognitive dissonance whatsoever, that failing to execute someone like Billy Blake is a travesty of justice. It's the only thing to do.
posted by valkyryn at 1:15 AM on March 18, 2013


Hang on. So, if he's not a clinical sociopath, then there is some hope, some possibility, of his being rehabilitated.

If he is a clinical sociopath, then there is currently no hope, no possibility of him being rehabilitated.


If he's not a sociopath, then it makes more sense to make every possible effort to rehabilitate him and reintegrate him into a useful, productive, non-murdering member of society.

If he is a sociopath, he has an incurable mental illness that is out of his ability to control. It is understandable that he must be kept seperated from society and maybe even human interaction. But it would make more sense to incarcerate him in as humane- even luxurious- conditions as possible, since his crimes and dangerous nature are essentially not his fault.

I can't see any way that torturing this guy is valid behaviour, unless it's retribution. But retribution is pointless. It doesn't change the past or bring back the dead. It just heaps injury on top of injury. Or, as mom used to say, "two wrongs don't make a right".
posted by windykites at 9:05 AM on March 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


The idea that "the state" could be "owed" a human life is appalling and incomprehensible to me.
posted by teraflop at 9:07 AM on March 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


RolandOfEld: " Ethical - "Hey we're not killing them right? How big and white of us!""

I'd like to point out that race had nothing to do with this case and nothing to do with Blake's punishment. He's white. The judge who sentenced him was white. I'm pretty sure the guy Blake killed was white, too. His sentence didn't stem from any sort of racial bias. The judge threw the book at him because he killed a cop and wounded another in an escape attempt (something that's not unheard of,) not because of the color of his skin.

I think the US justice system is very often horrifically biased and unfair to minorities. But if you're looking to discuss that, then Blake's not the best example.
posted by zarq at 9:37 AM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


retribution is pointless

Someone, like me, who believes in retributive justice, would say that it's actually the whole point. This:

It doesn't change the past or bring back the dead.

...s true, but it's totally irrelevant, because this:

It just heaps injury on top of injury.

...is not true if you believe that there is an inherent moral good accomplished by punishing criminals. I do.

Which is precisely why I think that this case is so appalling, as is the entire system of incarceration generally. Incarceration does not even accomplish the goal of retribution, as it almost always bears no relation whatsoever to the crime in question, and it costs a boatload of money. Retributive justice, if it's to work at all, needs to make the punishment fit the crime. I'm having trouble thinking of any crimes for which incarceration, of any length, would be appropriate. Fines and restitution? Perfect punishment for crimes against property and even violent crimes. Execution? Appropriate response to murder. Heck, flogging seems to be a fitting response to non-homicidal violent crime. But incarceration? What's that supposed to be about? I mean, I can see incarceration being useful for the very limited purpose of operating chain gangs to exact money from convicts to pay off fines and make restitution, particularly those who are unable (or unwilling) to get jobs. But the idea of locking someone up as such is just bizarre.

Incarceration is a failure regardless of the system of criminal justice to which you happen to subscribe. It's rehabilitative value is minimal, its restorative value is non-existent, and its retributive value is questionable at best.

End the prison-industrial complex.
posted by valkyryn at 11:50 AM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


valkyryn: "But incarceration? What's that supposed to be about?"

Theoretically, incapacitation, punishment, deterrence and rehabilitation.

So, commit a crime, lose your civil liberties and be removed from society for months or years. Length and harshness of sentence are dependent on severity of the crime.

During which time you:
a) cannot commit similar crimes again
b) set an example to other would-be criminals, and
c) again, theoretically: rehabilitated so you can rejoin society and not become a recidivist.
posted by zarq at 12:02 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have no problem with this man's fate.
posted by Renoroc at 12:25 PM on March 18, 2013


Solidary Watch is a great website. I'd also draw your attention to this post about a class action suit challenging solitary confinement in New York state. The ACLU blog has more information on similar litigation efforts in other states.
posted by likeatoaster at 1:42 PM on March 18, 2013


zarq: Fair point but, I was speaking more to the problems with the system/idea as a whole.
posted by RolandOfEld at 2:09 PM on March 18, 2013


Theoretically, incapacitation, punishment, deterrence and rehabilitation.

Except that, in practice, none of those things actually work. None of them.

Incapacitation? True, someone in jail isn't going to shoot someone outside of jail, but simply failing to count crimes committed in prison as problematic does not strike me as being honest. But that's as far as incapacitation goes: you stick all the criminals in once place so they can assault each other instead of law-abiding civilians. I can see the attraction, sure, but that's hardly a progressive means to any end. Besides, organized crime rings seem to be operate inside and outside of prisons with relative impunity. I hardly think it's a success as far as that goes.

Punishment? Heh. There are people, many of them homeless, who deliberately commit crimes, hoping to be incarcerated, because their lives are better inside than out. Even for the less marginal cases, three squares and a bed is a far sight better than they were doing before. On the other hand, given that even a single month in jail will pretty much bring most people's lives to a crashing halt forever, that seems a drastically disproportionate sentence for the vast majority of crimes. Go to jail once, and aside from that showing up on your permanent record, you'll lose your job, and likely your house. Getting back from that can be almost impossible.

Deterrence? Doesn't seem to work very well.

Rehabilitation? Experience says nope.

Compare to the restoration of flogging as a sentence. Incapacitation? Well you'll be on your ass for a few days, possibly a week or two. Perhaps not as effective as sticking someone in prison for months or years, but recuperating at home from a beating seems to provide less time and opportunity for the formation of conspiracies than hours of forced proximity with other criminals.

Punishment? You bet your ass. And proportional too. Eye for an eye, and not just in the "stripe for stripe" sense, but in the restriction of maximum retribution sense too. It's wrong to punish people out of proportion for what they've done. Again, a stint in prison will basically permanently destroy your life. Thirty lashes won't.

Deterrance? Again, you bet your ass. I see a lot fewer thugs being willing to expose their hides to the cat for ten seconds than being willing to do a nickel on the inside.

Rehabilitation? Certainly couldn't be any worse...
posted by valkyryn at 3:56 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


overyield: "WTF is 'rehabilitation' for most prisoners beyond instilling the idea that getting caught is a bad idea? People don't do things they think are unethical to start with"

I eat meat and fish all the time, which I genuinely believe is wrong or at least highly problematic from an environmental and ecological standpoint.

Also, I've engaged in plenty of risky behaviors when younger which, without the benefit of a combination of luck and a beneficial social structure, could have messed up my life.
posted by Deathalicious at 7:00 AM on March 20, 2013


Except that, in practice, none of those things actually work. None of them.

Except, they do work to some extent. The ultimate determining factor to the effectiveness of the prison system are recidivism rates. Once released from prison, do felons go on to commit other crimes? Recidivism is not 100%, therefore prison does seem to be acting as either rehabilitation or deterrent for some prisoners.

Approximately 95% of American felons will be released back into society. A report released in 2006 reportedly said that within three years, 67% would be rearrested. 52% would be re-incarcerated.

The BJS has similar statistics, but also notes that type of crime committed is a clear factor:
* During 2007, a total of 1,180,469 persons on parole were at-risk of reincarceration. This includes persons under parole supervision on January 1 or those entering parole during the year. Of these parolees, about 16% were returned to incarceration in 2007.
* Among nearly 300,000 prisoners released in 15 states in 1994, 67.5% were rearrested within 3 years. A study of prisoners released in 1983 estimated 62.5%.
* Of the 272,111 persons released from prisons in 15 states in 1994, an estimated 67.5% were rearrested for a felony or serious misdemeanor within 3 years, 46.9% were reconvicted, and 25.4% resentenced to prison for a new crime.
* These offenders had accumulated 4.1 million arrest charges before their most recent imprisonment and another 744,000 charges within 3 years of release.
* Released prisoners with the highest rearrest rates were robbers (70.2%), burglars (74.0%), larcenists (74.6%), motor vehicle thieves (78.8%), those in prison for possessing or selling stolen property (77.4%), and those in prison for possessing, using, or selling illegal weapons (70.2%).
* Within 3 years, 2.5% of released rapists were arrested for another rape, and 1.2% of those who had served time for homicide were arrested for homicide.
We're looking at approximately a third of all released felons not habitually returning to a life of crime. Approximately 2/3 of released felons being arrested within three years. Around 46-50% of released felons convicted of crimes.

I agree that the numbers are WAY, WAY too high. But clearly jail time is having some measurable effect.

A number of states are now focusing on rehabilitation and treatment programs during and post-incarceration, and having some success:
Thanks partly to greatly expanded rehabilitation and treatment programs, Texas sent 11 percent fewer ex-convicts back to prison in recent years a significant drop in recidivism that is being replicated across the country, according to a new study.

The study, to be released today by the Council of State Governments' Justice Center project, shows that Texas' recidivism rate -- the number of felons who return to prison within three years after they are discharged or paroled -- posted the double-digit drop for prisoners released in 2007.

Between 2000 and 2007, the recidivism rate dropped 22 percent, according to the report.

...

The report generally hails the dropping recidivism rates as proof that the emergence of additional rehabilitation and treatment programs is working, even as some criminologists note that the average age of offenders is rising -- and older people tend to commit fewer crimes than younger ones.

In Michigan, which has been working on new treatment and re-entry initiatives since 2003, the recidivism rate dropped by 18 percent between 2005 and 2007. In Kansas, which has been expanding treatment and rehab programs since 2004, the drop was 15 percent. Ohio and Vermont posted an 11 percent drop. In Mississippi, the rate dropped 9 percent. In Oregon, 8 percent.

posted by zarq at 7:24 AM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


What responsibility lies with the officers who got that close to their prisoners with loaded guns on their hips and got hung up on the handcuffs? What responsibility lies with the policies that instructed them to proceed in that way? A desperate man behaved desperately. Without the gun in arm's reach, it would have been very different.

But that's just one tiny incident among thousands that might have changed Blake's fate, or the fate of the man he killed. That after all of this he can write such an essay suggests there was always a person inside who might have turned out very differently. Some people don't care about that; some do.
posted by Scram at 12:45 AM on March 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


The ultimate determining factor to the effectiveness of the prison system are recidivism rates. Once released from prison, do felons go on to commit other crimes? Recidivism is not 100%, therefore prison does seem to be acting as either rehabilitation or deterrent for some prisoners.

Doesn't follow. Assumes that felons will continue to commit crimes continuously until incarcerated. Assumes that prison does not actually cause more crime than it prevents. Assumes that criminals are incentivized by the threat of jailtime after they've served some time but not before, which assumes that criminals don't know that what they're doing may result in prison time.

The data's just not there. One simple test would be to compare rates of re-offending between convicted felons who were given drug treatment and a good-paying job vs. felons who were put in a penetentiary vs. felons who were just let off scott-free. As it is, you have no way of knowing whether the percentage of incarcerated felons who recommit is any higher or lower that the percentage of non-incarcerated felons who just stop committing crimes. I'm not saying you're wrong. I'm just saying the argument's not there.
posted by facetious at 12:55 AM on March 23, 2013


Criminal justice system's 'dark secret': Teenagers in solitary confinement
posted by homunculus at 9:40 AM on March 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


Immigrants Held in Solitary Cells, Often for Weeks
posted by homunculus at 11:25 AM on March 24, 2013


He's a security risk. One who shot and killed two law enforcement officers during his last escape attempt. If I was the person responsible for ensuring he didn't try and escape again, and possibly shoot me in the process, you can be damn sure I'd be doing everything I could to thwart that attempt.

Yeah, 25 years ago. That kind of rationale can be used to justify a whole lot of terrible things, but that doesn't make it right, just, or good policy.
posted by likeatoaster at 7:19 AM on March 28, 2013


‘He Was Freaking’: Friend Says Clements Suspect Flailed from Years of Isolation. Former inmate dismisses gang-hit theory in shooting death of Colorado Corrections chief

Colorado Independent: Suspect in Killing of Prisons Chief Tormented By Years of Solitary Confinement
posted by homunculus at 9:56 AM on April 5, 2013


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