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America's 10 Worst Prisons
May 14, 2013 9:15 AM   Subscribe

"'If you can't do the time, don't do the crime.' So goes the old saying. Yet conditions in some American facilities are so obscene that they amount to a form of extrajudicial punishment." Mother Jones is profiling "America's 10 Worst Prisons." Facilities were chosen for the list based on "...three years of research, correspondence with prisoners, and interviews with reform advocates."

The List

1: ADX (federal supermax: "A federal isolation facility that's "pretty close" to hell.")
2: Allan B. Polunsky Unit (Texas: "'The hardest place to do time in Texas'—and then you die.")
3: Tent City Jail (Phoenix: Feds say notorious facility has a 'pervasive culture of discriminatory bias against Latinos.')
4: Orleans Parish (Louisiana: "'A violent and dangerous institution,' says the Justice Department.")
5: LA County Jail (Los Angeles: "And you thought the Rodney King beating was bad?")
6: Pelican Bay (California: "Where a Christmas card might land you in the hole.")
7: Julia Tutwiler (Alabama: "Prisoners fear 'that it's not safe to take a shower, that it's not safe to go to sleep...that you can be manipulated into sexual favors, it's really horrific.'")
8: Reeves Country Detention Complex (Texas: "An overcrowded, understaffed lockup—with health care bad enough to spark riots.")
9: Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility (Mississippi: "'A picture of such horror as should be unrealized anywhere in the civilized world.'")
10: Riker's Island (New York City: "New York City lockup has a "deeply entrenched" pattern of violence by guards, lawsuit claims.")

The piece will conclude tomorrow with a list of "Dishonorable Mentions."


Accompanying Articles (Some are older pieces covering the same topic)
* Maps: Solitary Confinement, State by State: "An exclusive review of how state prisons use isolation to discipline inmates and weed out gang members."
* God's Own Warden: "If you ever find yourself inside Louisiana's Angola prison, Burl Cain will make sure you find Jesus—or regret ever crossing his path."
* The Silent Treatment: "Imagine serving decades in prison for a crime your sibling framed you for. Now imagine doing it while profoundly deaf."
* Solitary in Iran Nearly Broke Me. Then I Went Inside America's Prisons: "We throw thousands of men in the hole for the books they read, the company they keep, the beliefs they hold. Here's why." (Previously on Mefi)
* Life in the Hole: Inside a Solitary Cell: "A guided tour of the seven-by-eleven-foot space where inmates spend 23 hours a day."
posted by zarq (88 comments total) 86 users marked this as a favorite

 
For the people running these prisons, this is a feature, not a bug.
posted by ymgve at 9:20 AM on May 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


I can't imagine that an atmosphere of sheer hostility and fear-driven obsession with control, where humans are literally treated like caged animals, is a very pleasant work environment to go to every day. Not to mention, like, good for one's soul.
posted by likeatoaster at 9:26 AM on May 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


...this is a feature, not a bug.

Unfortunately, that's true for a lot of voters also. There really are a lot of people in the U.S. who think if you are suspected convicted of a crime, you "lose all your rights."

Even though my state didn't make the list, I will say we have a prison called "Caledonia Prison Farm." I just think that sounds like a blues song waiting to happen.
posted by marxchivist at 9:28 AM on May 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


It would be really interesting to see this data correlated with data on which prisons are the most profitable for the various non-govt agencies involved with their operations.
posted by elizardbits at 9:29 AM on May 14, 2013 [22 favorites]


Even though my state didn't make the list, I will say we have a prison called "Caledonia Prison Farm." I just think that sounds like a blues song waiting to happen.

My father in law works in the corrections field and once brought me back some grits from the South Carolina prison farm, which were hands down the best grits I've ever cooked with. I was a little uncomfortable about it, though, since "South Carolina prison farm" doesn't conjure up the best image in the world.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 9:30 AM on May 14, 2013


I've been reading these pieces as they've been coming out the past week or so and I just want to say (and I hope this isn't a derail), but with this, the recent burst of environmental reporting, the current in-depth studies of the impact of technology on labour forces, the Romney 47% story, and just about every other damn thing they do: thank fuck for MotherJones.
posted by hydatius at 9:31 AM on May 14, 2013 [45 favorites]


Hey but at least the prison stocks are up.
posted by H. Roark at 9:35 AM on May 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


In the last few years there have been a number of stopries in the US press about UK citizen's who the US Government has requested be handed over to face charges. Many of these have been controversial due to percieved lack of evidence etc, and IIRC some have featured here). I often wonder whether any of the defendants make cases against extradition based on the squalid and violent conditions in US jails we hear about all too often in the blue and elsewhere. Anyone know whether this would this be a possible defence in those conditions?
posted by biffa at 9:43 AM on May 14, 2013


More on the Prison Industrial Complex.
posted by rough ashlar at 9:47 AM on May 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


The irony of a prison named for Julia Tutwiler being on this list is palpable.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:54 AM on May 14, 2013 [8 favorites]


I think we've long passed the point where the societal fallout from incarceration has surpassed the fallout from the 'crimes' that landed most of these people in jail. Burn em down.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 9:54 AM on May 14, 2013 [8 favorites]


Yet conditions in some American facilities are so obscene that they amount to a form of extrajudicial punishment

Which, I'm pretty sure, a good portion of the population would see as the way it should be. The Vindictive States of America.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:00 AM on May 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Add to the list all the prisons in California, where the healthcare system is so bad it's in court receivership. The CDC has been called in to investigate two Central Valley prisons where Valley Fever outbreaks have been even worse than usual - three dozen inmates have died.

"Any decision to shift thousands of inmates based on race and age into other facilities must be weighed with the risks such a dramatic move would pose to public and institutional safety and to the delivery of healthcare system-wide," corrections spokesman Jeffrey Callison said.


[...]

In his report Wednesday, Kelso included a health risk analysis that showed African American inmates in those prisons have a 90% increased risk of valley fever, Latino inmates had a 30% increased risk and those older than 55 had a 60% higher risk."
posted by rtha at 10:03 AM on May 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


Another prisoner, a paranoid schizophrenic named Andre Thomas, scooped out his eye and ate it during his stay at Polunsky. He, too, remains on track for execution.

Jesus Brickshitting Christ.

Leaders of the free world my ass. Is it generally felt in, say, Northern Europe that the US perpetrates this kind of systemic and personal evil? Like, do people in Denmark know about the government pumping crack into the ghettoes in the 80's and declaring the war on drugs? That the current state was the intent all along?
posted by cmoj at 10:04 AM on May 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


Slavery never really ended in some places
posted by The Whelk at 10:05 AM on May 14, 2013 [7 favorites]


I'd rather blow my brains out than spend a month in one of these places.
posted by Ghost Mode at 10:07 AM on May 14, 2013


Doing my own extremely halfassed research, while the Corrections Corp of America has annual revenues of $1.736 billion (2011), none of the facilities listed on their website match the facilities listed in this article.

1.736 billion, though. to treat human beings worse than actual animal abusers treat animals.
posted by elizardbits at 10:08 AM on May 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


Most of those are jails.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 10:14 AM on May 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


The basic problem seems to be that

1) the system is so evil it makes Lucifer want to go easy on the guilty

and

2) voters believe this is just as it should be because prisoners should be grateful not to be guillotined upon conviction.

Jesus wept.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 10:14 AM on May 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


Unfortunately, that's true for a lot of voters also

Very true in Canada, too. It is a constant part of the Conservative platform here to get "tough on crime". Any time a terrible crime happens, it's apparently because we aren't "tough enough" on it, and failed to deter the criminals. I saw comments to this effect just today on the CBC website on a story about a guy that was murdered during a test drive for his truck that he advertised on Craigslist.

There are people out there, apparently, that believe the 2 people responsible for this crime were doing some sort of mental calculus, and concluded that getting caught for murder wouldn't be so bad. Given that murder still occurs in jurisdictions with the death penalty and/or nightmarishly bad prison systems, is it not much more likely they were weren't thinking about getting caught at all?
posted by Hoopo at 10:15 AM on May 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


From How to survive Sheriff Joe Arpaio's Tent City Jail:

...

18 Stock up on the free toothpaste, AmerFresh, in case you end up in a cockroach-infested area. It effectively blocks the cracks the cockroaches swarm from when the lights are turned off.

Cue rainbow...
posted by RolandOfEld at 10:20 AM on May 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


This article, about a Polunksy inmate who gouged out and ate his own eyeball, is fascinating and horrifying.
posted by chara at 10:21 AM on May 14, 2013


I think it is fascinating that US states have vastly different incarceration rates. Even looking at pairs of states that have very similar demographics -- Minnesota/Wisconsin, North Dakota/South Dakota, Washington/Oregon, Illinois/Michigan -- the rates are incredibly divergent. Oklahoma has 2.5 times more prisoners per capita than Nebraska!
posted by miyabo at 10:22 AM on May 14, 2013


I often wonder whether any of the defendants make cases against extradition based on the squalid and violent conditions in US jails we hear about all too often in the blue and elsewhere. Anyone know whether this would this be a possible defence in those conditions?

I know for sure that Canada will not extradite without an assurance that the US will not seek the death penalty; anything less is a violation by our government. I know extradition has been challenged under the grounds you're asking about, but I'm not sure of the outcomes - my understanding is that it generally fails. You'd probably have to prove torture, not just neglect/etc we have tons of that in our own jails :(

Frankly it would probably be more likely to succeed in an extradition to China/Pakistan/Burma/somewhere "eeeeeevul" than the US.
posted by Lemurrhea at 10:22 AM on May 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


In the last few years there have been a number of stopries in the US press about UK citizen's who the US Government has requested be handed over to face charges. ...I often wonder whether any of the defendants make cases against extradition based on the squalid and violent conditions in US jails we hear about all too often in the blue and elsewhere. Anyone know whether this would this be a possible defence in those conditions?
posted by biffa at 9:43 AM on May 14
[+] [!]


See the case of Gary McKinnon, a mischievous but benign major British hacker who , after a long legal battle, avoided extradition to the US on human rights grounds (the possibility of decades in US prison in isolation conditions deemed to be a major suicide risk; his likely maximum sentence in the UK would have been 6 months community service ; his UK case was (after his extradition victory) ultimately dropped due to lack of sufficient evidence) . Unusual factors : McKinnon has Aspergers; Theresa May, the Conservative minister who ruled against the US in the extradition case is an arch right-winger ( she has since reassigned responsibility for this kind of decision to the courts)
posted by Bwithh at 10:23 AM on May 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


"'If you can't do the time, don't do the crime.'

And what about the people that haven't done a crime yet find themselves inside?

(proud sconnie here /sarcasm/)
posted by probably not that Karen Blair at 10:23 AM on May 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I hate that this exists, and even worse that I just have no idea what I can do, practically, really and truly, to stop or even slow any of it.

I live in a country where it is very likely more men are victims of rape than women per year. Not to mention the ratio of incidences; those men are after all "captive audiences".

When a significant amount of what prison is in our society hits me, it makes me wish very much that I had what it took to be a lawyer, so that I could contribute to the process of making these kinds of conditions and systems absolutely illegal.

Seconding, thirding, and fourthing "God bless Mother Jones", and everyone else who is engaged in what is likely the most unpopular struggle for social justice in the history of the United States.
posted by Poppa Bear at 10:25 AM on May 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


I know for sure that Canada will not extradite without an assurance that the US will not seek the death penalty; anything less is a violation by our government.

Unfortunatley it's a very wishy-washy decision that allows us to extradite in "exceptional" cases, without defining "exceptional".
posted by Hoopo at 10:36 AM on May 14, 2013


hydatius: "I've been reading these pieces as they've been coming out the past week or so and I just want to say (and I hope this isn't a derail), but with this, the recent burst of environmental reporting, the current in-depth studies of the impact of technology on labour forces, the Romney 47% story, and just about every other damn thing they do: thank fuck for MotherJones."

I agree 100%, hydatius, but at the same time that we thank fuck for them, if we have a bit of extra change to throw their way, let's do so god I wish there was a DECENT way to do microtransactions on the web yet.

Prisons are a hard hard subject, and they're only made harder by it seems that people need proximity in order to want to make changes. We've all been so heavily conditioned by the TOUGH ON CRIME RAR RAR political bullshit of the last 30 years that it's all too easy to just sign off on the "Lock 'em up; throw key away; profit" model we have going.

To be honest, despite being a pretty left lefty I was there, myself, before I taught for a few months in a fairly notorious prison (not on this list, however). But they men I met, and the stories I learned, and the little tiny bit I experienced genuinely changed many of my attitudes about prison and about the sorts of evils we're allowing the state to do in so many prisons.

I guess here's where I trail off, because I have no good conclusion and no good ideas. Prisoners are the first ones to be punished at the whim of the state and the last ones anyone ever thinks about, and while I understand that we have to take into account their vicitms (for non-victimless crimes) I cannot help but worry at the extent to which we're dimishing our own humanity in how readily and how easily we're willing to diminish and forget theirs.
posted by barnacles at 10:39 AM on May 14, 2013 [8 favorites]


Unfortunatley it's a very wishy-washy decision that allows us to extradite in "exceptional" cases, without defining "exceptional".

It's not a wishy-washy decision, it's just not 100% absolute. There's a difference. If some terrorist murders thousands of people and escapes to Canada, we ought to be able to deport him to face the death penalty.
posted by Dasein at 10:49 AM on May 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Most of those are jails.

Huh. Jails are city/county and prisons are state/fed, yes? I forget about that distinction. (i couldn't open that pdf, stupid firefox)

posted by elizardbits at 10:55 AM on May 14, 2013


I think it is fascinating that US states have vastly different incarceration rates. Even looking at pairs of states that have very similar demographics -- Minnesota/Wisconsin, North Dakota/South Dakota, Washington/Oregon, Illinois/Michigan -- the rates are incredibly divergent. Oklahoma has 2.5 times more prisoners per capita than Nebraska!

It could be that states like Oklahoma also accept prisoners from other states as an additional revenue stream. Yes, this is a thing.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:00 AM on May 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oklahoma has 2.5 times more prisoners per capita than Nebraska!

If I had to guess, I'd say the only reason for this is because of I-44.
I live close to I-44 and you would not believe how many times a day the "cops" do a random traffic stop drug bust, and from the little bit of information that I think I know-those people should be glad they got caught in OK instead of TX.
posted by QueerAngel28 at 11:00 AM on May 14, 2013


Very true in Canada, too. It is a constant part of the Conservative platform here to get "tough on crime". Any time a terrible crime happens, it's apparently because we aren't "tough enough" on it, and failed to deter the criminals. I saw comments to this effect just today on the CBC website on a story about a guy that was murdered during a test drive for his truck that he advertised on Craigslist.

There are people out there, apparently, that believe the 2 people responsible for this crime were doing some sort of mental calculus, and concluded that getting caught for murder wouldn't be so bad. Given that murder still occurs in jurisdictions with the death penalty and/or nightmarishly bad prison systems, is it not much more likely they were weren't thinking about getting caught at all?


I think the CBC comments are (obviously) an emotional response to a horrible crime - a young father (just 32) is murdered by a wealthy playboy, just for kicks, leaving behind a wife and a young child, and a mother who pleaded with the killers via a public message on Mother's Day. At least that's what it looks like.

On the other hand, I think there is not enough outrage about gangland activity in British Columbia. We tolerate criminal activity, either because we want to ignore it, or the police and judiciary do not have enough resources to go after those thugs, and that has got to stop.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:08 AM on May 14, 2013


Unfortunately, that's true for a lot of voters also. There really are a lot of people in the U.S. who think if you are suspected convicted of a crime, you "lose all your rights."

Indeed. Our own lovable guv is attempting to expand our state's current DNA collection policy from its current gathering of samples from only those who are convicted of felonies or sex offenses to every single person who is arrested on a felony charge or convicted of any crime at all, no matter how minor. I'll join you in saving my rant about suspicion vs. arrest vs. conviction vs. actual guilt for another day.

We also have some unbelievably racist felony disenfranchisement laws on the books all over America, which have resulted in a whopping 5.85 million American citizens currently being unable to vote -- yet only ~25% of those people are still in prison (Uggen, Shannon, & Manza, 2012, pp. 2-5). Nineteen states prohibit ex-felons from voting after they've been released from prison, instead requiring them to complete/provide a combination of restitution, parole, probation, and/or a variably complex reinstatement process simply in order to regain the ability to be recognized as a participatory citizen at the ballot box.
Here is a rather depressing paper titled "What Americans Believe About Voting Rights for Criminals," showcasing the huge disparity between what is on the books and what Americans believe should be done when it comes to restricting or permanently eliminating the voting rights of citizens who have been convicted of crimes -- at least in this case, Americans are actually a little more lenient than the laws suggest.

Man, it's just too easy to create a permanent underclass! How can prison operators resist? First, start by arresting and convicting people (a process that is clearly without bias; nope, definitely nothing like clear racial disparities in arrest, conviction, sentencing, or incarceration rates), then run them through our peerless criminal justice system, and if they ever manage to get out, keep humiliating them by denying them employment, social benefits, and/or representation in the democratic process! That's all you need to keep the handy-dandy cycle of disenfranchisement, resentment, frustration, perpetual alienation from society, and eventual recidivism most righteously spinning, with dollars continuing to flow into CEO and shareholders' pockets all the while.

This MJ series is particularly chilling as accompanied by this article, particularly this graphic. And I know this is an ostensibly philosophical op-ed, titled The Living Death of Solitary Confinement, but its first sentence is just so apt: "There are many ways to destroy a person, but the simplest and most devastating might be solitary confinement."

Doing my own extremely halfassed research, while the Corrections Corp of America has annual revenues of $1.736 billion (2011), none of the facilities listed on their website match the facilities listed in this article.

Fun fact: Earlier this year, the IRS and SEC approved CCA's (second!) conversion to a real estate investment trust. You may find yourself asking, "Why would a prison corporation restructure as a real estate company?"
So they can all but completely eliminate their income tax burden, "maximize value for [their] shareholders through increases in free cash flow and dividends while continuing to provide significant earnings growth capacity," and "create additional opportunities for shareholder value creation," of course! What's not to love?

Even more fun fact: The GEO Group, America's second-largest private prison operator (and another recently-approved REIT), used to own and operate Walnut Grove until the ACLU/SPLC lawsuit all but forced them to change hands... to America's third-largest private prison operator, the rather ominously-named Management & Training Corporation.
posted by divined by radio at 11:11 AM on May 14, 2013 [41 favorites]


Holy shit, they're a REIT. Is that an ethical investment?
posted by KokuRyu at 11:13 AM on May 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Guantánamo is not an anomaly — prisoners in the US are force-fed every day
posted by homunculus at 11:19 AM on May 14, 2013


Leaders of the free world my ass. Is it generally felt in, say, Northern Europe that the US perpetrates this kind of systemic and personal evil?

Yes. QI on this.

We get all the media with the prison rape/brutality/shivving jokes and wince at them. Prisoners here also get the full-quality NHS and almost no solitary. Frankly, I think that the sheer degree of difference between European and US systems is an excellent argument for a non-elected prosecutorial body and prison service.
posted by jaduncan at 11:19 AM on May 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


Oh man, Angola. It was an antebellum plantation where black slaves picked cotton under the supervision and abuse of white overseers, and now it's a plantation where black slaves pick cotton under the supervision and abuse of white overseers.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:28 AM on May 14, 2013 [8 favorites]


Rob a liquor store and go to jail. Rob loan bundle and get a bonus. This isn't rocket surgery.

Humane incarceration? Really? How would that work? This is a portrait of slippery slopes and dancing goalposts. Draw your line anywhere, and be prepared to die on that hill.

Punishment, rehabilitation: both, or either?

Courts: trials of errors and subjectivity.

By the time the discussion gets to the prisons, the point has already been lost. Warm and fuzzy visions of happy license plate makers and horse trainers actually are manifested in the real world. It does no good to look beneath the water-line to the rest of the iceberg; where laws are complicit (the war on drugs), and black ink (privatization) gives an entrepreneurial solution to a social problem.

Good luck with that. This is a sour stew, and a few more spices won't make it better.
posted by mule98J at 11:34 AM on May 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


mule98J: "Humane incarceration? Really? How would that work?"
If only there were other countries doing different things you could have a look at ...
cmoj: "Leaders of the free world my ass. Is it generally felt in, say, Northern Europe that the US perpetrates this kind of systemic and personal evil? Like, do people in Denmark know about the government pumping crack into the ghettoes in the 80's and declaring the war on drugs? That the current state was the intent all along?"
Dane here. I know all of the above but then again I'm on Mefi. I'd say there's a general knowledge (like Jehan says) that US prisons are very much not like ours. We watch all your TV series after all.
posted by brokkr at 11:47 AM on May 14, 2013


The man who murdered a good friend of mine is being held in Polunsky before his execution. I hate that asshole, but reading about the conditions of his imprisonment and thinking about his execution makes me a little sick. It's not really that I feel compassion for him. Maybe it is, and I just don't want to admit that out of some ridiculous fear that I'd be betraying my friend or his family.

More than anything, I feel this urge to just look the other way and stop thinking about it.
posted by whitecedar at 11:55 AM on May 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


QueerAngel28, I'd also quote "random" along with "cops". A little over two decades ago I was driving back to Chattanooga from the Ocoee area with a fellow river guiding buddy, late at night. As we drove across the route 64 bridge and got on I-75 southbound, there were something on the order of 40 cop cars lined up across the bridge and down the entrance ramp.

We thought this was kind of weird, but we got on the interstate and headed towards 'nooga. Along the way we were on a grade out in the left-hand lane passing some semis, when this SUV comes up behind us, flashing its lights. So we merge back right, let that SUV pass, get back in the left lane, and there come all those cop cars, lights and sirens going. This time we pulled onto the left shoulder and waited for the traffic to clear. Got a little further down the road, and there was that SUV surrounded by cop cars.

Next day the papers reported it as a huge cocaine bust started by "a routine traffic stop". Wasn't a damned thing routine or random about that traffic stop.

Similarly, an acquaintance just went in to start serving a term (mushroom cultivation). That bust came from "an anonymous payphone call" in the middle of the night. Said acquaintance knows from repeated experience that in that neighborhood a logged cell phone or land-line call doesn't get a police response until late morning, and the prosecutor threatened to drop the plea bargain terms of the defense went after the police call logs.

"Routine", "random", "anonymous" are all code words for "informant".

And let's not even go near when judges knowingly reference prison rape in their sentencing speeches.

Which reminds me: If you know someone who's in, have you written to them yet today? I need to make a run to the post office to grab some postage paid envelopes that I can enclose with the maximum 3 sheets of paper. Even if it's just "Hey", it shows the prison power structure that they're being watched.

whitecedar, it doesn't have to be feeling compassion for the murderer, it can be outrage at our collective wasted resources, and that even given that there are people who should be permanently removed from society, what differentiates us from them is that we aren't inhumane and sadistic.
posted by straw at 11:59 AM on May 14, 2013 [9 favorites]


I hate that asshole, but reading about the conditions of his imprisonment and thinking about his execution makes me a little sick. It's not really that I feel compassion for him. Maybe it is, and I just don't want to admit that out of some ridiculous fear that I'd be betraying my friend or his family.

Maybe you're just a better person than he is.
posted by jaduncan at 12:00 PM on May 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


I couldn't guess whether the Allan B. Polunsky Unit was named after some pro death penalty corrections officer or a former inmate. Either seems crazy. Turnes out Allan B. Polunsky is a former chairperson of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice who is now the chairperson of the Public Safety Commission, the governing board of the Texas Department of Public Safety. Talk about your weird honours.

If some terrorist murders thousands of people and escapes to Canada, we ought to be able to deport him to face the death penalty.

There are a lot of Canadians that disagree. I know Harper is unlikely to to legislate this possiblity away but I'd sure like to see the NDP or Liberals do so if they ever have the opprotunity.
posted by Mitheral at 12:07 PM on May 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


All this focus on the worst prisons. There must also be a list of ten best prisons! Where abuse is slightly less commonplace and the guards and wardens slightly less psychopathic! Where the food is not worse than discount dog food! It is just as good as discount dog food! Where you can get a tourniquet applied within hours if someone tears your arms off! Where is that list?
posted by Mister_A at 12:30 PM on May 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


Huh. Jails are city/county and prisons are state/fed, yes? I forget about that distinction. (i couldn't open that pdf, stupid firefox)

The crucial distinction is that jails are for arrestees and prisons are for convicts. So in other words, these are full of people who are still presumed innocent.

So basically what he's pointing out is that, impossible as this may sound, the situation is actually worse than it looks. Because while there are people who are cool with what you or I would call cruel and unusual punishment, you won't hear even them arguing for applying it to people who haven't been found guilty of anything.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:39 PM on May 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


Nah, your view of human nature is too optimistic. My father regularly and routinely advocates for taking out back and shooting all kinds of people who haven't yet even been arrested for whatever crimes they're suspected of committing.

It's more of a rhetorical flourish for him than a firmly held world view, but I'm pretty sure he'd have no trouble at all with bad conditions in jails or prisons or holding cells for people who are briefly detained.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:42 PM on May 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


It is incredible that this isn't the object of massive public outrage. I understand the reasons why it isn't, but this is one of the most fucked-up things I've ever read.
posted by thesmallmachine at 12:43 PM on May 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


Mister_A, Forbes magazine has you covered.
posted by JHarris at 12:45 PM on May 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


To put it another way, it's less "don't do the crime if you can't do the time", as "don't get arrested". Which is a way harder thing to reliably pull off outside of being in the dominant socioeconomic segment and keeping your mouth shut.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:46 PM on May 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


this is one of the most fucked-up things I've ever read.

There are lots of things like that to vomit over, once you start examining the grotesque pockmarked underbelly of the United States. The prison system is a highlight though.
posted by JHarris at 12:47 PM on May 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


Huh. Jails are city/county and prisons are state/fed, yes? I forget about that distinction. (i couldn't open that pdf, stupid firefox)

Sorry - for the Firefoxers out there or the TLDR crowd - Jails are for people in lawful detention (people awaiting trial) and prisons are for confinement of convicted criminals. Jails average an anual turnover rate of 3600% while prisons on average turn over 75% of their slots in a year.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 12:49 PM on May 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Our criminal justice system is one of our great national shames.
posted by Mister_A at 12:50 PM on May 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


The crucial distinction is that jails are for arrestees and prisons are for convicts. So in other words, these are full of people who are still presumed innocent.

Not exactly, the difference also has to do with level of administration. Jails are run by local city or county authorities. People held in jails may be awaiting trial or they may be serving sentences of less than a year.

In the federal system, Metropolitan Correctional Centers are prisons run by the Bureau of Prisons, but hold preconviction inmates.
posted by Jahaza at 12:56 PM on May 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty sure he'd have no trouble at all with bad conditions in jails or prisons or holding cells for people who are briefly detained

Unless and until he ended up in one, I'm sure.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 1:00 PM on May 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Not exactly, the difference also has to do with level of administration.

No, the legal distinction is cited in the article and G_S is on the right track - these abuses cite above are not just happening a prisons, places housing convicted criminals, they are happening to people just being held awaiting trial in JAILS!

[pedant]The title of the article should be "America's 10 Worst Correctional Institutions"[/pedant]
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 1:02 PM on May 14, 2013


My favorite bit about all of this is that all of the accusations of abuse at the hands of staff are waved away with, "We investigated ourselves and we didn't do anything." There are only several tens of million of closed-circuit cameras in this country, but there's no way we could possibly monitor all areas of a jail/prison, are there?
posted by Ickster at 1:03 PM on May 14, 2013


Thanks for posting this zarq. I made an FPP 3 years back about Angola. In it I noted that The 8th amendment in the US Constitution talks about Cruel and Unusual Punishments. The "essential predicate" is "that a punishment must not by its severity be degrading to human dignity''.
I suppose that I shouldn't really be suprised that as the US breaks so many other laws of decency that the state shouldn't ignore it's own laws towards it's own citizens. What has always surprised me rather more is the lack of a fuck being given by the majority of the inmates of your asylum.
posted by adamvasco at 1:11 PM on May 14, 2013


Man, where is the 8th amendment debate? I think the right not to be beaten and raped is more important than the right to own an Uzzi.
posted by Mister_A at 1:23 PM on May 14, 2013


Most of the people sweating it out in the infamous tent jail are awaiting trial. I can't for the life of me figure out haw that flys. Even if you think people who've been convicted need punishment the people awaiting trial are supposed to be considered innocent.
posted by Mitheral at 1:27 PM on May 14, 2013


In the last few years there have been a number of stories in the US press about UK citizens who the US Government has requested be handed over to face charges. Many of these have been controversial due to percieved lack of evidence etc, and IIRC some have featured here). I often wonder whether any of the defendants make cases against extradition based on the squalid and violent conditions in US jails we hear about all too often in the blue and elsewhere. Anyone know whether this would this be a possible defence in those conditions?
I don't know. But we have stopped the extradition of Abu Qatada to Jordan over the risk of torture, so I guess it could be the same for the US.
posted by Jehan at 1:34 PM on May 14, 2013


Man, where is the 8th amendment debate?

The fifth, sixth and fourteenth amendments are taking a pretty good beating here too. There's essentially no part of any of this that's reconcilable with how we in America represent ourselves to ourselves and the world.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:35 PM on May 14, 2013


adamvasco: "Thanks for posting this zarq. I made an FPP 3 years back about Angola.

That's an excellent post and I'm eager to read the article(s). Thanks for pointing it out.

In it I noted that The 8th amendment in the US Constitution talks about Cruel and Unusual Punishments. The "essential predicate" is "that a punishment must not by its severity be degrading to human dignity''.

*nod* And yet the conditions in most prisons are degrading to human dignity. This is very clearly a place where our stated ideals do not in any way match up with reality. It's appalling. And very few people seem to give a damn. They'd rather that prisoners be out of sight, out of mind. Certainly most politicians don't seem to care. Appearing "weak on crime" would be the kiss of death for their careers. We need prison reform. Where will it come from?

A couple of years ago, I posted this story, about a man who was wrongly imprisoned for nearly 29 years, and was only released after the Columbus Dispatch (a newspaper) launched a comprehensive exposé into the Ohio justice system's flawed and negiligent process for dealing with DNA in criminal cases. It was done in conjunction with the Ohio Innocence Project. You could just weep over what he went through. Wrongly imprisoned for raping a young girl and assaulting a boy. He didn't commit the crime. But despite what he was put through, he kept his dignity. In a system designed to beat it out of him.
posted by zarq at 1:44 PM on May 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


Slavery never really ended in some places
posted by The Whelk


cool fact: theres an exemption for prisoners in the 13th amendment
posted by p3on at 2:09 PM on May 14, 2013


Do any of the articles talk about when the prison system got this bad? I mean, there have always been songs about the roughness of being on the work gangs and not seeing sunlight etc etc.

But when did we get to this point where so many Americans, across the political spectrum, celebrate the fucked up conditions inside of prison, and it became a point of pride for the non-incarcerated that our jails are so barbaric and exploitative?

Part of me wants to say it began with the push for privatization under St Reagan the Blessed, but I seem to recall movies and writings from at least the early 70s that were starting to advocate the "fuck yeah, lock 'em up, brutalize 'em and throw away the key" approach.
posted by lord_wolf at 2:25 PM on May 14, 2013


Our society really is despicable...the only way you can accurately judge us is by how well we treat the people remanded to our care: prisoners, pensioners, children, the sick, the mentally ill, the poor. If you're not a rich white man, well, sucks to be you. Our prisons and the system we have to funnel people from poverty to incarceration is something we would use to justify sending troops to another country.
posted by maxwelton at 2:48 PM on May 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Man, I read a little more about Polunsky and checked out this photo essay at Minutes Before Six.

This creepy 'motivational' poster just left me dumbstruck.

It's telling that somebody felt the need to paint a big sign threatening guards who are not unquestioningly loyal and who "eternally find fault" with an institution that executes people.
posted by whitecedar at 2:55 PM on May 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


I was a correctional officer in an Indiana prison for a few months in the late 90s. It was an open dorm prison where the COs, people who got too many DUIs and murderers were all mixed together. There was nothing pleasant about working there. I almost got my head ripped off by an "offender" in the psychiatric ward one night. That was my last night of work there. I quit the next day.

There were a few people there who truly needed to be separated from society along with a whole lot of people who didn't. For the ones who didn't, it was a criminal training ground. Since their lives were already ruined by having to bear the scarlet letter of "convicted felon" for the rest of their lives, why not become a full-blown criminal?

I saw things there that I can never unsee. I took part in something that I knew was evil and wrong. If I were ever sentenced to prison, I would kill myself by whatever means nessecary without a second of hesitation.
posted by double block and bleed at 3:10 PM on May 14, 2013 [7 favorites]


George_Spiggott: "The crucial distinction is that jails are for arrestees and prisons are for convicts. So in other words, these are full of people who are still presumed innocent. "

That definition (the one in the linked article) may perhaps be true in Tennessee, but in California, at least, that's not the case. Jails are run by the counties, and prisons are run by the state and the feds. Plus, with criminal justice realignment in play here in California, many more people are serving out their sentence in county jails. Pre realignment, the distinction, in addition to which government entity ran them, was that people serving sentences of less than a year did them in jail (along with pre-trial detainees) while those serving longer sentences (and state parole violators) went to state prison. Realignment has indeed shifted a bunch of traditional distinctions around, including parole vs probation.
posted by gingerbeer at 3:10 PM on May 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


gingerbeer, understood that the situation is more complex than can be summed up in a single, terse sentence; most things are. But unless you're suggesting that jails generally, and these jails particularly, contain only convicts, the point still stands.
posted by George_Spiggott at 3:30 PM on May 14, 2013


About 60% of the people in county jails are pre-trial detainees. Many, sure, but there are a lot of people in jail who have been convicted and are serving their sentence. That is increasingly true in California as more people are serving their sentences locally under realignment.

I am not trying to suggest that most people in jail in the U.S. have already been convicted of a crime, but folks in this thread were trying to make a distinction between jails and prisons that is not the actual distinction in the real world.

We have even more pre-trial detainees in our immigration detention facilities, which is a whole other set of disturbing facts and realities.

JPI has a great report on the problems with our bail and pre-trial systems for those who want more info on it. (pdf)
posted by gingerbeer at 4:03 PM on May 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


double block and bleed:

> I saw things there that I can never unsee. I took part in something that I knew was evil and wrong. If I were ever sentenced to prison, I would kill myself by whatever means nessecary without a second of hesitation.

Gosh, you were only there for a couple of months and you left. I hope it doesn't bother your conscience, because it shouldn't - you basically did the correct thing under difficult moral circumstances.

Have a hug from me!
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 4:52 PM on May 14, 2013


Barnacles, thanks for the hint about making a donation:

Nostrada, your donation is now complete
posted by nostrada at 5:20 PM on May 14, 2013


There were a few people there who truly needed to be separated from society along with a whole lot of people who didn't.

That is my impression too. I have spent at least a couple of hours every week in a maximum security state prison doing literacy work for a couple of years now. I have also taught formally out there. There are a whole lot of people capable of rehabilitation in prison. If they don't have that attitude going in they develop the desire to rehabilitate inside. There's just no money or political will to do anything to help guys get on their feet in terms of education or jobs training or most crucially, reentry. Sentences are so insanely long compared to the rest of the world that reentry work is that much more important. Guys lose touch with their families and how things work especially considering how rapidly technology changes these days.

At my prison the men serve terms generally over ten years to life. Many of them have a sincere desire to turn their lives around. Some of the lifers mentor younger men who will eventually get out, and others take care of the sick and dying inmates. The real learning happens between inmates, not between do-gooders like myself and inmates, although we are important for giving men and women hope and a connection to the rest of the world.

This prison is on the good end of the scale. The guards are in control. (Until the 1990s inmates ran the show. The introduction of tv sets with cable to each cell pacified the inmates and allowed the guards to take over again.) There is no systemic violence like in those reports. Too many outsiders come in and out of this prison for violence to pass unnoticed. And if there were injustices the inmates would say. They complain continually (as would anyone) but their complaints are about routine and petty humiliations, not gross human rights violations.

The guys tell me they are glad that the prison is not segregated. Some of them have family or friends serving time in California and know how bad it is out there. One guy told me that our state is even better than Virginia. For some reason he was sent there for a few months. Upon arrival a guard informed him that the three things they didn't like in Virginia were "[slur for black people], Muslims, and Mexicans." Since this guy was two of the three he knew he was in for a rough stay. He told me this story while he was passing the time sitting at a post with a (white) guard. It is an odd way this inmate passes the time. The other inmates agree. He's a strange, but friendly, guy.

So my impression is that conditions vary a lot by state and that states that allow private contractors have much worse conditions. Make no mistake the work conditions described in these violent prisons are terrible for the guards. The problem is that Corrections thinks of security in terms of force. Rehabilitation actually improves security, but voters precieve education and job training as coddling, so it's a hard sale to voters as well as hard-nosed corrections officials.
posted by vincele at 5:28 PM on May 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


In the last few years there have been a number of stopries in the US press about UK citizen's who the US Government has requested be handed over to face charges. ...I often wonder whether any of the defendants make cases against extradition based on the squalid and violent conditions in US jails we hear about all too often in the blue and elsewhere. Anyone know whether this would this be a possible defence in those conditions?

Here's another example. I'm sure I've heard of a few more, but I can't find them at the moment. I don't think the fact that the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world is one that has been missed by the rest of the world. I mean, look at all our prison and cop shows. The prison system is practically its own little entertainment genre.

There's just no money or political will to do anything to help guys get on their feet in terms of education or jobs training or most crucially, reentry. Sentences are so insanely long compared to the rest of the world that reentry work is that much more important.


This is so important to stress. Our prison system is fucked up in so many ways but the sad fact is that it doesn't end there. People who are released often have the best of intentions and might even have a shred of a chance if they were provided any support from society. But they aren't. They can't find a job, they can't find a place to live....what else can they do but go back to the people and life they know - the only ones who will accept them? Is it any wonder that people reoffend and that prison becomes a revolving door? Rehabilitation in prison doesn't mean much if the support structure doesn't continue when people are released and if we in society continue to treat them like criminals. There are a lot of problems in the system for sure, but nothing will ever change until we change the way we think about what is right and wrong (pot smoking? really?) and what retribution, rehabilitation and forgiveness means in a civilized society.
posted by triggerfinger at 7:48 PM on May 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


Oh, and I just read that article about Tent City and all I have to say is....fuck Sheriff Joe and his making prisoners dress in pink because that seems "gay" and that's something that should be shameful and embarrassing. FUCK that guy so much.
posted by triggerfinger at 7:53 PM on May 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


I knew several COs who made most of their money smuggling in drugs, cigarettes and other sundries. It was an open secret. The inmates would pay about $50 a pack for Marlboro reds. They would cut them into quarters and resell them. Drugs sold for many times their street prices.

I took the job out of desperation. My wife was pregnant with our second child when I was suddenly laid off from my previous job. I needed a job that had health insurance from day one, which was exceedingly rare in that area. I tried to be fair with the inmates without letting them manipulate me. I was never hung up on being an alpha dick. I never actively beat the crap out of anyone or pushed a handcuffed inmate down a flight of stairs. But I did walk away from some bad situations and kept my mouth shut.

Because my wife was pregnant and we needed health insurance. Not a good excuse, but others have sold their souls for less.
posted by double block and bleed at 8:40 PM on May 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


Stop Prisoner Rape
posted by jcruelty at 12:19 AM on May 15, 2013


I took the job out of desperation. My wife was pregnant with our second child when I was suddenly laid off from my previous job. I needed a job that had health insurance from day one, which was exceedingly rare in that area. I tried to be fair with the inmates without letting them manipulate me. I was never hung up on being an alpha dick. I never actively beat the crap out of anyone or pushed a handcuffed inmate down a flight of stairs. But I did walk away from some bad situations and kept my mouth shut.

Might it be worth talking to prosecutors about the COs who did do that type of thing?
posted by jaduncan at 2:21 AM on May 15, 2013


Such prisons are, in the original sense of the word, disgraceful; they offend moral sensibilities and bring shame on those who permit the institutions to exist. No nation, no society, which does this to people can call itself civilized.
posted by epo at 5:37 AM on May 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Do any of the articles talk about when the prison system got this bad? I mean, there have always been songs about the roughness of being on the work gangs and not seeing sunlight etc etc.

But when did we get to this point where so many Americans, across the political spectrum, celebrate the fucked up conditions inside of prison, and it became a point of pride for the non-incarcerated that our jails are so barbaric and exploitative?

Part of me wants to say it began with the push for privatization under St Reagan the Blessed, but I seem to recall movies and writings from at least the early 70s that were starting to advocate the "fuck yeah, lock 'em up, brutalize 'em and throw away the key" approach.
,

lord_wolf, I've come across (but not read yet) this article by Eric Schlosser (author of Fast Food Nation). I think it's the article that coined the term "Prison Industrial Complex" and it probably goes into (at least some of) what you're talking about in more detail. It's long but looks well worth the read.
posted by triggerfinger at 7:25 AM on May 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Is anyone aware of any privately run prisons (that aren't of the pay to go to a luxury prison variety) that are better than state/federal run prisons? It just seems like private prisons are such an obviously bad idea that it would be heartening to have some good examples to reference.
posted by Mitheral at 7:34 AM on May 15, 2013


All of this happened over 15 years ago at a place where I only worked for three months. I can't even remember names, much less who did what with who on which days. Even if I did, where is my proof? What would be the repercussions for my family if I interfere at this point with the inner workings of powerful gangs?

Sometimes it's best to let sleeping dogs lie, even if it isn't right.
posted by double block and bleed at 7:43 AM on May 15, 2013


Oh, I didn't realise it was so long ago. You're right, the costs almost certainly do not exceed the negligible benefits.
posted by jaduncan at 8:45 AM on May 15, 2013


Some folks think we should just scrap the prison system entirely.
posted by j03 at 9:01 AM on May 15, 2013


an excellent argument for a non-elected prosecutorial body and prison service

I am really interested to know if there is any discussion or examination in the US about the efficacy of the election of law enforcement and prosecutorial positions.
posted by Kerasia at 4:29 PM on May 19, 2013


Prison and the Poverty Trap
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:56 PM on May 29, 2013


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