Posts Tagged ‘Cruel and Unusual Punishment’

Capt. Shawn Welch sprays OC spray into the face of Paul Schlosser who is bound in a restraint chair after the inmate, who has an infectious disease, spit at an officer.  June 10, 2012.

This disturbing photo is from an excellent article on Solitary Watch about the inhumane and brutal treatment of mentally ill people in US prisons. In my ten years teaching minors locked up in a New York adult county prison, I witnessed inmates who were  clearly disturbed and dealing with mental health issues being pepper sprayed and tased by emergency response teams (ERTs) dressed in intimidating riot gear as a way to “calm them down.”

Our prisons are overcrowded with mentally ill people who get little to no treatment, handled by people not trained in these issues, all because Americans refuse to confront the needs of the poor and disenfranchised and to provide the funds necessary for proper community mental health services. Instead we, through our lawmakers, spend billions of dollars on war in its many forms.

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You hear a lot about how the Prison Rape Elimination standards issued by the Federal government are protecting young people in detention of any kind from sexual violence. The numbers still tell a different story.

This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post blog.

A prison can’t function without its pecking order. Call it what you will, chain of command, hierarchy, rank, it all comes down to power. Who’s got it, who doesn’t. Who’s on top, who’s on bottom. It’s an all-inclusive, endemic culture: wardens, top assistant wardens, captains, sergeants, and rank and file officers. Frontline correctional officers top inmates, and inmates top whomever they can.

Support staff is notched in there somewhere, just one step above inmates. These “civilians”—medical workers, teachers, social workers, chaplains—are viewed by corrections with almost as much suspicion and contempt as inmates. I know firsthand all about that suspicion and contempt from my years teaching high school offenders locked up in an adult county prison. You get the message pretty quickly when time after time you’re kept standing behind some prison gate or security door, waiting in plain view for an officer to buzz you through while he or she finishes joking with their buddy or finally looks up from their crossword puzzle.

Inmates’ lives are dominated by this same top to bottom hierarchy. For them it’s a food chain that is more blatant, more calculating. The only way to survive is to have your heel, in one way or another, on other inmates’ necks. The young men I worked with had an apt image for making it out alive: “We’re all crabs in a pail scrambling to get out, pulling down the guys in front of you, stepping on them, shoving them down to the bottom so you can make it out.” Extortion, physical strength, ruthlessness, a coldhearted distrust of everyone are the “tools” of survival. Without them an inmate’s well-being and safety are in jeopardy.

You might expect that locked up young kids are on the lowest rung of that ladder both on the block and in the general prison population. Certainly their age, undeveloped thinking and decision-making processes, their inability to physically fend for themselves (despite their bluster and bravado) make them more vulnerable to intimidation, abuse, threats, bullying, and physical force.But it goes lower: incarcerated women—what I call the invisible prison population. Despite the fact that more women are being locked up—an 800 percent increase in the last 10 years—you seldom hear what prison life is really like for them (forget the make-believe you see on “Orange is the New Black”).

The prison I worked in is one small example of how women are unfairly treated in lockup. Aside from the brutal fact of female inmates’ increased vulnerability to sexual assault by staff, the women’s unit in this particular prison was more overcrowded than the men’s, and women had limited or no access to any kind of recreational facilities, while their male counterparts had both gym and yard privileges on a daily basis.

Added to the usual indignities experienced by all women imprisoned in the U.S., the female inmates in the county prison where I taught had to endure the callous authority of a male warden. Among the many arbitrary restrictions he imposed (for example at holiday time teachers on the men’s units were allowed to bring in donuts and hot chocolate while permission was denied for the women’s block), he instigated several “cost saving measures:” rationing of toilet paper, and most egregious and insulting, limiting the feminine hygiene products each woman could receive. This has got to be the bottom of the prison hierarchy for locked up women. How could it not be? To have a man dictate how many tampons you’re allowed to use regardless of your body’s needs.

But it’s not. Some women sink even lower in the prison pecking order. As limited as the public’s awareness of female incarceration is, an even more neglected population are those women in solitary confinement. There has been a lot of attention lately to the U.S.’s overuse of solitary confinement. The United Nations Committee on Torture strongly criticized our use of this form of cruel and unusual punishment, making it clear that it was a form of torture—criticism that the U.S. diplomatic delegation sloughed off with America’s usual disdain whenever confronted with its own human rights violations. But even in the media’s coverage of the hearings and its own investigation of solitary confinement abuses one often heard about the sufferings of male inmates but nothing about those women in isolation.

In 2014, the Federal Bureau of Prisons had agreed under some pressure to conduct an “internal audit” on the uses of solitary confinement. Initially no women’s prisons were included on the list of sites to be examined. Under pressure from human rights groups some women’s units were added. However no one was able—or willing—to say exactly which ones. Once again locked up women, this time women held in solitary, didn’t even exist. Solitary Watch, the website which is a fierce advocate for all people held in “special housing units,” called these women “buried.” Another word comes to my mind, one borrowed from repressive Latin American regimes: “disappeared.”

 

We often hear about someone getting “life without parole” for some particularly heinous crime. It is a harsh sentence, one that precludes a person’s ability to change, to make amends, and then move on. But one may say, “a harsh punishment for a harsh act.”

But what about people who are serving live without parole for minor offenses such as stealing garden tools or taking a wallet? The ACLU has posted a powerful graphic entitled “A Living Death: Sentenced to Die Behind Bars for What?” that shows the extent of this sentencing injustice. As the New York Times noted, “If this were happening in any other country, Americans would be aghast…” but this is happening here in our courtrooms and in our prisons. This is just another example of a criminal justice system that is broken, favoring privileged white people.

I’ve written a lot about solitary confinement and the terrible damage it does to anyone–but especially young people who are still physically, intellectually, psychologically unformed, vulnerable–children. I’ve seen kids in solitary lock-up; in a very small way I’ve experienced the sensory deprivation that they experience 24 hours a day, and witnessed what that deprivation does to them. There have been calls, pleas from all kinds of organizations both nationally and internationally, for the US to end the practice of putting kids in isolation. To no avail. Why? I can’t help asking. Why?

Solitary Watch is our watchdog site that won’t let us forget what goes on in these rooms of isolation. They recently had a graphic that brought back to me the times I’ve been able to visit young people in solitary. I share that graphic.

This is what we are talking about when we talk about “solitary confinement.” Imagine yourself in that room, 24 hours a day, month after month. Now, imagine you are 16 years old.

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More and more people are talking about the inhumanity of locking young kids up in solitary confinement. It’s a topic that I’ve written about before and will continue to write about because I’ve seen firsthand the abusiveness of this “practice” especially on  mentally disturbed kids.

International groups have criticized the United States for using solitary confinement on the young, calling for this practice to be stopped completely.  Yet the governmental response to the issue has been tepid at best. Its guidelines call for this practice to be used  “cautiously.” Tell that to a fifteen-year-old  who is finishing up his 200th day in total isolation.

John Sutter, a human rights and social change writer for CNN, did a probing story about young offenders and solitary that is worth reading. A strong voice in a debate that shouldn’t even be a debate.

Alternet had a very moving piece on the abuse of solitary confinement in US jails entitled “Why is the US the World Leader in the Utterly Inhumane Practice of Solitary Confinement.”  The video is worth watching and says so much about what is wrong with our criminal justice/prison system.