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Mar 07 2014

Its high price in terms of the misery and suffering it inflicts

More from that HRW statement to the Senate committee in 2012.

The proliferation of super-maximum security prisons is a symptom of profound problems in the nation’s prison systems. Beginning in the 1980s, exploding prison populations caused by increasingly lengthy sentences and diminished opportunities for early release, constrained budgets, inappropriately low staff-to-inmate ratios, and punitive correctional philosophies limited the ability of officials to operate safe and humane facilities. Many turned to prolonged solitary confinement in an effort to increase their control over prisoners. A significant impetus for super-maximum security facilities also came from politicians, who found that advocating harsh policies for criminal offenders was politically popular. Reluctant to be accused of “coddling inmates” or being “soft on crime,” few politicians have been willing to publicly challenge the expanded use of solitary confinement on human rights grounds.

Ok let’s take it back a step – why is that? If that’s the case here why isn’t it the case in Canada and Sweden and Japan and New Zealand? Why is advocating harsh policies for criminal offenders so politically popular here that politicians can’t resist doing it? And/or why are politicians here so unprincipled and self-centered that they can’t resist doing the popular but evil thing?

I don’t know what the answer is. Maybe it’s partly because US politicians rely so heavily on tv advertising and because the money for doing that is almost entirely unregulated. (Hello Citizens United, may you rot in hell.) Maybe it has to do with religiosity. Maybe it’s something in the water. I do not know.

There has been scant public debate until recently about the justification for prolonged solitary confinement, its high price in terms of the misery and suffering it inflicts, and the likelihood that it reduces an inmate’s ability to make a successful transition to society upon release. Judicial scrutiny has been limited by both the courts’ tradition of deference to the judgments of prison officials and by jurisprudence that sets an extraordinarily high threshold for finding prison conditions to be unconstitutionally cruel.

This Committee’s hearing marks the end of an era of uncritical acceptance of or indifference to the use of solitary confinement in US prisons. It is particularly welcome because of the Committee’s recognition that solitary confinement raises serious human rights concerns.

Right…I take it nothing much came of that.

 

16 comments

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  1. 1
    Gregory in Seattle

    Speaking of which: FBI investigates prison company.

    An Idaho prison run by the Corrections Corporation of America, based in Nashville, is being investigated for gross violations of staffing position and conditions. The prison had become so violent that inmates had dubbed it “Gladiator School.” Allegations have apparently been circulating for years, which the state police, department of Correction and governor have never gotten around to actually investigating. The allegations have become so loud that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has stepped in.

    With luck, this will be only the first of a very long line of investigations into the abuses of for-profit prisons.

  2. 2
    Gordon Willis

    the courts’ tradition of deference to the judgments of prison officials

    Is this actually true? And why? Surely, prison officials are functionaries. Why should any deference be paid to them? Experience may be something useful to draw upon, of course, but given ordinary corruptibility honest testimony cannot be taken for granted. Otherwise, why bother with law-courts at all?

  3. 3
    Gordon Willis

    Judicial scrutiny has been limited by both the courts’ tradition of deference to the judgments of prison officials and by jurisprudence that sets an extraordinarily high threshold for finding prison conditions to be unconstitutionally cruel.

    Perhaps these two things go together. Surely not — but then, why not? There has been scant public debate:
    There has been scant public debate until recently about the justification for prolonged solitary confinement, its high price in terms of the misery and suffering it inflicts, and the likelihood that it reduces an inmate’s ability to make a successful transition to society upon release.

    The proliferation of super-maximum security prisons is a symptom of profound problems in the nation’s prison systems.

    And

    A significant impetus for super-maximum security facilities also came from politicians, who found that advocating harsh policies for criminal offenders was politically popular.

    Society? Conservatism? Tradition? What the American people want (if they bother to think about it)?

  4. 4
    Gordon Willis

    Sorry, I pressed “Submit comment” instead of “Preview”. Hope you can make it out.

  5. 5
    anne mariehovgaard

    Why is advocating harsh policies for criminal offenders so politically popular here that politicians can’t resist doing it?

    To me, looking at the US from way over here in Norway, the answer seems obvious: because your culture IS harsh, brutal, violent in every possible sense. Not just violent, but explicitly pro-violence. It’s not just the criminal “justice” system, but everything from the absurdly over-sized military budget to corporal punishment and the war on poor people.

  6. 6
    Ophelia Benson

    True enough.

    sigh

  7. 7
    cuervocuero

    Don’t worry Ms. O,

    Canada’s present ruling junta wants to be Republicans so much, they’re doing their best to make sure inmates are punishedpunishedpunished American style, even if it’s anti-Charter and motivating judges at all levels to subvert their bad laws and being given the scarlet ‘JA’ of judicial activist by the usual reichwing suspects North of the Medicine Line.

    That’s while said ‘government’ also appears to be rewriting election act laws to absolve deeds done by its ‘elected’ members, nevermind the experts, lawyers and populace opposition.

  8. 8
    H2S

    I thought it was pretty widely accepted that the US justice systems level of insanity was due to elected judges and DAs. They are appointed within their own power structures in every other western system I know about.

  9. 9
    Al Dente

    H2S @8

    Most state judges and district attorneys are nominated by the governor and approved by the state senate. All federal judges are nominated by the president and approved by the US senate. Only seven states (Alabama, Illinois, Louisiana, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas and West Virginia) have elected judges.

  10. 10
    Decker

    America has transformed incarceration into a mutli-billion dollar industry.

    Incarcerting people is very, very profitable, and so the longer a prison keeps someone behind bars, the more money the owners of that prison will make.

    A commenter above invokes America’s violence and brutality as a cause for this, but I disagree.

    This has little to do with violence and brutality and a lot to do with GREED.

  11. 11
    Gordon Willis

    Sorry, that just makes it violence and brutality AND greed.

    We’ve heard a Norwegian’s personal view. I too can only give my own, and to me America looks like a strange society that would like to be as right-wing as Iran and wants strong laws against all the horrid different people while deeply resenting any laws which affect themselves: they won’t have the evil government telling them what to do but they very much like to tell other people what to do and want no restriction on how far they can exploit them for profit. They want to be anarchists protected from the under-privileged by strong laws.

    Walmart, water-boarding and right-wing Christianity are among the things that epitomise the American Nightmare — for me, at any rate. And greed has a lot to do with it. If America wants a true land of the free, and not a “Land of the Free™”, it will have to learn to manage greed. People will do anything to avoid that.

  12. 12
    Dunc

    We experimented with solitary confinement here in the UK. In the 19th Century. It was supposed to be a revolution in rehabilitation. It was a disaster. Most civilised nations now regard it as a form of torture, and it’s one of many reasons why many nations are increasingly reluctant to extradite people to the USA, even in clear-cut cases.

  13. 13
    Gordon Willis

    The reason why we are a moral species is that we cannot survive alone. Evolution has made us that way. Morality isn’t only how we interact but the necessity of interaction. We have to be together, we are too weak to survive alone, we cannot work if not together. It’s hard even to think if we’re not in some way talking to someone. It’s our strength and our tragedy.

    Being together means agreeing, but as we are also individuals not everyone will agree. Religion declares that we must agree — not with each other but with an ideal which summarises our aspirations, like the three wishes of fable: in practice this means that religion is the essential right-wing statement that we exist in order to agree with its perpetrators and do what we are told.
    Enlightened (secular) society accepts that we cannot all always agree, and finds ways to ameliorate conflict. This is wickedness to the intolerant. But even the intolerant have to be tolerated: they just have to learn to tolerate. Terrible cruelty, I know, and no decent gun-owning American Christian would put up with it.

  14. 14
    rnilsson

    Perhaps the US has become so myopically focused on the Axis of Evil that it has been already subliminally assimilated?
    Prez Kim-the-nth next? Maybe an alliance with yicho-raz Putin? Precedents abound.

  15. 15
    medivh

    I can’t help but agree with anne mariehovgaard, at #5. Often, when age-rating entertainment, US authorities overlook violence as normal, maybe keep it away from the younger kids if it’s particularly strong. A single frame of nipple, though? A cuss word? The hint that violence leads to actual damage and bloodshed? All of these are restricted to 15 years plus. It’s the same here too, so I can’t say my own homeland is free from this ridiculousness.

    As far as I can see, the desire to incarcerate criminals for longer and longer times comes from a very us vs. them viewpoint. We are the good guys, who need protection from criminals. They are the criminals, and once a criminal always a criminal. Lock them up, throw away the key, they’re bad seeds and can’t possibly change. With an ideology like that, it’s impossible to run an actual corrective justice system, regardless of what the system is called. Jail is supposed to be, essentially, an adult version of time-out. Ideally, the time-out is used to re-evaluate one’s actions and improve. Ideally, there are counsellors to help effect change in behaviour. Ideally, one should be released as a changed person who won’t commit crimes any more. All of this is impossible under the us vs. them ideology that the US system is run under.

    TL;DR: The various US Departments of Correction should be renamed to Department of Retribution. It’s fairly clear that’s all they do, and identifying the problem makes it easier to… well, correct. This is true of other countries as well, my own included to my shame.

  16. 16
    Numenaster

    I agree with medivh. The system here in the U.S. is a “justice system” or a “corrections system” in name only. In actual practice it’s a punishment and warehousing system, except in Texas where it is also an abbatoir.

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