Crossposted from my personal blog, which gets less traffic than Bhutan.
Recently, a member of my family passed away, a maternal aunt and godmother. The four of us, my parents, sister, and I, attended the funeral in eastern Alabama, followed by a reception of sorts at a nearby house for relatives to gather and reminisce. As is the norm, politics were not discussed, this being a deeply conservative region and our small contingent being most definitely not. However, when the talk veered into an old story about jury duty (one of my aunts had served on a prison sexual assault case), one of my relatives did not see prison rape as a crime. She said it "was a deterrent" and part of the prison punishment system.
Needless to say, I was (though not openly) shocked and appalled. But this is not an uncommon perspective, and it is not just held in the Cotton Belt. It seems that many people want prisons to be as tough as they currently are, if not tougher- longer sentences, fewer freedoms. This is despite the fact that the United States is a country that has well over two million of its citizens in jail or prison, and over seven million in some part of the system- parole or probation. According to recent figures, "at least 216,600 inmates were victimized in 2008 alone. Contrary to popular belief, most of the perpetrators were not other prisoners but staff members-corrections officials whose job it is to keep inmates safe." The above quote is from a Reason.com article that labeled prisons "rape factories."
It seems that years of politicians running as "tough on crime" has made the non-incarcerated population very unwilling to pause and think for a moment about the conditions of these places and the rights of those who occupy them. Forty years ago, long before my time, there was a prison uprising in New York state, at Attica, against this kind of callousness. For four days they held the prison, until Gov. Nelson Rockefeller sent state troops in, who ended up killing 42 prisoners and hostages. Ultimately a peaceful solution was being worked out between observers and the prisoners- until it was interrupted by the firefight, and this reaction showed that when it comes to prisoners, the only tool in the bag is more force. For "Attica reminds us that prisoners are in fact human beings who will struggle mightily when they are too long oppressed. It shows as well that we all suffer when the state overreacts to cries for reform," rang one of the bitterly-tinted retrospectives on the anniversary.
Ultimately, there will be no rehabilitation if guards assault and rape those they are supposed to protect. There will only be broken and dispirited men and women. Without education and training there will be no model citizens exiting, only someone fighting tall odds in a country with a startling recidivism rate (pg. 10-11; 14) [PDF] that is over 40%, and in my home state of California over close to 60%. Without just sentencing there will continue to be a system that discriminates against individuals based on the color of their skin, not the severity of their crime.
Prison isn't supposed to be pretty, but it's also not supposed to be a place where rape is part of the experience. It shouldn't release people then have them return- it's not a restaurant or a furniture store. It's designed to be a one-time place for penance and rehabilitation, if prison can even do such a thing.
Reform of America's prisons has a long way to go- from sentencing to capital punishment, from reigning in overzealous prosecutors to improving healthcare and education. But it starts with realizing that the prisons envisioned by my Alabama relative is not just, nor is it helpful.
Until next time,