Ronald Day, Associate Vice President of DRCPP at The Fortune Society

You Can Judge A Society By How Well It Treats People In Its Prisons

Monday, March 9, 2015

Frederick Douglass — the social reformer, orator, and former slave — once said, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

In no place is this truer today than in our jails and prisons. We have given birth to a system where jail/prison guards have absolute power, power to abuse jail/prison residents with almost complete impunity.

In the past few weeks, the New York Times reported on patterns of abuse that take place on Rikers Island and in Attica, a New York state prison. The Department of Justice issued a scathing report on the “deep-seated culture of violence” against adolescents on Rikers. And U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara stated unequivocally that, “for adolescent inmates, Rikers Island is broken.”

I commend the New York Times and the DOJ for their reporting. However, they didn’t discover nor uncover brutality of which we weren’t aware. Indeed abuse in these institutions has been rampant for eons. It just hasn’t been important enough to become front-page news.

I was there. I spent 15 years inside, more than 11 of them in maximum-security prisons. I recall seeing incidents of violence exacted against individuals by guards, and I heard about it from victims, witnesses, and through the grapevine, which included officers and civilians. I recall a time when I was on Rikers in the “bing” (solitary confinement). The guy in the cell next to me had an argument with an officer. They slung verbal insults at one another before the officer capitulated and walked off. In the wee hours of the morning, I was awakened by the screams of my neighbor as guards were beating him –almost certainly for the earlier verbal exchange. The next day it was business as usual. My neighbor didn’t even go to the infirmary, although he confessed to having been beaten pretty severely.

When I was transferred upstate, the saga of violence continued. It was not uncommon for an individual to be handcuffed and kicked down a flight of stairs, have his head rammed into a wall, or to be beaten with batons until bones were broken. I recall being in a prison near Syracuse where the winters are brutally cold. On multiple occasions, a few guards would open the windows and leave them open for hours because someone had not complied with an order, a radio was blasting, guys were talking too loud, or someone had cursed at an officer. In a prison near the Canadian border, in a unit where people were housed in transit, guards would not only open the windows, they would sometimes secure a hose and spray individuals with cold water.

The violence wasn’t always physical. I happened to be in the prison yard when fights erupted. Several times the officer in the tower responded by ordering everyone to the ground. When people didn’t hastily hit the deck, the guard would fire shots into the ground near the incident or over the heads of the guys fighting even though there might be dozens of people in the vicinity.

I remember also seeing a guy, who clearly suffered from mental illness, strike a female guard in the face. He was swiftly subdued and transferred to the box. My immediate thought was that he would be beaten to a bloody pulp. Indeed, the spiel ordinarily given to people being processed in reception is that, if you put your hands on a guard, you would be made to pay for it dearly.

If we know that this abuse occurs, why do we tolerate it? Much of it has to do with the perception of the people in these facilities. They are “criminals,” “cons,” and “prisoners.”  Just like the U.S. did with Blacks during slavery, these individuals have been dehumanized. And they have limited power or recourse to change the behavior of their handlers.

A huge part of the problem is that the system perpetuates itself. There is little scrutiny of what transpires inside prison. When abuse happens, what is an incarcerated person to do? Grievance programs are incapable of addressing these issues; supervisors often don’t care or will not reprimand their officers for fear they will be perceived as coddling to “inmates,” and other staff simply turn a blind eye because it’s clearly not in their interest to report abuse. Although these callous acts of violence are usually carried out by a select few, even those who don’t condone the violence are powerless to stop it. Moreover, despite evidence of unprovoked patterns of abuse and systemic violence perpetrated against people in prison, the unions that represent guards always insist that inmates are violent and that guards employ only the amount of force that is necessary to quell a situation.

There is talk about addressing the violence by installing cameras. Cameras can make a difference, but they are no panacea. Cameras can be turned off or manipulated. If guards want to beat a person, they can simply take him to a place where there are no cameras. Technology can improve the human condition, videos can shock the conscience, but the violence will persist until the culture changes. Simply put, it has become acceptable to beat or brutalize people in jails and prisons in the name of maintaining order. The proof is in the pudding — guards are rarely ever disciplined for acts of violence, it is very rare that they are fired, and they are almost never prosecuted for these actions.

And if a case is prosecuted, the outcome confirms the contradictions in our society. The most recent example is the Attica case. Notwithstanding the evidence of guilt against the three officers, they were allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor, retire, and keep their pensions. They had raised thousands of dollars and hired high-powered defense attorneys. The savage beating was deemed appropriate, a fair response for someone working with “the lowest of the low.”

Over the past few decades, Americans have mounted campaigns against violence. As a society, we want people to go about their daily lives without fear of being assaulted or abused. We train parents not to abuse their children. People are urged not to mistreat their pets. A rich and hugely popular football star was sent to prison for dog fighting; he was put to shame for his crime. We care about children, we adore our pets, but we care very little about “criminals,” even if they haven’t been convicted of a crime.

It is a crime to physically assault someone, especially to the point of breaking bones, knocking out teeth, and causing permanent physical and/or psychological damage, unless the perpetrator does so wearing the uniform of an officer. Unless there is a culture change and laws start to apply to guards as much as they do to the people for whom they are there to provide care, custody and control, then nothing will change. There needs to be real accountability and oversight.

When violence is pervasive, it acts like a disease. Like any disease, you can treat the symptoms, but the infection will continue to fester. A nip here, a tuck there will not do it. Removal of a few cancer cells will not eradicate the disease. As with any epidemic, you must treat the underlying cause of the disease.

This raises a fundamental question about the system — can it be reformed? Then again, how much reform is needed for us to have jails/prisons where people are treated humanely as a matter of law? I have never considered myself a prison abolitionist, but there is a compelling argument to abolish prisons as they currently exist. There are prisons in other countries where the incarcerated population retains its dignity and humanity. Some people need to be imprisoned, but the law should protect them too.

As Fyodor Dostoyevsky – the Russian novelist and philosopher — once said, “You can judge a society by how well it treats its prisoners.”

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