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Prisoners Are Brutalized In Many Ways. Don’t Leave Them Behind

Black Lives Matters activists and criminal justice reform advocates hold a protest rally calling for the abolishment of all jails and prisons outside the Tombs, the Manhattan jail renamed the Manhattan Detention Complex, on June 20, 2020 in New York City. (Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)
Black Lives Matters activists and criminal justice reform advocates hold a protest rally calling for the abolishment of all jails and prisons outside the Tombs, the Manhattan jail renamed the Manhattan Detention Complex, on June 20, 2020 in New York City. (Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

The mass protests in response to George Floyd’s killing by the police are advancing an understanding that Black and brown communities need community-directed resources — not a cop on every corner.

Less visible, however, is how this problem is replicated in our prisons. Prisons, like our cities, invest more in controlling the people they house than in their prosperity. The U.S. incarcerates nearly 1% of all its adults, the highest rate in the world. Low-income urban neighborhoods disproportionately lose loved ones to prison, receive them back from prison and support them while they are in prison. The revolution in values demanded by the protests cannot stop at the prison door.

Between 2011 and 2018, the population of people held in Massachusetts’ prisons and jails declined by 21% or 5,000 people. Yet, during that same period, the annual budget for prisons and jails grew by 25%. But this surplus was not channeled into education and program services, which made up just 3.1% of spending for sheriffs’ departments and 4% of the Department of Correction’s expenditures in FY2017. As of 2020, the prison population is about half of what it was in 2011 and yet the DOC still spends a paltry percentage of the budget on education and programs.

Many people end up in prison because they cannot access treatment for mental illness or substance use disorder. As a result, both conditions are epidemic in prisons. Prison mental health care (like medical care) is outsourced to private contractors with an eye on the bottom line. Even in the best of times, before COVID-19, the most seriously ill were lucky to see a mental health clinician once a month, and those with addiction must often wait until they are close to release to access a treatment program. Since the DOC’s COVID-19 lockdown began, all regular mental health visits have been canceled, even as disciplinary hearings continue apace.

Prison distills all of our systemic injustices. People come there disproportionately from communities that are policed rather than resourced. The incarcerated are housed in dismal cinder-block cells, deprived of adequate care, decent food and education, and paid pennies per hour, if they are lucky to even have a job.

Prisons, like our cities, invest more in controlling the people they house than in their prosperity.

Those prisoners deemed most dangerous, instead of being offered more treatment and support, are placed into maximum security, where they are deprived of nearly everything and given even less access to rehabilitative programs. The absurd logic is that this deprivation will teach them to follow the rules. It doesn’t. When they get into trouble, we send them to solitary confinement, which takes an unfathomable psychological toll.  In addition to being unbearably cruel, solitary is also correctional staff-intensive and two to three times more expensive than regular housing.

The racism behind this system filters through on each level. Massachusetts is about 21% African-American and Latinx, but those populations are way over-represented in our correctional system: 55% of people in our state prison system, and 67% of people in long-term solitary confinement. This punitive approach sets people up for failure on release. State data shows high rates of recidivism: Of those released in 2014, nearly a third, or 32%, were re-incarcerated within three years.

We have invested so little in the well-being of imprisoned people that prisons are dangerous for the incarcerated and those who guard them. But there is no symmetry in this danger. Just like police, prison guards have tremendous power on their side, while those they control, have little recourse when they suffer harassment or brutality.

A prisoner’s’ word, whether victim or witness, is highly unlikely to outweigh a correctional officer’s. And on the rare occasion when guards are fired, an arbitration system stacked in their favor, and backed by the well-connected Massachusetts Correctional Officers Union (MCOFU), stands ready to help. Legislation to limit the use of force by law enforcement officers, including prison guards, is a necessary and important step forward. But, just like police reform in the free world, it will not by itself address the sickness of prison culture.

Our society is beginning to recognize that we must reduce the footprint of policing in our communities and invest in systems of care to address harm and violence. And as we do this, we must examine how prisons perpetuate the same harm.

Just like police, prison guards have tremendous power on their side, while those they control, have little recourse when they suffer harassment or brutality.

Our prisons cannot continue to rely on deprivation, control and institutional violence to maintain order. The failure to provide adequate treatment, programs and education is not justifiable, given the growth in prison spending in recent years as populations have declined — and given the high societal costs of recidivism.

We must re-align priorities in correctional budgets, and we must move forward with decarceration. We ought to end cash bail to reduce jail populations. We should end the costly torment of solitary confinement, which does nothing to make prisons safer. And we must reduce overly long sentences. Consider that people sentenced for first-degree murder at 18 will never have a chance to persuade the parole board they deserve a second chance, no matter how old they grow in prison. These “life without parole” sentences must end.

We spend over $70,000 per year on each state prisoner, but our current system generates trauma and recidivism. Consider how much education, job training and medical and mental health care that money could buy.

Now, that’s a crime.

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Bonita Tenneriello Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Bonita Tenneriello is a staff attorney with Prisoners Legal Services of Massachusetts. She has litigated numerous cases on solitary confinement practices.

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