Thursday, June 21, 2012

Caged up like animals

Never underestimate the ability of a politician to take an idea and run it so far into the ground that the end result isn't even recognizable. Take the slavish fascination state legislators around the country had with the notion of being tough on crime.

Mandatory minimums. Three strikes and you're out. The war on drugs. And supermax prisons.

You see, believe it or not, some folks behind bars aren't the most well-behaved people on the planet. Just to prove it was no fluke that they got locked up they go and terrorize those around them. Why not? Some of them are in for life - what more could the state possibly do to them.

But the state legislators had an idea. Let's build some prisons just for the really bad guys. We'll lock 'em up in individual cells and keep them there 23 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year and how ever many years we can hold them.

Of course new prisons had to be built and, since they were only housing the baddest of the bad, they had to have the same staffing as the regular prisons - even though they could only hold a small fraction of the population. All those construction costs. All those maintenance costs. All that overhead. And all that staff.

Illinois is about to close its supermax prison because the state can't afford to spend the $62,000 a year it costs to hold a prisoner (almost three times the amount it costs to house Joe Inmate). Just think how many school teachers the state could hire with that money. Just think of the improvements that the state could make to schools and other public facilities with that money.

But there's more to the problem of solitary confinement than the cost of running supermax prisons. There is also the psychological toll complete isolation takes on an individual. We are social beings. We crave to be in the company of others. Just imagine living in your bathroom and only being allowed to leave for one hour a day. How many minutes could you stand before you'd start beating your head against the wall?

Now imagine the effect years of isolation could have on an individual being released back into society. Now let's be honest about this aspect of the problem - most of the individuals in supermax prisons are already serving life sentences and stand very little chance of ever experiencing life on the other side of the walls again. But does that make the punishment any less inhumane?

The Eighth Amendment forbids cruel and unusual punishment. How can complete isolation be considered anything but cruel or unusual? Is there a time and a place for isolating inmates? Yes, of course there is. But, should it be the norm or should that be the outlier?

Prisoners, even the most violent and depraved, are still people. They have families. They have needs and wants. Our prison system does us all a grave disservice when it treats inmates like animals.

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