Tuesday, July 7, 2015
Opaque, Shrouded, Cruel and Dangerous
Two escapees from New York’s Clinton Correctional Facility have been found: one was killed and the other critically injured. Every newscast for the weeks they went missing tracked the effort to capture them. We even watched the governor tour the prison facility as he inspected the nooks and crannies of the escape route. Two corrections officers were arrested, and eleven others (including the superintendent) were placed on administrative leave. Lots of bright lights shone on the effort.
We’ve watched so much television inside prisons – think Locked-Up on MSNBC – that you’d think these institutions were wide open to public scrutiny and that journalists are free to examine the nooks and crannies of these total institutions where rapes, beatings, gang violence/control and retribution are just part of the folklore that “everybody knows.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. There is veil of secrecy, a litany of unwritten laws and policies, and host of restrictive administrative practices and regulations that make an open and transparent journalistic inquiry virtually impossible. Simply put, prisons only have to show you what they want you to see.
It all stems back to a 1974 United States Supreme Court decision – Pell vs. Procunier. “Four California prison inmates and three professional journalists brought this suit in the District Court challenging the constitutionality of a regulation, 415.071, of the California Department of Corrections Manual, which provides that ‘[p]ress and other media interviews with specific individual inmates will not be permitted.’" caselaw.findlaw.com. They lost, and ever since prisons can deny journalists access to specifically requested inmates, can limit and control inmate attempts to contact the press, and when access is permitted, they literally can relegate access to random inmates or those selected by the prison system. Telling too much, you see, imperils the safety of the institution itself and the correctional officers in it… or so the story goes.
When I was an undergrad, I visited to a state prison (Delaware) as part of a research paper I was writing on conditions within such correctional facilities. This visit was before Pell was decided, but I have three strong lingering memories of the place: first, it was the smell – bad food, sweat and urine – everywhere; second, it was the eyes of the inmates – somewhere between angry and dead; and third, it was this lingering mix of hopelessness, boredom but with a notion that someone was always watching.
When a human being becomes an inmate, all bets are off. Life and safety are instantly at risk with no guarantees of safety… and sometimes with the collusion of security officers… exposure to even greater risk as responsible eyes just look the other way. The level of danger is always there, but some institutions are known for the violence. Too many.
But as the press seeks to discover the truth behind these walls, the efforts are fraught with barriers, some based on the Pell decision. “Most Americans -- aside from the millions who are locked inside, work inside or regularly visit people inside -- couldn’t even tell you where the nearest prison is, let alone detail what happens there. And that's by design. Reporting on prisons is made difficult because prison officials say that making too much information public will jeopardize the safety of institutions…
“Reporting on prisons also raises retaliation concerns, be it staff-on-inmate, staff-on-staff or inmate-on-inmate. JPay, the electronic communications system used by corrections facilities in many states, is routinely monitored by staff, as are phone calls and snail mail. Censorship can be secret and arbitrary. This year, the Indiana Department of Correction from contacting her brother through JPay after he used the service to send her a video asking for support at his next court hearing…
“In Michigan, one inmate alleged that after he reported being assaulted by a corrections officer in 2013, he ended up in a cell with feces in the footlocker and was deprived of water for days, as well as meals and showers. ([Michigan Department of Corrections – MDOC] and others in a legal filing, noting that ‘the injuries and damages sustained by Plaintiffs, if any, were solely or partly a result of their own conduct’ in disobeying prison officials and rules.)
“Then there’s the question of documentation. Journalists know that the key to good reporting is often a hefty load of documents, which are not easy to obtain about prisons. Not everything that you'd reasonably expect to find written down is easily available. The 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act required facilities to collect aggregate data on sexual abuse, for example, but reporting gaps remain. In Michigan, youth-specific sexual assault data are not easily available, and correctional officers don’t have to file critical incident reports every time a taser is deployed.
“Even when documentation is available, getting it through the Freedom of Information Act can be cost-prohibitive. Michigan asked us for more than $76,000 to fulfill all of our routine reporting requests. (For example, the price tag to obtain the number of physical assaults committed by MDOC officers against kids over a recent 14-month period? $15,088.) This isn’t because the Michigan FOIA office is running a racket, but rather because information is organized in ways that make it difficult and time-consuming to search.” Raillan Brooks and Dana Liebelson writing for the Huffington Post, July 1st.
What everybody knows is true; American prisons are places where people face torture, beatings, rape, often have to join gangs for self-protection and are required to commit horrific acts to receive that protection and are instructed in the best way to commit crimes and elevate their criminal skills. Incarceration is only part of the punishment. And with the Internet, for those who ever leave the system, they know that their criminal records will keep them from making a real living for the rest of their lives… so recidivism is their rich reward for time served in hell. You don’t have to wonder why so many drugs float within our prisons; corruption of prison officials is rampant, and this nest of illegality thrives in a super-secret culture shielded from any thought of genuine transparency.
You’d think more open reporting might just be in the best interests of the taxpaying general public. You’d think that in a modern society, we’d deplore such corruption as well as such horrific prisoner treatment. You might believe that we really need at least not to try not to make criminals angrier and more criminally skilled… so when they get out… Well, you get it. In short, it’s time for a big change, and with one quarter of the world’s incarcerated inmates (and only 5% of the earth’s population), it’s clear the United States has got this one all wrong.
I’m Peter Dekom, and you wonder where common sense enters into so much that the government does that really costs a lot and generally creates infinitely more harm than good.