It's been a terrible two weeks for prisoners incarcerated in prisons around the country. Prison life already is well-documented: substandard food, solitary confinement, physical and sexual violence, and crooked guards are just a few of the daily challenges prisoners face.
There were two more developments this week that really put into perspective exactly what challenges prisoners face. They are almost always powerless to improve their lot in life, and sometimes the treatment they face screams out for justice and for a judicial correction.
The East Coast last week experienced record, bone-chilling cold. When I was incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution at Loretto, Pennsylvania (FCI Loretto) and the weather was as cold as it was last week, we slept in our winter coats, stopped showering because of the lack of hot water, and scraped the ever-thickening ice off the inside of the windows of our housing unit. It was miserable having to be in temperatures in the 50s indoors. That was nothing compared to what happened to prisoners at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn, a federal prison that is a "holding facility" for prisoners awaiting trial or transfer to another facility.
On January 27, an electrical fire knocked out power to the entire prison and melted the switch that automatically transfers the system to a backup generator. With outdoor temperatures in the single digits, the indoor temperature soon became unbearably cold. Water pipes froze, prisoners literally risked freezing to death, and with no electricity the phones didn't work, the lights didn't work, medical attention waned, and all family and legal visits were canceled.
Prisoner rights groups finally filed a federal lawsuit several days into the crisis. Court hearings revealed a staggering pattern of neglect: There was no one to help prisoners deal with medical crises or mental breakdowns. One prisoner had to physically stop his cellmate from committing suicide. As many as nine prisoners were left without potentially life-saving medical treatment. And one prisoner suffered through the entire week with an untreated gunshot wound.
One federal judge, LaShann DeArcy Hall, finally went to the MDC to see conditions for herself. When she emerged from the facility, she said, "My problem is I don't trust the representations coming out of the Bureau of Prisons. I just don't."
The problems for the Bureau of Prisons are just beginning. In the early days of the power outage, Warden Herman Quay told the district executive of the Southern District of New York, one of the senior-most Justice Department officials in the region, that the heat in the prison was unaffected by the power outage. A defense attorney who saw prisoners shivering in their cells told a federal judge, "I have personal knowledge that what the warden said was false." Multiple lawsuits against Warden Quay, MDC Brooklyn, and the Bureau of Prisons are now pending.
Perhaps the events at MDC Brooklyn are an example of how an accident can cause a domino effect of human misery. But some human misery in prisons across America is caused deliberately by the warden. Paul Wright, the executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center and the editor of both Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News magazines, recently wrote about an ongoing case that his organization has against the Baxter County Jail in northern Arkansas.
Baxter County Jail has a longstanding policy of not allowing prisoners to receive any mail other than postcards -- no letters, no magazines, no newspapers. If it doesn't fit onto a postcard, a prisoner can't receive it. The Bible is the only book permitted in the jail. In addition, televisions are banned, the local radio station is played over a loudspeaker for only 20 minutes a day, and the "law library" consists literally of a milk crate with five or six statute books from the 1990s jammed into it. Paul Wright notes that by almost any global standards, "it is rare to have a jail that so totally cuts prisoners off from the outside world in every possible way."
Sheriff John Montgomery, who heads the jail, brags on his website that all of the above is true. He adds, "The inmates do not have access to television or radio, nor are they allowed to smoke. With rare exception, the meals consist of oatmeal for breakfast, bologna for lunch, and beans and cornbread for dinner." Every single day. The recidivism rate in Sheriff Montgomery's jail is a whopping 71 percent. That's against a national average of about 40 percent. But Montgomery doesn't care. He doesn't see his role as rehabilitating, educating, or training anybody. His role is to punish. And believe me, Sheriff Montgomery is not the exception to the rule.
Baxter County is only one example of what's wrong in the American penal system. It's just one small story, but it's emblematic of the treatment that prisoners face in prisons and jails all across America. So is MDC Brooklyn. One of the things that struck me immediately upon my own incarceration was the pervasive atmosphere of despair that I saw all around me. Most prisoners feel (correctly, in my view) that nobody cares about them. Nobody cares if they get a basic education or go through job training. Nobody cares if they re-offend and spend even more years behind bars. Nobody cares about prison conditions and the effect those conditions have on their lives. Nobody cares if those conditions violate the law. Nobody cares if prisoners live or die.
That was proven last week in Brooklyn and in Baxter County, Arkansas. It's proven every day across America. Until we change our penal system from the ground up and ensure that there are no more MDC Brooklyns or Baxter County Jails, our prison system will remain mired in the Third World. We're not a model for anybody. That's nothing to be proud of.
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