I was honored this week with a phone call from a former prisoner who served 10 years in a state penitentiary in the Midwest. He wanted to talk about what he had read on Reader Supported News about prospects for sentencing reform in a Trump administration. This former prisoner is the grandson of a renowned former U.S. leader. He got involved with drugs as a young man, got caught, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
A few years into his prison sentence, the prisoner, whom I'll call "Doug," began feeling ill. He said he had a great deal of back pain, he lost his appetite, and he had trouble getting up into a standing position. He went repeatedly to the hospital medical unit, where he was given Tylenol and otherwise turned away. To make a long story short, Doug was suffering from a spinal abscess. Delirious and incoherent, he was finally rushed to a hospital, where he remained, chained to a bed, for four months. Both of his legs were amputated.
Doug, who is now free, has filed a lawsuit, but that's cold comfort. The truth is that nobody was ever punished for incompetence, malpractice, or anything else that led to the loss of his legs. The even sadder truth is that this is nothing unusual in American prisons. In the recent past, only rarely has anybody in a position of authority been held to account for their actions. This may be changing, though, as more and more civil suits are filed against governments and prison systems and as more and more crooked cops are brought to justice. That justice usually does not include prison time. But the trend is in the right direction.
For example, another prisoner, Ramon Estrada, died in a prison in Utah in 2015 due to "an apparent heart attack related to renal failure." He died after having missed two days of dialysis treatments because the prison medical technician didn't bother to show up for work. Estrada was scheduled to be released within three weeks. At first, it looked like heads were going to roll. The prison doctor was suspended, a physician's assistant and nurse were fired, another nurse was demoted, and a third was suspended. The state prison system settled two lawsuits brought by Estrada's family for $500,000. Nobody was charged with a crime, but the incident was reported widely, and the state legislature initiated reform efforts. Those reforms efforts passed, and there is now tighter control of prison medical services in Utah.
One of the most corrupt and violent prison systems in America is in New York. The maximum-security penitentiary at Attica is legendary for its violence. But not all of that violence originates with the prisoners. The New York Times reported recently that George Williams, a prisoner, was lying in his bunk when a guard on the tier below him shouted for another prisoner to "shut the [expletive] up!" Somebody -- maybe Williams, maybe somebody else -- shouted back, "You shut the (expletive) up!" Within moments, a group of guards raided Williams' cell and beat him savagely as he lay curled up in a ball on the floor. He was eventually taken to a local hospital for his injuries, which included a broken collarbone, multiple broken ribs, two broken legs, and a broken eye socket. His sinus cavity was filled with blood, and one of his legs required surgical realignment with a metal plate and six screws.
Four guards involved in the beating were eventually charged with gang assault, falsifying reports, and tampering with evidence. It was the first time that gang assault charges had ever been brought against a guard for beating a prisoner in New York. In the end, three of the officers pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges. One was granted immunity in exchange for his testimony. All of them lost their pensions, but none were sent to prison. Still, given the New York prison system's past, this is a step in the right direction.
Sierra County, New Mexico, settled a suit last month brought by Michael Faziani, a Tennessee resident who moved temporarily to New Mexico to seek treatment from a local physician for severe back pain. Soon after arriving, Faziani was involved in a serious wreck and was later arrested for failing to report the accident in a timely manner. The charge was a misdemeanor. Faziani was booked into the Sierra County Detention Center, where he was held incommunicado for 18 days. He was not allowed to see a magistrate or an attorney, and when he did finally go to court, the judge threw the charges out and ordered his release.
During those 18 days, Faziani, who also suffers from bipolar disorder, was denied medication for that malady and for the back pain that he had gone to New Mexico for in the first place. When he complained, sheriff's deputies put him in solitary confinement, denied him access to a doctor, and they refused to allow him to shower or brush his teeth. Faziani told authorities after his release that he saw detention center officers pilfering the medication, especially narcotics, meant for prisoners, and trading them for sex with female prisoners.
In the end, Faziani was ignored. But a sheriff's office whistleblower came forward to corroborate his story. A lieutenant and two guards pleaded guilty to multiple felonies, most of which were sex crimes. The county settled with Faziani by giving him $750,000.
The conclusions of these incidents do not lead me to conclude that the country has made a giant leap into an enlightened age for prison reform. Still, though, the trend is in the right direction. I can tell you that during my own 23 months in prison, I saw multiple incidents of abuse of power, assault, and medical malpractice. Nobody cared. And I was well-known enough in the press to have actually had a voice. Still nobody cared.
But with that said, changes are coming. Those changes are being made in state legislatures across the country. That should be the focus. This will take time, but justice is on its way.
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