Dwayne N. Zechman makes trenchant observations and raises difficult questions in his comment to the post, “Exposing America’s Dungeons: The New York City Bar Report on Supermax Prisons.” The report to some extent answers Dwayne’s primary point by stating that the need for special high-security prisons to prevent violence to inmates and guards cannot justify an unconstitutional solution. If the conditions in the supermax prisons are as described in the report, there can be no doubt that it violates the prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.” That is an absolutist position like the prohibition against torture: ethically, arguing that “it works” or “there’s no other way” or “oh yeah? What would YOU do?” won’t and cannot prevail…unless we conclude that when we have to choose the lesser of two evils, forcing violent and otherwise uncontrollable criminals to live in dungeon-like condition is preferable to having them kill people might be the winner.
Are there other practical options? We could keep these inmates perpetually drugged, or in a state of suspended animation, like the “pre-crime” convicts in the film “Minority Report.” We could also execute them. Dwayne is correct: condemning the supermax prisons is at best a first step, and if there is no better solution found and implemented, it is more frustrating than useful.
Here is his comment of the Day on Exposing America’s Dungeons: The New York City Bar Report on Supermax Prisons:
“I know I’m going to take some flack for this, but here goes: I disagree.”
“As I’ve written before, my father was a career employee of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, so thanks to him I know a good bit more than most about what goes on inside a prison, including the level-5 (highest) security penitentiaries. I’ve been inside an L5 myself once to apply and interview for a summer internship during college.
“My biggest disappointment with this report is how it just glosses over the murders of Correctional Officers . Those brave men did not deserve to die, and “supermax” prisons are a direct consequence of the need to keep prison employees and other inmates safe from the most violent and/or psychotic inmates. (Side note: Why are inmates denied books? Because inmates have fashioned lethal crossbows using paper and elastic from their underwear.)
“My second biggest disappointment with this report is in how it contains 100% criticism with 0% suggestions for how to make it better while maintaining order and keeping employees and other inmates of the prison safe. The fundamental problem is: how do you punish an inmate for violent behavior inside a prison when that very inmate is already receiving the harshest punishment the penal system hands down? Answer THAT question, and we can start having a serious discussion of prison reform.”