The Justice Department just announced the first comprehensive federal rules aimed at “zero tolerance” for sexual assaults against inmates in prisons, jails and other houses of detention. The new policy has teeth in it, decreeing that states that don’t take adequate measures to prevent sexual assault on prisoners will lose federal prison funds. This initiative was disgracefully long in coming, but begins the repair of the human rights atrocity going on in the nation’s prisons literally since the first cell door clanged shut. It is the right kind of “no-tolerance” policy, because allowing prisoners to rape other prisoners—it is estimated that at least 10% of all inmates experience sexual assault—-should never have been tolerated. That it has also been used by law enforcement and popular culture to enhance the deterrent power of imprisonment, essentially making rape a culturally and governmentally sanctioned element of the penal system, should weigh heavily on the national conscience for years to come. It was un-American, as vile a desecration of the principles of our country as torture. Continue reading
I keep an informal score each television season of how often one of the heroes in a cop or other law enforcement drama will pointedly tell a finally-cornered criminal that he can now look forward to being raped in prison. Of course, this is only representative of the shows I actually see. Even counting only them, however, I have heard such a speech four times in 2011. (The all-time champs in this celebration of prison rape are Dick Wolf’s Law and Order dramas.)
Think about what this means. The scriptwriters are presuming that such a forecast of impending sexual abuse will be enjoyed by the audience, a case of just desserts for the wicked. The casual acceptance of prison rape in America’s penitentiaries is a continuing scandal, and an indictment of our society’s compassion and commitment to the Constitution. Continue reading
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. Continue reading
“…The overriding rationale for supermax confinement is to impose order and maintain safety in the prison environment. The unmitigated suffering caused by supermax confinement, however, cannot be justified by the argument that it is an effective means to deal with difficult prisoners. The issue, we believe, is not whether supermax achieves its purposes or is effective at controlling and punishing unruly inmates.
Instead, the question is whether the vast archipelago of American supermax facilities, in which some prisoners are kept isolated indefinitely for years, should be tolerated as consistent with fundamental principles of justice. Even prisoners who have committed horrific crimes and atrocities possess basic rights to humane treatment under national and international law. Although the Constitution “does not mandate comfortable prisons,” it does require humane prisons that comport with the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against punishments that are “incompatible with ‘the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society” or which “involve the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain.” More recently, the Supreme Court stated that “[p]risoners retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons. Respect for that dignity animates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.”
“Supermax confinement as extensively implemented in the United States falls short of this standard and must be substantially reformed.”
—-The New York City Bar in its just-released report on “supermax” prisons in the United States. The report declares supermax imprisonment, which currently holds 80,000 prisoners, to be the equivilent of torture and a violation of international human rights standards.
The report is harrowing, horrifying, and a source of shame for all Americans. The lack of concern by the public and its elected representatives in maintaining humane conditions in our prisons is understandable but inexcusable nonetheless. The New York City Bar has performed a great service by issuing the report; it is up to us to insist that it is acted upon without delay. The United States of America should not be operating dungeons.
You can, and must, read it here.
Anyone who reads Randy Cohen’s New York Times Magazine column “The Ethicist” quickly discovers that one of Cohen’s biases is an intense distrust of law enforcement that would be right at home in the Berkeley campus of 1967. The problem with this attitude for an ethicist is that citizenship is a core ethical value, and assisting and cooperating with law enforcement efforts are among the duties of a citizen to society. Thus the Ethicist’s advice tends to become unethical when a correspondent asks about matters involving the police. This week’s column contained a prime example.
A restaurant owner discovered that an employee was stealing from the establishment, and confronted him. The thief offered to pay back what he had stolen, and was fired. The owner asked Cohen if he should report the crime to the police; some of his friends had argues that “losing his job was punishment enough” for the light-fingered ex-worker. Can you guess Randy’s answer? I swear: I composed it in my head before I checked. I was right on the money. Continue reading