Comment the Day: “Exposing America’s Dungeons…”

Maybe Tom Cruise knows how they stored the prisoners in "Minority Report"---that seemed to be a quiet and pleasent prison environment...

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

Exposing America’s Dungeons: The New York City Bar Report on Supermax Prisons

“…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.

Ethics Heroes: The U.S. Supreme Court

To be more accurate, the heroic component in this instance is the liberal wing of SCOTUS ( Justices Sotomayor, Kagan, Ginsberg, and Breyer) plus the swing vote, Justice Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion in Brown v. Plata.  The decision upheld a court order requiring California to release a staggering 46, 000 inmates of its prisons, more than a fourth of the those sentenced there. The majority concurred with the lower court’s assessment that California prisons were so obscenely over-crowed that conditions amount to a human rights violation and a breach of the constitutional prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Some Supreme Court decisions come down to ethics as much as law, and this was certainly one of those times. At issue from a legal standpoint was  whether federal judges had the power to order the release of state prisoners as a necessary means of curing a constitutional violation. But the brilliant legal minds on the conservative side of the Court’s divide had no problem answering that question in the negative, and persuasively too.  The dilemma is that California’s least sympathetic citizens, its residents of the state’s penal institutions, are being kept in conditions that violate their constitutional rights, and despite many years of knowing about the problem, the state hasn’t found a way to rectify it. Continue reading

Is Flogging More Ethical Than Incarceration?

Ah, those were the good old days!

Peter Moskos is about to publish a book entitled “In Defense of Flogging.” He’s not really advocating a return to the Cat O’ Nine Tails, however, but engaging in a so-called “thought experiment”, which Moskos, an assistant professor of law, police science, and criminal-justice administration at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, summarizes at the end of his article on the topic (in the Chronical of Higher Education) like this:

“So is flogging still too cruel to contemplate? Perhaps it’s not as crazy as you thought. And even if you’re adamant that flogging is a barbaric, inhumane form of punishment, how can offering criminals the choice of the lash in lieu of incarceration be so bad? If flogging were really worse than prison, nobody would choose it. Of course most people would choose the rattan cane over the prison cell. And that’s my point. Faced with the choice between hard time and the lash, the lash is better. What does that say about prison?”

I’ll answer that:  it says that imprisonment is a better and more efficient punishment for serious crimes than flogging, and who didn’t know that? Continue reading