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.