Thursday, January 26, 2012

Prisoner roundup

Posted By on 01.26.12 at 10:04 AM

Luis_Argerich.jpg
  • Luis Argerich
“The scale and the brutality of our prisons are the moral scandal of American life,” writes Adam Gopnik in this week’s New Yorker. "Good reporting appears often about the inner life of the American prison,” he notes, and it’s true—it’s not hard to find journalism, or for that matter art or fiction, about any facet of the penal process: the criminal courts, prison life, solitary confinement. Sometimes the process is corrupted, but often it isn’t—it works exactly as it’s supposed to. Gopnik considers two theories about why the United States criminal system is so uniquely punitive. The first, the “Northern explanation,” looks to Philadelphia’s historic Eastern State Penitentiary, and a judicial system that “emphasizes process and procedure rather than principles.” The other theory is the “Southern explanation,” advanced by Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which holds that white supremacy is the inspiration for the growth of the prison system—that “mass imprisonment became a way of reimposing Jim Crow” in the wake of the civil rights movement.

Gopnik goes on to wonder, productively, whether increasing incarceration rates have been the cause of historically low crime rates, but he doesn’t stray far from the essential brutality of his subject:

Every day, at least fifty thousand men—a full house at Yankee Stadium—wake in solitary confinement, often in “supermax” prisons or prison wings, in which men are locked in small cells, where they see no one, cannot freely read and write, and are allowed out just once a day for an hour’s solo “exercise.” . . . Prison rape is so endemic—more than seventy thousand prisoners are raped each year—that it is routinely held out as a threat, part of the punishment to be expected. . . . The normalization of prison rape—like eighteenth-century japery about watching men struggle as they die on the gallows—will surely strike our descendants as chillingly sadistic, incomprehensible on the part of people who thought themselves civilized.

Regarding solitary, see also The Gray Box, an investigation by Susan Greene. Greene and Gopnik both quote the same passage from Charles Dickens, who in 1842 visited Eastern State Penitentiary, where each prisoner was kept separate from others: “I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body,” Dickens wrote. Solitary was abandoned for a while, writes Green, until 1983, when two guards were killed on the same day (in separate incidents) at the prison in Marion, Illinois, which then went into a permanent lockdown mode—becoming the effective precursor to the modern supermax prison. Green quotes former Illinois Department of Corrections director Michael Randle: “Whole prisons have been built, people have gotten funding for supermax facilities based on the act of a single (inmate),” Randle said. And then she hears from Anthony Gay, who’s now in Illinois’s Tamms supermax prison, and who showed up in the Reader a few months ago.

Anthony Gay had a low-level assault charge in Illinois for punching another kid, stealing a dollar from him and swiping his hat. A parole violation on his seven-year suspended sentence ultimately landed him in a state supermax where he has cut himself hundreds of times with shards of glass and metal, and eats his own flesh. He has racked up a 97-year sentence for throwing urine and feces out his food slot — behavior that’s fairly typical for severely mentally ill prisoners in solitary.

Gay passes his time at the Tamms Correctional Center writing anyone who will receive his letters.

“I’ve been trapped for approximately nine years. The trap, like a fly on sticky paper, aggravates and agitates me,” he writes. “America, can you hear me? I love you America, but if you love me, please speak out and stand up against solitary confinement.”

A video accompanies Greene’s report; it’s well worth watching.

One last thing: a new report by the restorative justice organization Project NIA, Policing Chicago Public Schools, looks at the problem of incarceration from early on—when kids get in trouble in school. Since the spate of school shootings in the 90s, the report finds, police officers have become “prevalent” in schools—and that exposing children early on to the criminal justice system often works to ensure that they’ll stay there. The report is here; coauthor Mariame Kaba spoke about it on Eight Forty-Eight yesterday morning.

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