Prisoners As Subjects Unworthy Of Moral Concern

The Intercept notes–in an essay by Alice Speri–that ‘deadly heat’ is killing prisoners in US prisons, that state governments would much rather spend money on legal fees than on installing air conditioning. In one egregious instance, Louisiana spent one million on legal fees to avoid spending $225,000 on AC. As the secretary of the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections Jimmy LeBlanc put it to the Associated Press in June, installing air conditioning at Angola would open a “Pandora’s box.” and that his “biggest concern is the impact on the whole system and the cost.” As George Gale noted in response (in a comment on my Facebook page), “I suspect what he actually means is “The public would crucify us if we air conditioned prisoners!”

Indeed.

Not too long ago. I made the mistake of reading the comments section in an online article about Orange is the New Black. There, many commentators expressed anger and dismay over the treatment of prisoners that was depicted in the show. Unfortunately, their anger and dismay was directed at the coddling that the inmates seemed to receive behind bars: They watch television! They walk around in the prison yard! They get their hair done! They had a store where they could buy stuff! One commentator finally went right ahead and said it “These women have a better life than I do.” There was something pathetic about that claim, something that spoke to just how onerous she imagined her life to be if it could be compared to that of a prisoner locked up behind bars. (This is not to say that many living outside of prison do not have qualitatively worse lives than they would have inside but I do not think this person, with an internet connection and the time to read and comment on an article about a television show, was one of them.)

Somewhere in the retributivist argument that many folks employ, the following premise is smuggled in:

If you commit a crime, and are convicted of doing so, you thereby lose all and claims to any civil, constitutional, and human rights. Indeed, you cease being a human deserving of any sort of considerate treatment. You are, after all, a convicted criminal.

It will be noticed that in this case ‘convicted criminal’ has come to mean ‘degenerate sub-human lacking those vital features which make him or her a worthy subject of moral concern.’ It’s not an eye for a eye but rather body and soul for an eye. (It should be remembered that the ‘eye for an eye’ formulation includes proportionality in its claim.) As a result, it is not enough that prisoners are denied their freedom and choice, restricted to particular spaces, told when to wake up, go to sleep, put the lights out, exercise, served particular food items and not other (with some concessions made for dietary constraints), and subjected to–among many arbitrary exercises of power–violence and sexual assault from guards and other inmates. No matter. They deserve it, they asked for it, they got what was coming, if you can’t do the time don’t do the crime, they should have thought about this before they committed the crime: the list of stern platitudes directed at convicts is never-ending, a grand testimonial to the smugness and complacency and small-mindedness of those of us on the ‘outside’ who have lost our capacity for empathy, who imagine that the strong arm of the law will never be lowered on them, who imagine that when they make a mistake, the benevolence and forgiving that has been so carefully hidden away by the world so that it can better deal with its convicts will suddenly be directed at them. It won’t; to encourage vindictive and cruel retribution directed at others is to set up a store for oneself too.

Vincent Simmons: ‘The Innocent Burn When Falsely Accused’

A few decades ago, while watching a Bollywood potboiler at home with my parents, I saw a central character react sharply to a concocted accusation–perhaps of theft–by the movie’s villain, out to frame him and send him to jail so as to clear the way for his other nefarious plots. As our hero responded to this charge with loud, anguished protestations, his body shook; he seemed to be possessed by a demon of some kind. Unable to take my eyes off this acute reaction, I asked my mother, “Why is he so upset?” My mother replied briefly, “The innocent burn when falsely accused.” (Something is lost in the translation here.) Her language seemed apt; this man was aflame, suffering the agonies of being burned on the stake.

A few years later, in boarding school, a slimy weasel lodged a false complaint against me with the school prefects. Apparently, I had abused and hit him. I was lucky; the prefect who received the complaint let me off with a warning. As I stood there receiving his sonorous lecture about the need to behave better, to restrain myself and show some manners, I seethed with anger. What if I had actually been punished–perhaps by a caning or a punishment drill, or even worse, by suspension or expulsion? (Bullying, if found to be occurring, was a severely punishable offense.) I dared not even imagine what my response–helpless in the face of such injustice–would have been.

Last week, as I watched The Farm: Angola, USA, Jonathan Stack, Liz Garbus, and Wilbert Rideau‘s 1998 award-winning documentary set in the infamous maximum security Louisiana State Penitentiary, and discovered the story of Vincent Simmons, still serving a life sentence–hundred years–for the attempted aggravated rapes of a pair of teenaged twins in 1977, I remembered my mother’s words all over again.

Simmons has been burning for thirty-eight years now. He was railroaded into jail, and there he stays. No physical evidence linking him to the rapes was ever prosecuted by the prosecution; his alibis were discounted; his counsel provided him inadequate legal representation by failing to question state witnesses about their testimony; the victims professed to not knowing the identity of their attacker because “all niggers look alike”; he was identified and picked out of a line-up in which he was the only handcuffed person; it took sixteen years for him to be granted access to “the evidence file pertaining to his case, including police reports, arrest reports, victims’ statements, trial transcripts, the medical examiner’s report”; in The Farm, a parole board, which reviewed his case in 1998, summarily dismisses the compelling evidence he presents to them without so much as a discussion of the merits of his appeal; the legal and moral atrocities go on and on.

Many Americans remain unaware–blissfully so–of the catastrophe that is our penal system. The indigent innocent go to jail all the time, there to face further brutalization and diminishment of their life’s prospects. The book is too often thrown at them; that done, they are left to rot behind the walls. Racism, the war on drugs, and the vicious retributive streak that informs our notions of punishment have resulted in a collective perversion of ‘innocent until proven guilty.’

The horror of what is happening today, under our noses, should keep us awake at night. It should induce nightmares, visions of innocence falsely condemned.

Note: A proper review of The Farm will follow anon.

‘A Manual For The Police On How To Conduct Beatings’

Leonard Strickland was beaten to death; in jail, by prison guards. Those who did so, and those who supervised them, were secure in the knowledge that very little would be, and could be, done to bring them to justice. History and the law is on their side.

In 1992, in one of Clarence Thomas‘ earliest cases on the Supreme Court, Hudson v. McMillian, Thomas found himself on the losing side in a 7-2 decision. Keith Hudson, an inmate who had suffered a vicious beating at Angola Prison, had filed suit in a federal court, claiming violation of his Eighth Amendment rights. He won $800 in damages as the judge found he had been beaten “maliciously, unnecessarily, and wantonly.” On appeal, the case had made its way to the Supreme Court, where the decision was “cautiously” affirmed with only Antonin Scalia and Thomas dissenting.  Justice Sandra Day O’Connor distinguished this case from “those cases where deliberate indifference to a prisoner’s health is not a violation unless there is serious injury.” The relevant test was “whether force was applied in a good faith effort to maintain or restore discipline, or maliciously and sadistically to cause harm.” (Note the ‘good faith’ exception.)

Thomas, in his dissent, claimed that “a use of force that causes only insignificant harm to a prisoner may be immoral, it may be tortious, it may be criminal, and it may even be remediable under other provisions of the Federal Constitution, but it is not ‘cruel and unusual punishment’….The Eighth Amendment is not, and should not be turned into, a National Code of Prison Regulation.” Thomas based his decision on: the culture and values of the eighteenth century, the history of the cruel and unusual punishment clause, the Constitutional Convention and state ratifying convention debates, and of course, the text of the Constitution. He noted the Supreme Court had, for a very long period in American history, rejected all “conditions of complaint ” claims and not held the cruel and unusual punishment clause relevant to prison conditions. He concluded that “Today’s expansion of the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause beyond all bounds of history and precedent is…yet another manifestation of the pervasive view that the Federal Constitution must address all ills in our society….[including] any hardship that might befall a prisoner during incarceration.” Thomas went on to suggest that older cases affirming prisoners’ claims of beatings and torture should be overturned.

Scalia and Thomas lost, but they set the stage for what followed.

In 1996, thanks to extensive lobbying by William Rehnquist, the Supreme Court Chief Justice who, though impatient with prisoners rights claims, for tactical reasons had earlier joined the Hudson v. McMillian majority, Congress passed the Prison Litigation Reform Act, stating prisoners cannot recover damages under the cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause if there is “no permanent damage.” Prisoners cannot recover for pain and suffering even if the beating is “long, brutal, malicious, and wanton.” The Prison Litigation Reform Act was, as Martin Garbus claims, a “a manual for the police on how to conduct beatings and not get sued.”

The immorality and brutality of our prison system is scaffolded by our nation’s laws.

Note: This post is cribbed from Martin Garbus’ Courting Disaster: The Supreme Court and the Unmaking of American Law, Henry Holt, New York, 2002, pp. 74-75.