Home > Daily life, Society > The chattel in our prisons

The chattel in our prisons

Bastoy 2My grocery store, one of a chain, has an excellent policy of hiring people with slight physical or mental disabilities for menial tasks such as putting carts away or carrying customers’ shopping bags to their cars. I had noticed several times a little guy in his forties, visibly impaired in some way but a delight to interact with because of his big grin, his eagerness to rush forward and help and his thanks as profuse for a small tip as if he’d just won the lottery. Then one day the Metro section of the paper ran the story and I recognized him from the photo. This guy had recently been released from jail where he had spent half his life for a crime he hadn’t committed. The son of a single mother, he was finally exonerated, maybe through DNA testing or the coming forward of a new witness. The little man, planning a celebration with his mother, was so ecstatic at his newfound freedom that he didn’t even think about his lost years or possible compensation.

This man was one of the lucky ones, if one can call “lucky” an innocent who spent fifteen years in prison. Many people, innocent or not, never get out. Our carceral system is one of the most shameful in any country that calls itself civilized. We jeer at model prisons such as some in northern Europe that are nothing like our stark penitentiaries and maximum-security holding pens. There, inmates have libraries, social interaction, good food; they study, work and learn skills, practice sports, spend time outdoors or with their families, practice their religion. They’re not shackled and of course there’s no death sentence hanging over their heads—every country in Europe has abolished capital punishment long ago. Not all prisons abroad are model prisons (some, such as the Baumettes in Marseille, are as degrading and inhuman as our own) and not all are as avant-garde as Bastoy in Norway but one can hope the days are not too far when punishment as such will no longer be accepted. Study after study shows that if you treat people like human beings, they will respond as such. With the proper environment, inmates can change, grow, they can evolve and become responsible citizens in a society where reoffending levels fall every day.

To my conservative friends (of which I still have one or two despite this blog) who may come out with Willie Horton arguments, I’ll say up front that no, I don’t approve of coddling hardened criminals or monstrous ones such as Anders Breivik, the racist killer of 77 people in same Norway (where the longest sentence, unfortunately, is 21 years). But nor do I think the present system in the United States is at all effective. Our population is 5% of world population where our prison population is 25% of that of the world. We have 716 people in jail per 100,000, compared to, say, France, with 102. Of these, the percentage of black males is 6.5 times that of white males (2.5 that of Hispanic males; the execution rate of blacks 4.5 times more than that of white prisoners and 17.5 times that of Hispanics.) Maximum-security prison conditions are brutal and solitary confinement, that awful far-too-prevalent punishment method, turns people into lunatics or drives them to suicide. The creation and maintenance of correctional facilities is outsourced to private contractors paid per prisoner and out to gouge the state, often with the active or tacit participation of the authorities.

Inmates (including petty criminals, including the innocent) are not only often people on the lowest rungs of society who obviously cannot afford the expense of a serious legal defense but they don’t vote. This explains that. Except for some dedicated and committed public servants, our politicians at every level court the one thing: election (and reelection.) Why would anyone occupying or running for public office bother about a cause that would not only make them lose votes from their regular constituents but not win any from inmates who by definition don’t have a vote to cast?

We’ve come a long way regarding physical torture (I won’t discuss the “harsh interrogation techniques” favored in the Bush/Cheney area) and, in the civilized world at least, public executions of criminals no longer happen (though some states allow a few witnesses and families of victims, a barbarous custom). But not much has changed in the sense that we still believe that punishment is the answer when obviously it is not. Being deprived of freedom is punishment enough. Why are more than 1.5 million people treated like chattel?

I know that the prison population is not abandoned and forgotten by all. A number of dedicated groups and individuals work hard toward helping inmates in every way possible and improving detention conditions; the Innocence Project does admirable work at exonerating people wrongfully arrested of which there are far too many. But that will never be enough as long as there is no official policy.

The director of Bostoy prison in Norway talks about how we should be “prepared to make fundamental changes in the way we regard crime and punishment.” I don’t see this happening as long as there’s no general outcry, only this deafening silence.

  1. rayboysan
    February 23, 2013 at 7:09 pm

    Brilliant and compelling analysis about the tragic state of our U.S. prison system by Saïdeh Pakravan. We need to own this sad state of affairs, and we need to elect leaders who will own the sad and destructively punitive state of our prison system. We are better than this!


  2. February 24, 2013 at 4:33 am

    I much doubt whether Australian prisons are much better, and some are ‘outsourced’ to private companies. And here, instead of African American and Hispanics, it is indigenous Australians who are grossly over-represented, both in prisons and for dying in custody. And in both your country and mine, the judicial system seems horribly stacked against review processes, once a person is convicted.


  3. alinaderzad
    February 24, 2013 at 7:44 pm

    A compelling article. Harsh emprisonment culture is deeply ingrained here. From 18th century onward writers from England who could not repay their debts were sent to the US to rot in our rotten penal system. One good part of this was that many great classics were written there.

    We Americans are guilty of primitive thinking when it comes to punishment. First step to changing this system: give offenders the right to vote.


  4. February 26, 2013 at 2:46 pm

    And add Prison Industrial Complex. There’s also money to be made. Follow the money.


    • Melinda Barnhardt Jud
      March 1, 2013 at 6:26 pm

      One of the worst problems is the lack of effective support programs for former prisoners when they are released. The support isn’t there, so the cycle repeats.

      Something else strongly related to the failure of our criminal justice system: the catch-phrase “The War on Drugs” has proved to be a huge mistake, adding terrible stigma to the problems people face in trying to get off drugs.


  5. lewisjperelman
    March 2, 2013 at 6:28 pm

    I see no reason to believe that private contractors do any worse job of running prisons than public bureaucracies do. If anything, dysfunctional contractors are a sign of dysfunctional public administration. But that has little to do with the sheer scale of imprisonment in the US.

    The latter has been driven mainly by the ill-fated War on Drugs. Whether legalization can/will significantly reduce the problem of drug-related crime remains to be seen. Legalizing and taxing alcohol did shrink what was a lucrative profit center for criminal syndicates. But tax-avoidance still encourages bootlegging of booze, cigarettes, etc. Legalization may or may not amplify the mayhem caused by driving-while-intoxicated, but it certainly doesn’t reduce it.

    The practice of imprisonment and ‘corrections’ is fraught with paradox everywhere. It is difficult if not impossible to devise a system that simultaneously insulates society from criminals, punishes misconduct, and rehabilitates wrong-doers. Philip Zimbardo’s classic experiments show that the guard-prisoner relationship is inherently prone to abuse: http://www.prisonexp.org/.


  1. February 24, 2013 at 4:12 am

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