When people commit crimes, they put an awkward burden on us to figure out what to do with them. This responsibility doesn’t often cross our minds; in fact, the current judicial system was put in place when our forefathers put quill to parchment and shoved an equitable system of litigation in King James’ face. Questioning that tradition would be sacrilege. Still, popular governance requires judicial outcomes to be based upon what we, the current people, think.
The main focus of the authors of the Constitution was to ensure that those in jail deserved to be there, which is great. But as to what happens to rapists when they’re incarcerated, our Constitution hides behind a vague prohibition of “cruel and unusual” treatment. This vagueness plus the autonomy of prison wardens and a distinct lack of oversight leaves the door open for inhumane conditions in prisons much closer to home than one might expect.
Still, it’s true that the worst human rights abuses occur in prisons outside of the United States. In Libya prior to Muammar Gaddafi’s death, arbitrary arrests, inhumane living conditions and torture were the gold standard of detainment. Confessions under torture were taken as ultimate truth, and lower level guards had free reign in determining punitive measures. One man imprisoned in 2003 found himself chained to a handrail for a week. Eating, sleeping and urinating in one place, he became more bruised and beaten with each prison guard that passed by. After nine years, he still has no idea why he was arrested.
Now it’s easy to muster up horror at the conditions in Libya. The prisoners were often faultless in an American understanding of criminality; large numbers of detainees were so detained by virtue of disagreement with Gaddafi politics. However, American prisons also comprise an imperfect system of incarceration.
Red Onion State Prison in eastern Virginia is a super-maximum security facility that houses inmates classified as assaultive, predatory or escape risks. It’s a much less relatable demographic than the pro-democracy youth protestors of the Libyan revolution, to say the least. But this group of prisoners has made headlines in recent years with a hunger strike protesting prison conditions. In a blog post published in solidarity with the prison strike, prisoners demanded “quality materials that [they] may use to clean [their] own cells,” calling the single sponge each inmate is given to clean their cell and toilet inadequate. The demands expanded further to include toothpaste capable of preventing gum disease and tooth decay and fully cooked meals. Prison operations lack transparency, and rarely replaced razors spread infection, prompting further complaints. The lack of basic amenities highlighted by the prisoners (and then corroborated by Human Rights Watch) was baffling.
In addition to negligence, arbitrary and excessive disciplinary measures are symptomatic of poorly run prisons. In Pennsylvania, disciplinary issues often result in an extreme set of solitary confinement restrictions that prohibit even the possession of family photos. Solitary confinement can extend months, years or decades without any opportunity to earn redemption through good behavior. Beyond forbidding sources of comfort for prisoners, this segregation restricts access to sunlight, physical exercise and mental stimulation and “may press the outer bounds of what most humans can psychologically tolerate,” according to Human Rights Watch.
Now it well may be that these human rights violations are integral parts of the U.S. justice system; it is a fact that individuals who commit crimes in our society do forfeit some portion of their rights. No one will deny that a criminal’s right to freedom of movement is curtailed post-sentencing. So if the role of the criminal justice system is to develop a punitive quality that can serve to decentivize individuals from committing crimes, then there is a real practical argument for poor conditions in jails. If I knew prison meant a healthy heaping of salmonella three times a day, I’d think a hell of a lot harder before butting heads with the law.
But the argument for depriving prisoners in this circumstance doesn’t have a pragmatic leg to stand on even before considering the “cruel and unusual punishment” prohibition. Punishments meant to discourage crime have no value if they’re secret and unpublicized; gum disease is something that no potential bank robber weighs into a decision to commit armed robbery. Additionally, popular ignorance means prisoners are subject to sexual assault, indefinite isolation and poor medical care without American citizens being aware of this treatment.
Still, there is no comparison between the experience of political dissidents of Gaddafi’s jails and the criminals guilty of actual crimes contained in U.S. state and federal penitentiaries. So if “beating Libya” is the standard for human rights in prison, then I believe congratulations are in order, America. You’re not quite at the oppressively dictatorial level of human rights violations! Between this achievement and surpassing the bar set by Somalia for efficacy of governance, I’d say we’re doing pretty well for ourselves in the 21st century. Yet, maybe it’s not a bad idea that we give the “basic human rights for prisoners” thing a shot.
Lydia Thurman is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs every other Wednesday. You can follow Lydia on Twitter @ThurmanLydia.