Prison life ain't so good

Well, we knew that. But here's an edited transcript of a talk Phoenix freelancer Lance Tapley gave last week at the Meg Perry Center, home to Peace Action Maine and the Foglight Collective.

By the way, you can hear this talk online at (mp3 here) or rent it and many other progressive videos from Roger Leisner's Radio Free Maine at Videoport in downtown Portland.

Prison folly

Why? And what can be done?


The following is an edited excerpt from a speech given by Phoenix contributing writer Lance Tapley on “Human Rights and Maine’s Prisons” at a Peace Action Maine meeting in Portland on March 7.  Since 2005, he has written about physical abuse and other wrongdoing in the prisons, especially in the maximum-security, solitary-confinement Special Management Unit or “Supermax” inside the Maine State Prison in Warren.


By Lance Tapley


I knew nothing about this subject.  Most people don’t.  Unfortunately, most people don’t care about it—at best.  Including many who consider themselves compassionate liberals.  They appear to care more about the wrongs at Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo than about the abuse suffered by tens of thousands of human beings within America’s punishment system.

“Prisoners have rights?” a liberal friend, a good man, asked me.  This was an admission that he didn’t think of them as human.  All human beings have rights.

Why is this horror happening?  And what can be done about it?

Let’s start with a few statistics:

--2.3 million people are imprisoned in the United States, one in every 100 adults.  No other country comes close.

--We have 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of prisoners.

--The US keeps 35,000 human beings in solitary confinement.  This is unprecedented in world history.  Only the US has been able to afford it.

--We incarcerate at a rate five times the rate of 30 years ago.

Here is my best understanding, to date, of what has happened historically.  To be disingenuous, so many people are in prison because they’ve been arrested, convicted, and sentenced for crimes.  In other words: lots of arrests, a high rate of conviction, and long sentences.

Accounting for the arrests, we have seen a massive increase in the number of police.  Bill Clinton is partly responsible for this phenomenon.  There has been an enormous police campaign against small-time drug dealers and users.  Twenty-five percent of people in prisons and jails are there for drug offenses.

Accounting for the convictions, the poor are often unable to get proper legal representation.

Accounting for the harsh—often, by law, mandatory—sentences, the mainstream—dare I say, corporate—news media amplify every violent incident into a world-historic event, scaring and angering people to demand locking up every possible threat:  Jessica’s Law, Megan’s Law, etc.

There is an underlying theme in these arrests, convictions, and sentences: racism.  Nationally, 50 percent of prisoners are black; 30 percent are Hispanic.

The scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore believes prisons are where many of the uneducated manufacturing workers of the past, in the age of globalization, are being taken care of, so to speak—especially the African-American ones.

There is another, related theme:  Thirty years ago the country took a sharp political turn to the right in reaction to the racial and other social revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s.  The US became very authoritarian, stern, macho, aggressive in dealing with threats and perceived threats to law and order.  And the liberal leadership didn’t put up much of a fight because they didn’t have a basis anymore in the working class, and they got their campaign money from the corporations, too.

Speaking of corporations, another phenomenon to note is the growth of the corporate prison industry.  It is not as big a factor in explaining what happened as some liberal critics believe, but it is a growing factor.

Much more important, the mental hospitals began closing down 30 years ago, but governments didn’t fund adequate community support for the mentally ill.  So now many mentally ill people are housed in jails and prisons.

Let’s just touch upon some deeper underlying themes:  Ruth Wilson Gilmore also suggests that the prison madness has occurred because Americans believe the key to safety is aggression. . . . So here is the connection with my subject to Peace Action Maine.

Forgive me for getting even more theoretical, but I tend to think the prison madness also results from a national philosophy of materialism, which is based on the stoking of individual desire and dissatisfaction—that is, of unhappiness.

Happiness is bad for the corporations.  They will sell fewer goods and services if people are feeling satisfied with their lives, with what they have.  Strong families and communities are bad for business because sharing means fewer goods and services will be sold.  Labor insecurity and mobility is obviously good for business.  This is not a plot but a system.  In an unsettled society, when your family is broken, if you are rootless, if you are poor and uneducated, if you are unemployed, if you are perhaps mentally unstable, and if you can’t buy, buy, buy . . . In this situation, I can’t understand when people don’t steal and strike out in anger.

An unhappy society not only produces criminals, it finds scapegoats.

A prisoners’ spiritual guru who spoke in Maine last year, Bo Lozoff, put it this way:  We’re in an forlorn, declining empire of “narcissistic consumerism.” . . . And maybe liberals are too busy buying things to look into the prisons.

But, as I read in a recent Maine newspaper editorial, at least locking up so many people is driving the violent crime rate down.

This cannot be correct, mathematically.  We have four times as many people in prison as we had 25 years ago, and we started imprisoning people in big numbers at that time.  But the violent crime rate only began dropping in 1995, and it has dropped only by 55 percent.  That’s impressive, but it can’t be just because so many people are locked up.

Imprisoning so many people also is a factor in increasing the crime rate.  Prisoners teach crime to other prisoners, and the prison administration teaches antisocial behavior.  For example, there are rules against sharing in prison. The recidivism rate—the return to crime—is extremely high. It is 70 percent in California. 

So what can be done?  To deal simply with a not-simple question, I want to read a list of 15 prison-reform ideas I have collected from reading, discussions, and emails from friends and colleagues in the prison-reform effort, including from prisoners.  Some of these are pretty obvious, but they are not being done:

1.      Creation of a state-level group to watchdog constitutional and human rights of prisoners.

2.      Journalist access to prisoners without censorship by officials.

3.      A state-funded, independent ombudsman to investigate claims of official misconduct and rights violations.

4.      To reduce recidivism, more effort toward rehabilitation—less warehousing—including more prison jobs, job training, and educational opportunities.

5.      Parole reinstituted, instead of more prisons (30 years ago in Maine, murderers served, on average, less than 10 years of hard time before going out on parole).

6.      Shorter sentences, instead of more prisons.

7.      More alternatives to automatic imprisonment for small probation violations, instead of more prisons.

8.      More alternative treatment for drug-addicted petty criminals.

9.      More alternative treatment for mentally ill offenders.

10.  More alternative treatment for sex offenders.

11.  Mental illness treated better in the prisons.

12.  Abolish the state prison’s Supermax, which is a torture chamber, and retain a small number of maximum-security cells, which was the case everywhere previous to the Supermax construction binge.

13.  Better pay and training for prison guards; end of arbitrary discipline by guards.

14.  End of the surprising nepotism among prison officials.

15.  New, enlightened leadership: governor, corrections commissioner, wardens, Criminal Justice Committee members in the Legislature.

The biggest reform would occur—everything else would fall into place—if a lot more people recognized that prisoners were human beings like themselves.  As the old saying puts it, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Many reformers say citizens will only respond to economic logic: locking up so many people is terribly expensive.  I think that’s a good secondary argument, but if we don’t place the moral argument first—the argument for human rights—we run the risk of continuing to see prisoners only as objects, which is fundamentally why we treat them as we do.  What if it could be proven that torture is cost-effective?

As Rama Carty, a prisoner at Windham, wrote me, “Being human means evolving toward the humane.”

Both those within and without the prison walls need this evolution.

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