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.
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
Let’s start with
a few statistics:
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.
at a rate five times the rate of 30
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.
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.
the convictions, the poor are often unable to get proper legal representation.
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,
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.
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
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.
society not only produces criminals, it finds scapegoats.
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.
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:
Creation of a state-level
group to watchdog constitutional and human rights of prisoners.
Journalist access to
prisoners without censorship by officials.
A state-funded, independent
ombudsman to investigate claims of official misconduct and rights violations.
To reduce recidivism, more
effort toward rehabilitation—less warehousing—including more prison jobs, job
training, and educational opportunities.
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).
Shorter sentences, instead of
More alternatives to
automatic imprisonment for small probation violations, instead of more prisons.
More alternative treatment
for drug-addicted petty criminals.
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.
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.
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.”
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
As Rama Carty, a
prisoner at Windham, wrote me, “Being human means evolving toward the humane.”