The distinguishing characteristic of U.S. supermax prisons is an almost total lack of human contact, which is psychological devastating for those confined in them. A reporter who visited a supermax prison in California, called the worst of the supermax worst, reported that the impression that has stayed with him is the almost total lack of sound, with about the only sound he heard being clanging doors. A supermax built 100 feet below ground level means that the inmates will never see the sky nor any activity on the surface of the earth.
Solitary confinement is by no means confined to supermax prisons: Diane Dimond used one of her Saturday columns in the Albuquerque Journal to focus on what she called a “ground-breaking work” by the journalist Susan Greene. In her book titled The Gray Box. Greene estimates that 80,000 Americans –“many with no record of violence inside or outside prison — are living in seclusion. They stay there for years, even decades.” (15)
Dimond describes these prisoners as walking “in endless circles” in a space “as small as two queen-sized mattresses.” There is virtually no contact with another human being and family members stop writing to those in long confinements. (16)
Diane Dimond says “America is supposed to be a compassionate country. This sounds like state-sponsored torture to me.” It should be no great surprise that considering the inhumane way many U.S. prisons are run, that the United States was found to be torturing detainees in the ill-defined Global War on Terror.
Many Americans would like to believe that racism has been eradicated from U.S. society. One area of U.S. life where racism is alive and well is in the criminal justice system. In an article provocatively titled “The Caging of America,” Adam Gopnick lays out the case about how black men are targeted for prison: 1) more than half of all black men without a high school diploma will go to prison at some point in their lives; 2) there are more black men in the grip of the criminal justice system — in prison, on probation, or on parole — than were in slavery in 1850; 3) blacks are now incarcerated seven times as often as whites. (17)
The United States is also well out-out-step when it comes to punishing juveniles for serious crimes. A prime example of this unappealing exceptionalism of the United States is that it wasn’t until 2005, in the case of Roper v. Simmons, that the U.S. became the last Western nation to abolish the death penalty for juveniles. (18)
Texas and Michigan share a dubious distinction of leading the parade for harsh punishment of young wrongdoers. It has already been pointed out that Texas has 400 teenagers now serving life sentences. In Michigan, being tried as an adult for first degree murder carries a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Also in Michigan, as is true in many other states, prosecutors can try defendants older than 14, without a hearing, a statement of reasons, or an investigation of the adolescent’s background. (19)
Juvenile courts have become increasingly punitive, and by the late 1990s, nearly half of convicted juveniles were behind bars, rather than in community-supervision or treatment programs, and a quarter of them were locked up because of misdemeanors or probation violations. (20)
Currently, there are some 25 hundred American inmates who were given life sentences for killing someone before their eighteenth birthdays, with more than half of them committing their first crime. (21)
Katrina Miller, a corrections official turned academic researcher, is owed a debt of gratitude for discovering that a whopping 30 percent of inmates in Texas prisons meet the clinical threshold for “hard of hearing.” (22)
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 mandated that any entity receiving federal money have an effective communications system for the deaf. (23) An illustration of how poorly implemented this law can be is found in the case of Texas inmate Felix Garcia. When Garcia was tried for murder — it is likely he took the rap for an older family member — he wasn’t able to hear words at his trial, only noise. He gets no hearing assistance in prison. In theory, Garcia could file a civil rights lawsuit, but the Clinton-era Prison Litigation Reform Act makes it extraordinarily difficult for individual prisoners to bring a federal case. (24)
The debtors’ prison has been illegal in the United States since 1833. Nonetheless, more than a third of states now allow borrowers to be jailed, even when debtors’ prisons have been explicitly banned by state constitutions. The cost of jailing sometimes exceeds the debt owed.
Among the reforms proposed to make the U.S. criminal justice system more rational and fair is to try to reduce the prevalence of plea bargaining and subsequently increase the percentage of jury trials. By one estimate, more than 95 percent of felony convictions in metropolitan areas are the result of guilty pleas. (25) With the ability to threaten long sentences for sometimes minor crimes, prosecutors become something like extortion artists. (26)
One cannot talk intelligently about the tremendous increase in the U.S. prison population without bringing illegal drugs into the conversation. In 1980 there were 10,449 drug offenders behind bars and in 2003 that number had increased to 493,772. (27) The percentage of drug arrests targeting possession was 82.5 percent as of last report and 17.5 percent targeting distribution. (28) The share of possession arrests are for: prescription drugs and inhalants – 19 percent; heroin/cocaine – 26 percent; meth and other synthetic drugs – 4 percent; and marijuana – 51 percent. (29)
A great deal of money could have been saved in court and imprisonment costs by adoption of the 1972 report by the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, urging that possession of marijuana for personal use be decriminalized.
How does President Obama fit into what has been written above? Given the immense cost of imprisoning such a large segment of the U.S. population; the level of dehumanizing practices in so many prisons, especially the supermaxes; and the racial component of our criminal justice system, Obama could use the power of the presidential pulpit to call attention to the issue and maybe present some alternative solutions in the federal prison system. About the only mitigation of harsh punishment that Obama has been involved in was the reduction in the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine — still quite wide.
*Timothy Cole, convicted of a rape to which another man confessed, died in prison before any action could be taken on the confession. As previously indicated, Texas has no formal procedure for dealing with a post-conviction confession by someone else.
(15) Diane Dimond, “Solitary Confinement a Stain on U.S. Prison Systems,” The Albuquerque Journal, February 25, 2012.
(19) Rachel Aviv, “No Remorse,” The New Yorker, January 2, 2012.
(22) James Ridgeway, “The Silent Treatment,” Mother Jones, March/April 2012.
(27) Kevin Drum, “The Patriot’s Guide to Legalization,” Mother Jones, July/August 2009.
(29 ) Ibid.