Friday, September 12, 2003

Inside Prison, Outside the Law

"RoundHouse"Joliet Prison, Illinois "

Justice" and Society's Indifference

Does society do people on the outside who look the other way, who don't want to know that systematic abuse by prisoners and by guards goes on inside US prisons every single day do they have some responsibility, too?" she asks. "I think so. It's happening in our name and with our tax dollars."

Every year, tens of thousands of prisoners in state and federal custody are attacked. The exact number who die is difficult to determine: According to the nonprofit Criminal Justice Institute, in 2000, the most recent year for which figures have been compiled, 55 prisoners were murdered, 39 died "accidentally," and 118 died for unknown reasons.

The California nonprofit Stop Prisoner Rape estimates that 1 in 5 men is raped in custody. The group's cause got unprecedented recognition last week when President Bush signed into law national legislation supporting study of the issue.

Prison rape victims fit no single profile. But Human Rights Watch International, which examined the phenomenon in a 2001 report, found that "physical weakness; being white, gay, or a first offender; being unassertive, unaggressive, shy, intellectual, not street-smart, or "passive"; or having been convicted of a sexual offense against a minor" all increase a prisoner's vulnerability.

Many attacks are a means to extort money or assert power. But corrections officers and prisoner advocates agree a different dynamic is at work in the victimization of pedophiles: There's a merciless pecking order inside, they say, and pedophiles are at the bottom.

"Remember, a lot of people in the prison system spent time in juvenile institutions too a lot of them were victimized as kids," says Human Rights Watch's Joanne Mariner, the author of the report. Retribution against sex criminals, she says, may be their way of saying: "Even in prison we have a moral-values system, and our moral-values system is shocked by the crimes of the pedophile."

Prison officials acknowledge that violent prison assaults happen, though not with the frequency critics claim. Geraghty, who directs the Bluhm legal clinic at Chicago's Northwestern University, says Americans can romanticize vigilante justice precisely because their society has been successfully governed by the rule of law for so long.

"I just have to believe that the people who say extrajudicial killing is OK are responding emotionally, and haven't thought through the implications of what they're saying," says the death-penalty opponent. "That's like saying it's OK to take someone out and lynch them."

Mariner, of Human Rights Watch, says that the public has a partner in its silent complicity: the press. Both, she says, demand astonishingly little accountability from a system that runs on their tax money so little that prison-rape jokes are a staple of popular entertainment.

In part, that's a result of ignorance, she says: People lead busy lives, and as long as no one they love is affected by prisoner abuse, they don't want to know details. Few middle-class voters know someone in prison, Walker says, or realize that the system is crowded with nonviolent offenders from the nation's inner cities.

This leads to the perception, she says, that if somebody winds up in the system, they deserve whatever happens to them there. Though courts have awarded a handful of prisoners restitution on the grounds that abuse they suffered in prison constituted cruel and unusual punishment, they're by far the minority.

"Something people don't do is put themselves in the position of someone who's going to prison," Walker says. It doesn't just mean not tucking your kids in at night, she says: The whole world of choices that defined you as a human being is suddenly taken from you. "It's a deprivation that's hard to believe until you're living it and it's enough," she says. "Add to it this torture, and it's too much. It's not punishment, then it's a human rights violation."

As ethical watchdogs point out, though, criminal laws are not written to reflect individuals visceral reactions to the crimes that hurt and horrify them. This, they say, is because justice, at its best, is measured and thoughtful. Justice, at its best, humanizes even the guiltiest members of a society. That humane model of justice is the ground on which this nation stands, they say. Few who call it home would recognize their land without it.

If, as Russian novelist and prisoner Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote, "the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons," this is not merely a window on the chronic prisoner abuse in US prisons and jails, Mariner says. It is also an ugly commentary on the society that fills them.

Edited version by Mary Wiltenburg The Christian Science Monitor posted 12 September 03


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