Thursday, August 6, 2009

Thoughts about Prisons

Promoting Fiscal Discipline and Liberty Through Criminal Justice Reform

John Knock: A man who must wrestle with the wind that is called The Rule of Law

This is just one vignette among many about practices in the Federal Prison System. This is only a personal story, however it is played over and over again in Federal facilities, and most probably presents in the same way through out state prison systems.

To put my interest in context, you must first know that I have a brother who was sentenced to life plus twenty by Judge Maurice Paul in 2000 in the Northern District of Florida. John has always been a pacifist. This was the first time he had been charged with a crime and it was a marijuana only conspiracy. He is presently in FCI Allenwood, a high security prison and he is 61 years old. John is not a threat to society . The secret is that there are many non violent prisoners assigned to high security prisons at great expense to the tax payers. When it is time to allocate funds, it is assumed that funds must be expended for high security prisons to keep communities safe. High security prisons require more staff and more capital for building and infrastructure.

There is another method used by people in the prison industrial complex to call attention to their facility and document in some way that these are dangerous institutions that require increased money for staff and security.

I will give just two recent examples. Allenwood was locked down from July 20 to Aug 4 2009. When a lock down is instituted inmates remain in their cells for the length of the lock down. This is a small shared space. Food is served through a slot and it is cold. Guards go through each cell and take any personal items that they deem non essential. This includes books, legal papers, writings, religious literature, what ever the guards select can be confiscated.

Families become understandably concerned during these lock downs because they are unable to communicate with their family member. Sometimes families have made elaborate arrangements to visit, This can be a major undertaking as Federal Prisoners are frequently housed hundreds of miles from their families. Children are looking forward to seeing their father or mother, parents their son etc. The inmate cannot tell their families the facility is locked down and the family arrives after a long trip only to be told that they may not visit. Being deprived of communication with family, being in a very small space with a cell mate for 24 hours a day with food being served cold through a slot, and having belongings that are important to you confiscated is extraordinarily stressful. These inmates must exercise great self control.

During the last lock down at Allenwood, I looked for the reason on the internet and found the lockdown site on the Web Site of the Council of Prisons Union, which is part of the American Federation of Government Employees. The reason for the 15 day lock down was guards had heard rumors that there was going to be a food strike. Apparently prison officials heard that some inmates were not going to leave their cells for meals. This was the reason for the 15 day facility lock down.

Obviously, a facility that requires frequent lock downs can make a case for a need for more funds for security.

My 61 year old non violent brother has a cell mate who is in his 30s. As a young service man his cell mate was involved in a violent crime. I can’t know the details, but I believe it involved very young military men, some alcohol, and a baseball bat. It resulted in the death of a young man. John’s cell mate will be eligible for release in a couple of years. John seems to be proud and protective of the young man who has tried valiantly to prepare himself for a new life upon release. He is quite close to getting a college degree. During the month of June Allenwood was also locked down for around two weeks. During that lock down when the guards took personal possessions from the cells, they took hundreds of dollars of my brother’s cell mates books that he needed to complete his course work. Staying calm during these stressful times must require great self discipline and grace.

It is apparent that there are many interested stake holders in our current criminal justice system. We have three major publically traded companies that depend on the growth of the prison population for their companies growth and profits. They are GEO Group Inc., Corrections Corp of America and Cornell Companies. These are just the largest of the private security and corrections companies. They have may partners and stake holders in their orbit. There are untold vendors and suppliers, construction companies, technology and security companies, consultants, etc. Other stake holders are the strong and growing unions who represent the hundreds of thousands of worker in the prison and law enforcement community.

This prison constituency has become such a large % of our work force and of the economy that government officials feel compelled to court them.

This ever growing passion to punish in our country has given us a sickness of the soul and coarsened our culture. We now think it is acceptable when we see obviously old, ill or injured people being handcuffed and chained and escorted by many armed and able law enforcement personnel. It is accepted that people who are arrested will be stripped and have their body probed and poked as a matter of course regardless of the danger they pose. This is inhumane and damaging for both parties. Our Country needs to regain respect and dignity. For ourselves and others. This can only happen when we rein in primitive instincts to dominate and control and reform our Criminal Justice System.

Prosecutors deals with confidential informants, the use of plea agreements to get purchased and bargained testimony, and sting operations run and instigated by law enforcement all poison the integrity of our legal system. These practices and our ever increasing propensity to incarcerate have also causes us to lose the respect of many countries who find our justice harsh and primitive.

An essential step is to end the War on Drugs. In fact ending the war and czar metaphors would be a start. Do not place non violent inmates in high security facilities. Change the public dialogue and discourse. In short, return to our roots and take liberty and freedom seriously.