What’s hidden behind the walls of America’s prisons
June 5, 2017 2.45am BST
Inmates at the California Institution for Men state prison in Chino, California in 2011. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Heather Ann Thompson
Professor of History and Afroamerican and African Studies, University of Michigan
Heather Ann Thompson does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.
University of Michigan provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation US.
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Few Americans fully appreciate just how many of their fellow citizens are ensnared in the criminal justice system.
Some may have heard that there are about 2.3 million people behind bars, but that figure tells only part of the story. Yes, in a stunning array of 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 901 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails and 76 Indian Country jails, as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers and prisons in the U.S. territories, we physically contain more human beings than any other country in the world. In addition to those actually locked up, there are another 840,000 Americans being supervised on parole and an additional 3.7 million people being monitored on probation.
Consider this: The world’s most populous city, Tokyo, and the U.S.‘s most populous state, California, have fewer residents combined than the up to 100 million U.S. citizens who now have a criminal record.
As important, these historically unprecedented rates of containment, and the deep stigma of a criminal record, aren’t experienced equally in this country. America’s incarceration crisis is suffered staggeringly and dis-proportionally by communities of color.
That so many are blissfully unaware of just how many people are, or have been, subject to containment or control is, perhaps, unsurprising. Prisons are built to be out of sight and are, thus, out of mind. Somehow, even though these institutions contain human beings, including children, and even though we are the ones who cough up the billion of dollars that it costs to run them, we are expected simply to trust that they are operated humanely and that they in fact make our society safer.
As a historian of crime and punishment who has been inside of America’s prisons and has documented severe abuses that have taken place within them, I know this trust is not warranted. It is past time that the public has unfettered access to these public institutions so that we can know exactly what happens behind prison walls.
The fight to see inside
There is, in fact, a long history of the public being kept away from prisons so that corrections officials could run them as they wished. For much of the 19th and into the 20th century, state politicians’ deeply ingrained fear of federal encroachment on their power more generally translated into the so-called “hands-off doctrine” when it came to how they ran their prisons. Prison authorities, it was understood, had the right to do what they wanted to those in their charge.
Of course prisoners routinely tried to bring attention to the abuses that happened to them. But time and again, and most notably in the infamous 1871 case Ruffin v. Commonwealth, their bid to be treated as human beings was formally denied. In fact, according to the court in this case, prisoners were “slaves of the state.”
Chain gang street sweepers in Washington, D.C., circa 1909.
In the 1960s and 1970s, though, in response to escalating protests in penal facilities and in cities across the country, prisoners finally gained some rights. In turn, the public began to learn a bit more about what was happening to them behind bars.
It was, for example, deeply significant when the Warren Court opined in a 1974 case, Wolff v. McDonnell, that
“a prisoner is not wholly stripped of constitutional protections when he is imprisoned for crime. There is no iron curtain drawn between the Constitution and the prisons of this country.”
However, at the moment that more light was being shone on prison conditions because of specific judicial rulings, it was also clear that serious limitations on the public’s access to these institutions would remain and, overtime, actually increase.
In 1974, the court ruled in Pell v. Procunier that prisoners’ First Amendment rights were in fact limited. In this case the court held that journalists, the people who might hear prisoner accounts of abuse and share them with the public, “have no constitutional right of access to prisons or their inmates beyond that afforded to the general public.” As Ted Kennedy noted passionately before his colleagues in the Senate, this decision was alarming since, as he pointed out, “the public cannot regularly tour the prisons and interview inmates.”
Another significant blow to the public’s access came in 1987 when a decision was rendered in the case Turner v. Safley. The court ruled that prisoners’ rights to speak to the media existed only to the extent that prison authorities didn’t have a reasonable justification for restricting those rights. And the lid on access lowered even farther in the 2003 case Overton v. Bazzetta. The court ruled, in short, that if prison administrators wished to bar visitors to prison, their desires trumped other constitutional considerations such as the First Amendment rights of prisoners.
The court even found that prison officials could prevent visits between prisoners and their kids if the restrictions on visitation were related to “valid interests in maintaining internal security.”
Notably, other prison systems, most famously those in countries such as Sweden and Norway, are much more transparent. The primary goal of prison, officials in these countries maintain, is to return people to the society improved. And, thus, they insist, prisons must have oversight to ensure that they are run humanely.
Not only are Scandinavian prisoners assigned a special officer “who monitors and helps advance progress toward return to the world outside,” but Norwegian prisons boast an “explicit focus on rehabilitating prisoners through education, job training and therapy … [and the] priority of reintegration.”
Even in countries not known for their human rights, such as Singapore, prison officials explicitly connect the humane treatment of the incarcerated to the broader public good. As their corrections officials put it, “by rehabilitating our inmates, society can continue to be safe even when these offenders leave prison.”
The principle that the public has a responsibility to run prisons humanely was in fact adopted by the United Nations back in 1955.
When the U.N. revised and again adopted its “Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners” in 2013, thereafter dubbed the “Nelson Mandela Rules,” not only was it endorsing the idea that penal practices must be humane and prisoners treated like people, but it also made clear that humane treatment depended upon outsider access to prisons. According to the U.N., “services and agencies, governmental or otherwise” interested in prisoners’ well being “shall have all necessary access to the institution and to prisoners.”
Why access matters
Even a cursory glance at our nation’s history indicates that such access is not only desirable, but necessary.
The abuses that went on in this country’s 19th-century penal institutions, both in the North and in the South, are well-documented, and it is now obvious that the 20th century did not bring much improvement.
One need only read of the pain and suffering the men locked up at the Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana endured in the 1950s. Here, men willingly cut their own Achilles tendons so that they might avoid the abuses of the guards driving them in the prison’s cotton fields. Or we can look at the horrific torture endured by the men at Attica in the wake of their 1971 protest….