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Confronting Confinement, A Report On Safety and Abuse In America’s Prisons, Vera Justice Institute (2006), 118 pp.

Confronting Confinement, A Report On Safety and Abuse In America's Prisons, Vera Justice Institute (2006), 118 pp.

Reviewed by John E. Dannenberg

The Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons released its June 2006 report Confronting Confinement which concluded, "What happens inside jails and prisons does not stay [there]. It comes home with prisoners after they are released and with corrections officers at the end of each day's shift. We must create safe and productive conditions of confinement .. because it influences the safety, health and prosperity of us all."

Since so few citizens know (or even care) what goes on behind bars in America's lockups unless and until they are directly affected by their own or a loved one experiencing "the system," this report was designed to bring the realities and effects of life behind bars into the public limelight.

Included are those components that no judge or jury ever intended -- prison rape, gang violence, abuse by guards, cruel medical care, infectious disease and endless solitary confinement. While the report may not come as "news" to the average PLN reader, it serves valuably as a comprehensive and highly credible reference tool to present to the public who blindly pays year after year for this largesse, being taxed first financially for "criminal justice," then personally by the cost of crime and finally psychologically by unending societal debilitation.

The Commission's Composition

The twenty-person Commission is comprised of respected names that PLN readers will recognize. Co-Chair Nicholas D. Katzenbach is a former United States Attorney General who led desegregation efforts in the southern states. Co-Chair Hon. John J. Gibbons, was former Chief Judge of the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. Others include California's Senator Gloria Romero [prison reform proponent], Ray Krone [former death row prisoner cleared by DNA test], Professor Margo Schlanger [author of Inmate Litigation], as well as former jail/prison wardens, human rights groups leaders, prisoners, correctional mental health professionals, judges, senators, attorneys general and former FBI Director and U.S. District Judge Hon. William Sessions. Adding to its own carnal knowledge of the realities of prison, the Commission took testimony from dozens of prison experts.

The report is topically divided into Conditions of Confinement (violence, medical care, segregation), Labor and Leadership, Oversight and Accountability, and Knowledge and Data.

Prison Violence Is Excessive

First, the report makes the familiar finding, "violence remains a serious problem in America's prisons and jails." Taking testimony from guards (who claimed to be in "constant fear" of assault), from former prisoners recounting gang rape and beatings by guards and from a concurring California Secretary of Corrections Roderick Hickman, the Commission's conclusion resonated with the then ongoing riots in the Los Angeles County Jails. (See: PLN, January, 2007.)

But the Commission next found that it knew which conditions fueled violence, and therefore, how to prevent it. Witness Donald Specter, Director of the Prison Law Office in California, told them, "The culture of our prisons virtually dictates the level of violence that you will have in them. And if you change that culture, you will reduce the violence." The main vehicle to violence reduction was recognized to be the elimination of idle time. "Highly structured programs are known to reduce misconduct in correctional facilities and also to lower recidivism after release." A national poll showed that 87 % of the public favored rehabilitative services versus only punishment. Other witnesses told that unnecessary use of force stimulates equal and opposite violence, and should be restrained. But the largest cultural stimulus was agreed to be ties with one's family and community. The common recent trends to physically isolate prisoners (e.g., farming them out to private prisons in distant states, siting prisons in rural areas far from the cities that generate most prisoners) and making their phone calls home prohibitively expensive (by corruptly awarding phone contracts to the highest kick-back bidder) were both cited as fomenting increased violence in (and after) incarceration.

Nonetheless, the Commission complained that it did not have adequate reporting on violence behind bars. Incredibly, three states reported (doubtfully) absolutely no assaults on prisoners in the year 2000. More realistically, the best estimate is that suppression of actual incidents shows that the true measure of such incidents is five times that actually reported, nationwide. Indeed, the Bureau of Justice Statistics declared it was unable to measure the level of assaults because of the paucity of administrative records (i.e., cover-ups).

Prison Healthcare Is Inadequate

As to medical care, the report found -- again unsurprisingly to those inside -- that "high rates of disease and illness among prisoners, coupled with inadequate funding for correctional health care, endanger prisoners, staff and the public." In California, it reached the level of cruel and unusual punishment (see: PLN, Mar.2006, p.1, Federal Court Seizes California Prisons' Medical Care; Appoints Receiver With Unprecedented Powers). And, as often reported in PLN, the ravages of tuberculosis, hepatitis, HIV and MRSA (staphylococcus infections) don't stop at the prison gates. Paroling prisoners and guards going home each day act as constant public vectors of these infestations. Nonetheless, the report concludes that there are solutions to prisons' health care dilemma. They noted that New York reduced tuberculosis by 59% (drug-resistant cases by 91%) after instituting proper screening. The report also panned prisoner co-payments because this discourages sick prisoners from seeking care early on, when remedial care is far less costly. Indeed, the rampant spread of MRSA in Georgia, California and Texas prisons was literally blamed on co-payment reticence. Finally, the Commission notes that prisons and jails are used unsuccessfully as mental institutions, and recommend that this practice cease.

Segregation Is Counter-Productive

In its third segment, the report made the counterintuitive observation that high-security segregation backfires, literally fomenting both violence within the facilities and contributing to recidivism after release. In short, the Commission concluded that segregation works against rehabilitation and ultimately threatens public safety when isolated prisoners are unceremoniously dumped back into the community.

PLN has reported frequently on the debilitating psychological effects of "supermax" isolation. Worse yet, the growth rate of the disciplinary segregation population (half of whom are mentally ill) increased by 68% over a period when overall population growth was 28%. Not only is segregation housing costly in terms of violence and recidivism, it typically doubles the incarceration tab.

Oversight Is Sorely Lacking

Next, the report deals with oversight and accountability. Or, more honestly phrased, "Those walls are not to keep prisoners from getting out, they are to keep the public from peeking in." Noting that all public institutions "need and benefit from strong oversight," the report focused on prisons as exceptionally needy because absent oversight, their culture degrades more rapidly due to the public's lower expectations for prisoner treatment. As U.S. DOJ Inspector General Glenn Fine (who oversees all federal lockups) said, "There is tremendous pressure within an institution to keep quiet." California's former DOC Secretary Hickman has called this "the Code of Silence." To the extent that such standards have been set by the American Correctional Association (ACA), they are mostly ignored. Indeed, only a tiny fraction of American jails and less than half of the prisons are ACA accredited. And when internal reporting does occur, it often meets with strong retribution.

To get to the bottom of this problem, the Commission recommends a uniform national policy of reporting on safety and abuse in detention facilities. Without this, state legislatures will be unable to make the proper informed decisions on how to maximize public safety while minimizing incarceration costs. Hence, the Commission's conclusion is to "confront confinement" openly so as to render jails and prisons "safe, humane and productive."

The Commission, its hearings and release of its report all received widespread media attention and some legislators made public comments about it. However, the United States has a long modern history of blue ribbon commissions issuing similar reports about the abysmal failings and short comings of its detention facilities and to date, they have been quickly forgotten. Absent political will from the legislative and executive branches, prison and jail conditions and high levels of violence and the total lack of accountability that today are the hallmarks of American incarceration, will continue.

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