In the course of attending events in different parts of the country I am often asked "which prison system is the worst?" That's a tough question to answer because it depends on how you define "bad". Medical neglect in prisons and jails is pretty awful around the country, regardless of the state and I can't think of a single one where I would want to be sick if I were a prisoner. Levels of brutality and violence certainly vary from state to state with low levels in some (Vermont) and those that run by force, such as California.
Some questioners have asked if I think that size is an issue and that large prison systems are inherently worse, or more difficult to run in a humane manner, than small ones. Others have asked if race and racism are relevant. I don't know that I have the answer to the question (and besides, if you're the prisoner dying of medical neglect, being denied mental health treatment, being brutalized, etc. it matters little if someone, somewhere is suffering more). But I point to Maine which suggests that small size, racial composition, etc., have less to do with prison outcomes than does the overarching reality of prisons as institutions of total control.
Lance Tapley is a free lance journalist in Maine. I got to know him a few years ago when he began covering prison issues in Maine for the Portland Phoenix. Of course, PLN has reported on news and litigation from Maine over the years, on the medical neglect, the brutality and the control unit prison. But being a small state with around 2,000 prisoners, less than 15 of whom subscribe to PLN at any given time, we had not covered it systematically which Lance has done. We ran a compilation of his articles in the June, 2006 issue of PLN. Not surprisingly, the story that unfolds from the most minimal examination of one of the nation's smallest prison systems is one of brutality, systemic medical neglect, repression, retaliation and no accountability. No racism to throw into the usual criminal justice mix because Maine has a virtually all white prison population (out of 2,008 prisoners, 285 are identified as being Hispanic, Black, Native American or Asian).
Lance has continued covering the prison system in Maine and the results of that award winning coverage are the topic of this month's cover story. In short, the problems of the tiny Maine prison system are all too familiar to PLN readers. I think the biggest problem in criminal justice is the political cowardice of the legislative and executive branches who are intent on furthering their political careers rather than serving the public interest when it comes to having policies that actually serve the public and have some accountability. Thus neither Maine nor California, or any other state, is willing to enact sentencing reform to control exponentially growing prison populations or attempt to instill accountability. And the politicians of small states are no better than politicians in big states.
Is it a race issue? Not in Maine and I can note that in those local jurisdictions, such as Atlanta, the District of Columbia, New Orleans, etc., where PLN frequently reports on abysmal, brutal conditions of the local jails, where most of the prisoners are black, the local political power structure (mayor, sheriff, police chief, most of the guards, et al.,) are also black. The outcome remains the same for prisoners despite the race of the people running the show or the race of the prisoners.
No easy answers and complex issues make for bad stories in the American mainstream media. But, that is what PLN is for. Enjoy this issue and please encourage others to subscribe. I am pleased to report that as this issue goes to press PLN has almost 7,000 subscribers. The most we've ever had.
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