by Paul Wright
This month’s cover story on prison’s using doctors with revoked or suspended medical licenses is an ongoing story for PLN readers. Given the six figure salaries prison doctors are paid it seems odd that the government can’t find any medical staff to hire that don’t kill, rape or maim their patients. While this article is about Louisiana, the practice is longstanding, national and systemic.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising and the massacre of 43 prisoners and staff at the prison on September 13, 1971. It was the Attica rebellion that put in motion the modern American prisoner rights movement and also got the courts involved in efforts to drag prisons and jails into the 20th century and prisoners into the protection of the Constitution. Both of these efforts have been resisted mightily and fiercely by both the executive and legislative branches of government ever since.
In 1971, the US had 196,092 people caged in state and federal prisons. Fifty years later, the prison and jail population is in the neighborhood of 2.3 million people. The prison population has gotten darker. Prior to the late 1970s, it was mostly poor white men who were being locked up. In 1930, the US had 66,013 prisoners in state and federal prison and 50,663 were white, 14,771 were Black. Those ratios and the low number of prisoners in general, would hold true for the next half century. What has not changed is it is generally poor people who go to prison. As the adage says about capital punishment, those without the capital get the punishment.
When I ask colleagues at the forefront of the prisoner rights movement who started their careers around the time of Attica rebellion if things have gotten better or worse the answers tend to be nuanced. Long time Washington state prisoner rights lawyer John Midgley told me that just the idea of having standards is a big leap forward from where things were in the 1970s. He said when he first sued Washington prison officials in the 1970s, the prisons did not have doctors, not even ones with suspended licenses. Instead, medical care was being provided by prisoners who had served as medics in the military.
The absolute poverty of the law when it comes to prisoner rights is nowhere better illustrated than with regards to torture. To date, the US has no state or federal law that defines much less prohibits the torture of prisoners. To the extent physical torture is no longer commonplace it is because of federal court orders, not the legislative process, that such abuses ended, at least on paper. As recently as 1974, prisoners were being flogged for disciplinary violations at prisons in Tennessee. The infamous “Tucker telephone” was being used in Arkansas prisons whereby prison staff would attach electrodes from military field telephones to prisoners’ genitals and electrocute them until the end of the 1970s when courts enjoined them. By contrast, the People’s Republic of China banned the physical abuse of prisoners in 1954. Other countries actually have laws banning torture and abuse of prisoners, not the US.
As recently as the 1980s, armed prisoners provided internal and perimeter security at dozens of prisons in states such as Arkansas and Texas, keeping prison costs down at a tremendous cost in lives, brutality and misery. Again, these ended by court order, not because the government thought there was anything wrong with their practices.
Fifty years after Attica, we have a lot more prisoners, serving much longer sentences, a lot more people sucking down a paycheck from caging other people, private prison corporations and a bevy of prison profiteers (think Jpay, Securus, Global Tel Link, Keefe, et al.) making billions exploiting prisoners and their families, which is different. But the inhumane conditions confinement, such as overcrowding, inadequate medical care, violence by staff and prisoners alike and large-scale impunity, remains the same. It was said at the time that Attica was every prison, and every prison was Attica. Sadly, that seems to still be the case today.
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