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We Need More Humane Prisons

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If the mark of a society is how it treats its most marginal, we need to do something about our prisons.

When revelations of the abuses that took place at Forest Haven, an asylum in Maryland for people with mental disabilities, became too unsettling to put out of mind for any longer, the government ordered that the institution be closed.

This was in the fall of 1991, more than a decade after a lawsuit alleging widespread mistreatment of the institution’s residents was filed. The lawsuit described unsanitary conditions, inadequate medical care and frequent instances of abuse at the hands of both staff and other patients.

Katherine Boo, while a reporter for the Washington Post, chronicled the lives of the asylum’s residents, who would pray each evening with the words “Giving me the things I need/The sun and the rain and the apple seed.” (The Post’s series on the treatment of Washington’s intellectually disabled won a Pulitzer Prize in 2000.)

These residents were subjected to squalid conditions in an institution established to provide them with care, an institution with a bitterly ironic inscription, borrowed from Joseph Addison’s 18th-century play “Cato,” that hung above the main door and read: “Whilst We Yet Live Let Us Not Live in Vain.”

Although asylums such as Forest Haven are now closed, they must continue to serve as reminders of the potential for abuse that exists in institutions that house society’s “undesirable,” in remote places where the public’s attention and empathy do not reach. Prisons are one such place. And whatever psychological phenomenon it is that makes these institutions particularly prone to abuses, we, as a country, must enact policies to minimize their frequency and severity.

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Unlike most of the people housed in the mental asylums of the past century, the prison inmates of today have knowingly broken the law, and many have committed egregious acts. However, it is still necessary to ensure that all people held in American prisons and jails are able to serve their sentences in an environment that is appropriate and safe.

There are few greater insights into the morality of a nation than by observing how it treats its most despised people, segments of the population who are not only dependent on the state for their sustenance but also lack recourse to favorable public opinion.

Recent happenings at Escambia County Jail in Northwest Florida, which were uncovered by a 2013 Department of Justice investigation, substantiated concerns that prisoners in the United States regularly face harsh conditions. In this instance, the jail did not provide proper care to inmates suffering from mental illness, and, on average, one prisoner each month was hospitalized for a self-inflicted injury.

John Restivo, in an interview with The New Yorker, described being struck in the face by a police officer on the evening of his arrest and then, during his time in jail, being physically and sexually assaulted “half a dozen times.” Between 2011 and 2012, 4 percent of prison inmates and 3.2 percent of jail inmates reported being victims of sexual assault; for juveniles, the rate was 9.5 percent.

There are few greater insights into the morality of a nation than by observing how it treats its most despised people, segments of the population who are not only dependent on the state for their sustenance but also lack recourse to favorable public opinion. Our empathy cannot be selective. As difficult as it may be to advocate on behalf of those who have committed harmful crimes, there remains a moral imperative to guarantee all people the basic right to security. A prison sentence ought not include being subjected to violence.

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To avoid an exercise in criticizing the status quo without proposing solutions, my suggestion is to emulate past positive efforts in combating unsafe prison conditions such as the Food and Drug Administration’s 1980 decision to place a moratorium on nontherapeutic pharmaceutical testing on inmates.

It is also time to fulfill the promise of the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act, a promise more ambitious than the one offered by the original version of the bill, the Prison Rape Reduction Act. We must extend our empathy to those incarcerated so as to ensure that prisoners in the United States can serve their sentences in an environment that is safer than it has ever been in the past.

This article appeared originally in the August 20, 2015 edition of the Orlando Sentinel. 

Erich J. Prince is the editor at Merion West. Erich has contributed to a variety of publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Hartford Courant, The News & Observer, the Orlando Sentinel, and The Hill. His opinion writing has been honored with two awards from the Columbia University School of Journalism. He studied political science at Yale, completing his thesis on the history of polarization in the United States Congress.

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