Prison Fun Facts

What place (in space and time) does this describe?

Plaintiffs also complain that numerous problems allegedly exist in the units in which they are housed including: (1) the toilets in the solitary confinement units do not function for long periods of time; and that feces, urine, food, and other debris covers the floors and walls, (2) the units are infested with vermin, (3) some prisoners do not have working light bulbs in their cells, while others are subjected to “bright artificial light around the clock,” and (4) the noise in the units “is often deafening”.

Answer after the break.

The above paragraph comes from an order granting class certification in Dockery v. Fischer, a suit by inmates of East Mississippi Correctional Facility (“EMCF”) in Meridian, Mississippi, “which is designed to provide treatment and housing for mentally ill prisoners.” The paragraph above refers only to the part of the complaint dealing with solitary confinement; prisoners at the facility are also making claims that the medical and mental health care in the prison is constitutionally deficient. That the class is certified is a huge win, but the facts as alleged in the complaint are truly horrifying. Never mind the fact that solitary is terrible for anyone, much less people with mental illnesses. It’s appalling that solitary takes place under these conditions.

Because I don’t want to bash just Mississippi (though I agree with Steve Earle that it’s high time to change the state flag) I’ll throw in a bonus quiz. What place (in space and time) does this describe?

In the “long room,” so-called … are turned loose, like so many brute animals in a corral, to stay and sleep, the young, middle-aged and old, (the boy of fifteen, perhaps for his first offence, with upwards of three hundred convicts, among whom are necessarily many of the vilest of the vile,) thus rendering reform and reformation seemingly impossible. The bedding in this room is … in a worse condition, being … infested with [lice] …. The manner of stowing away such a number in so small a space is accomplished by placing a row of standee bunks close to each other on each side of the room, with their heads to the wall, leaving an open space through the middle of the room, the bunks being one above another, and into which the prisoners crawl from the end, the open space being so small that before any take their bunks it is with a good deal of difficulty you can make your way through the crowd; and the stench issuing from the room when opened in the morning will have to be imagined, as a description in words is impossible.

California in 2011, from Brown v. Plata? Certainly could be (scroll to page 51). But this was from California in the 1850’s, taken from an article I’ve written about the first 50 years of the California prison system, when, according to one contemporary historian, the prisons were never anything but overcrowded. When it comes to prison conditions, I think of the old French saying (as modified slightly by my brother): plus ça change, plus c’est la meme shit.

Author: W. David Ball

W. David Ball is an Associate Professor at Santa Clara School of Law. He writes and teaches primarily in the fields of criminal law and criminal procedure, with a special focus on sentencing and corrections. He also serves as the Co-Chair of the Corrections Committee of the American Bar Association.

5 thoughts on “Prison Fun Facts”

  1. I wonder if the big divide in American politics is between people who think that the US is a brutal country partly because it brutalizes huge numbers of prisoners (and non-prisoners) and those who think the US is brutal because we don't brutalize enough people.

  2. I think that's a very interesting division–but I might add a third, that of people who don't know how many people we brutalize. So much of what we do in prisons is opaque to the general public.

    In a point unrelated to yours, I've often heard people say "they did something to get in prison; they're getting what they deserve." But I've always felt that if we really feel like people get what they deserve in terms of prison conditions, we should explicitly sentence them to that (e.g., "I sentence you to 5 years in prison with 4 rats and feces on the wall covering 40 percent of the available area.").

  3. What we do to the least…

    Professor, this is way depressing stuff. How do you cope? Don't worry, that can stay rhetorical if you like.

    Our new DA, Jackie Lacey, is trying to divert mentally ill folk out of the jail system. I hope it works. I do perceive a new trickle of money coming as a result of Obamacare. They are even figuring out how to use some of it for housing, which seems key.

  4. There's definitely more money coming in for jail aftercare as a result of the ACA.

    But your larger question is a good one. I'm really not sure how I cope. I think doing nothing would make me feel worse. I think some of it is just personal. My wife does a lot of work with torture survivors, which I don't think I could handle, and I work on prisons, which for some reason I can. I think you just find the issues you care about and can do good work on it. Focus on the effort and the process, which you can control, not the outcome, which ultimately you can't.

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