Prison Reform as Enlightened Self-Interest

by Katharine Blake McFarland

Newgate-3I'm sitting in the empty bathtub with all my clothes on and my laptop in my lap, because it's the only place I can't hear the neighborhood jackhammer, when a headline from The Onion catches my attention: 15 Years In Environment Of Constant Fear Somehow Fails To Rehabilitate Prisoner. “About time,” I shout, to the empty bathroom. The satirical article goes on:

[O]fficials at Woodbourne Correctional Facility struggled Tuesday to make sense of how the prisoner had not been rehabilitated by 15 years of constant threats, physical abuse, and periodic isolation. “It just doesn't seem possible that an inmate could live for a decade and a half in a completely dehumanizing environment in which violent felons were constantly on the verge of attacking or even killing him and not emerge an emotionally stable, productive member of society”…

A story's inclusion in The Onion signals its self-evidence. The story—in this case, the inefficacy of incarceration—must be so obvious, so incontrovertible, that it's funny to dress it up as breaking news. It bodes well, I think, that this particular joke is getting some mainstream laughs because it hasn't always. (To be clear, by “joke” I mean “farce” and by “laughs” I mean “attention.” The distinction is important because lately prisons have become the object of increased media consideration, but sometimes the spotlight takes a precarious form. Does entertainment like Orange is the New Black help or hurt? Do we care? When it inspires fans to dress up in blackface and orange prison garb for Halloween, you might see the risk. A young friend of mine, someone who narrowly escaped the pipeline to prison himself, interpreted the name of the show as a reference to skin color, rather than fashion: “the new black,” he said, pointing to his bare arm. The intended joke was lost on him.)

And the notion that the prison system works—that it makes us safer, that it doles out appropriate punishment to deserving offenders and offers meaningful rehabilitative opportunities to those willing to change—has become a notion deserving of derision. It remains one of the greatest farces of our current justice system. I know a few who have served time and had an experience, sometimes a miracle, that changed them for the better. But mostly these experiences transpired in spite of, not because of, the environment. Incarceration, in its current form, does not rehabilitate but rather exacerbates criminality and mental illness.

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Letters from a Mississippi Prison

by Katharine Blake McFarland

Letter1Nowadays, fewer and fewer occasions require the traditional letter, sent through the postal service. This is especially true in the professional context, where time is always of the essence, or at least perceived to be. But during my second year of law school, I worked at the ACLU's National Prison Project, an organization that protects the constitutional rights of prisoners—men and women ill-positioned to defend their own rights and about whom society seems content to forget—and in addition to writing and editing motions and court communications, I also read hundreds of letters. Letters written by hand, with a pencil, on a piece of paper.

The letters I read were from men incarcerated in Mississippi prisons, clients from a case that had settled years earlier. The continuing effort was to ensure these facilities' were making the changes the Judge had ordered in the consent decree. NPP attorneys made trips to these facilities themselves, but in between trips, we relied on reports from clients on the inside. These reports, though entirely urgent, could be sent only by mail.

Without exception, the letters looked dirty and smelled unmistakably institutional. A mustiness mixed with old prison food (I have eaten prison food, so you will have to trust me). I was supposed to be skimming the letters for abuses to catalog on a spreadsheet, but I have never been good at skimming. Instead, I shut the door to my office and disappeared into the pencil-written paragraphs. I heard each man's voice; I saw his hand moving across the paper. Sometimes I looked him up based on his inmate number, to learn what he was in for. Rape, murder, burglary. I became so immersed in these letters that when someone knocked on my door or the phone rang, I would startle and shake myself back to reality. My reality, that is. Well-lit, clean and safe.

The letters told a different reality: sweltering cells rife with rats, mice, and fire ants; broken bones from run-ins with under-trained, over-worked guards, too quick to use force, pepper spray, and a host of racial epithets and vulgar sexual innuendo, even (especially) against inmates with extreme mental illness; reading materials unconstitutionally confiscated; broken plumbing (“ping-pong toilets,” as the inmates called them) and flooded cells; medications unprescribed or overprescribed, resulting in sickness and incapacitation. One man woke up with a snake in his cell. One day, I read a flurry of letters, all received on the same day, describing a prisoner screaming for help. The men in neighboring cells tried to get the guards' attention. They used metal cups to bang on the heavy doors but no one responded. They did not know if this inmate was still alive. Given the track record of these facilities, this was a legitimate question.

One night I caught a cab home from work and the cab driver, who was from Saudi Arabia, asked me what I did for a living. I told him about law school and NPP and told him about the kinds of violations the organization seeks to right. “In America?” He asked. “I didn't know that kind of stuff happened here.”

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