I recently wrote about the Scott sisters' speech at the 47th Annual Mississippi Civil Rights Martyr’s Memorial Service, Conference and Caravan, which I was fortunate enough to attend.
Glady and Jamie Scott, along with their mother, Evelyn Rasco, each spoke about their unfair conviction and perpetual struggle with the law since then. Jamie spoke the most passionately, expressing her belief that law enforcement is still racist, at least in Mississippi. "Slavery isn't over, it's called the law," she announced.
The racial politics of the criminal justice system definitely need to be addressed. Furthermore, Jamie touched upon how terrible our prisons are when she spoke about how miserable she had been. She and her sister "contemplated suicide every day" of the 16 years they served of their prison sentence, which was originally set as a life term, she said.
The National Center on Institutions and Alternative published a report on Prison Suicide: An Overview and Guide to Prevention, in 1995. One of their findings was that,
Suicide ranks third, behind natural causes and AIDS, as the leading cause of death in prison.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics published a Special Report, revised as of October 2010, in which they backed up these claims, reporting that
After adjusting for differences associated with the age, sex, race, and Hispanic origin, suicide was the only cause of death that occurred at a higher rate in local jails than in the U.S. general population.
It seems that the conditions of prisons, and the morale of their prisoners, gets worse every day, as more and more people are sentenced to jail time. Covered in an article by Brandeis Now a month ago, two married Brandeis graduates, Michael Bien and Jane Kahn, were instrumental in winning a case that went before the Supreme Court. The SC ruled that California has to release 30,000 prisoners over the next two years in order to "relieve overcrowding so severe that it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment."
In his opinion for the majority, Justice Kennedy referenced evidence of
"mentally ill prisoners waiting up to a year for treatment, suicidal inmates being held for 24 hours in phone booth-size cages without toilets, waiting lists of 700 inmates for a single doctor, gyms converted into triple-bunked living quarters that breed disease and violence victimizing guards and inmates alike."
These are just some examples of the inhumane treatment that prisoners face in California's prisons, which are among the most overcrowded in the country. And in order to provide for all of these prisoners, California prisons have been cutting down on therapeutic programs which help prisoners adjust to life behind bars, and prepare them for once they're released.
A recent New York Times article discussed the unfortunate reduction of prison arts therapy programs, which were in operation in all of California's 33 state prisons just two years ago, but now have been reduced to programs in 2 prisons, where they are run by volunteers.
These conditions are not unique to California or to Mississippi. Conditions in prisons are inhumane across the nation, and the prisoners are suffering the consequences. Rather than reforming people, we are killing them or damaging them for life, making it even more difficult for them to return to society once they are released.
Prison is not even safe for prisoners, and it is time for our nation to come up with a better way to deal with people who break the rules. Putting them in cells and at risk is simply not a solution.