One of the Darkest Periods in the History of American Prisons


Recent lawsuits and Justice Department investigations have uncovered grotesque abuses of mentally ill inmates at state and local prisons. Yet Washington refuses to investigate allegations of similar mistreatment at federal penitentiaries.

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It has been an extraordinary three weeks in the history of the American penal system, perhaps one of the darkest periods on record. In four states, from the Atlantic to the Mississippi, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes, the systemic abuse and neglect of inmates, and especially mentally ill inmates, has been investigated, chronicled and disclosed in grim detail to the world by lawyers, government investigators and one federal judge. The conclusions are inescapable: In our zeal to dehumanize criminals we have allowed our prisons to become medieval places of unspeakable cruelty so far beyond constitutional norms that they are barely recognizable.

First, on May 22, the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department released a report highlighting the unconstitutional conditions of a county prison in Florida. Then, on May 30th, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit alleging atrocious conditions at a state prison in Mississippi. One day later, the feds again sounded out on behalf of inmates, this time against profound abuse and neglect at a Pennsylvania prison. Finally, last week, a federal judge issued an order describing the unconstitutional “brutality” of the prison in Orleans Parish, Louisiana.

There were many common themes in the reports. In each instance, the mistreatment of mentally ill inmates was highlighted. Prison officials have failed to provide a constitutional level of care in virtually every respect, from providing medication and treatment to protecting the men from committing suicide. In the Louisiana court order, one prison expert is quoted by the judge as describing an “extraordinary and horrific” situation with the prison there. In the Florida investigation, federal investigators noted that local prison officials “have elected to ignore obvious and serious systemic deficiencies” in the jail’s mental health services.

Taken together, these developments shed welcome light on some of the worst government abuses of our time and demonstrate vividly the need for enlightened policies and more human decency and accountability from prison officials. But these lawsuits and investigations and court orders also beg a critical question: If the feds are so concerned with the constitutional rights of mentally ill prisoners in state and local prisons, why is the Justice Department so unwilling to undertake an equally thorough review of the similarly dubious practices and policies now being forced upon mentally ill federal prisoners by the Bureau of Prisons?

The findings from the Florida and California investigations, and the evidence and allegations in Louisiana and Mississippi, are remarkably similar to the evidence and allegations that have been made in two federal civil rights cases about inmate abuse and neglect within the federal penitentiary in Florence, Colorado, the ADX-Florence facility that includes “Supermax,” America’s most famous prison. Yet the Inspector General of the Justice Department has refused to investigate those allegations against federal prison officials. Nor has the Civil Rights Division of the Department. Nor has Congress. This is unacceptable.

Continue Reading @ The Atlantic

 

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