The Library Basement
Reading under ground

The shame of prison violence

Allen Stanford was the victim of a beating and possible traumatic brain injurywhile in prison awaiting trial for a non-violent crime. He has been declared unfit to stand trial in the interim as a result of the beating.

There is so much to be ashamed about in this story, I'm not even sure where to start. How is it that someone who was being held without  bail was housed in the same area with violent convicts? Why does our justice system rely on privately operated prisons? A man who could still be declared not guilty in a court of law has nonetheless borne the de facto punishment of the prison system. That is not right.

And even if he were a convict, it will still not be right. I think our society has to rethink our justice system and its reliance on incarceration. Prisons are rarely a healthy place for rehabilitation nor even a safe place for segregation from society. Violence is regular, and criminals rarely provide a positive influence for one another. Additionally, our society has many laws (with mandatory minimum sentences), so an embarrassingly high proportion of our population is locked up at any given time. Are prisons really the solution to the problem of crime?

I think America has some mixed feelings about violence which play out in our criminal justice system. I sometimes wonder why corporal punishment is not accepted when so many other forms of violence are. In spite of our wars abroad, our torture at Guantanamo, and police violence which is rarely repudiated, you wouldn't guess that we would be squeamish about corporal punishment. Yet that is something which is not tolerated in modern criminal justice (except when prisoners inflict it upon each other), leaving incarceration as the prevalent form of punishment.

I am not advocating for corporal punishment, nor do I necessarily think I have better ideas for alternative punishments. I think prison violence needs to be stopped dead in its tracks, and I think a reformation of prisons (and the laws which put people in them), in conjunction with a reduction of their population, is the first step in the right direction. Our justice systems suffers from a crisis of legitimacy when punishments are dispensed ad hoc by the prison system itself.