A Corrections System Designed To Fail

Currently, this country warehouses more people in prison than any other nation in the world.   That sounds like a failure. The Department of Corrections in the United States of America is a failure. Failing at something doesn’t mean we should pretend the problem doesn’t exist. Failing is an opportunity to acknowledge what is wrong, make it right, and potentially become great.

This country is over incarcerated.   In some cases, as with mandatory minimums and no possibility of parole, there is no mercy. People are simply waiting and sometimes praying to die. We give incentives to businesses and prosecutors to keep people locked up. Parole boards show no compassion, as in Alabama. Our public defenders often present less than half hearted legal arguments. Profits are being made on the lives of prisoners, and it’s only too easy for the public at large to turn a blind eye.

Until the system itself is improved, what is being done with the estimated 2.5 million people being hidden from sight? There is a perverse and demoralizing climate within the walls of our jails and prisons. It seems the outcome of incarceration is often a broken spirit, with no reason left to trust those in authority and often no hope of a bright future. It is a system that is currently designed to fail. It will continue to fail unless training, education and accountability is put into place for those working in corrections, from the top down. Nobody cares about prisoner reviews or complaints, as prisoners themselves are viewed as less than human. Complaints voiced by the incarcerated or their families are often rewarded with treatment meant to stop the complaints.

There isn’t a person or story I have heard that deviates from this reality. The stories range from those too hard for people to share with me to those that may seem trivial to some, but are all a display of the complete disregard for those that are jailed.

I was reading an article from 2013 about sexual misconduct cases in West Virginia jails. There were several quotes from the executive Director of the state’s Regional Jails Authority, Joe Delong. The quotes speak for themselves, displaying the mindset of our current system. While assuring the public that cameras, training and surveillance was being implemented to improve the excessive number of sexual misconduct cases, he also said several things regarding how the situation became this way.

Mr. Delong was quoted as saying, “It certainly is an ongoing challenge. In a lot of cases you have very young, not far out of high school correctional officers who are working late at night in environments with seasoned criminals.” When reading this, I wondered if Mr. Delong ever made any excuses for the ‘seasoned criminals’ or had any sympathy for them and the fact that they were all once very young and not far out of high school. I wondered if he had a daughter. I wondered if he could hear himself speak. So, are we to feel sympathetic for an officer having sex with an inmate, consensual or not, because the officer is young, innocent and a victim of seasoned criminal?

Mr. Delong didn’t stop there. He was also quoted as saying, “Unfortunately, there are times that they are able to get our officers to do things that are inappropriate.” Yes, that is what he said.

The state’s own laws are clear. Inmates can never give consent for sexual activity with corrections officers. The burden of not having sex with the incarcerated does not lie on the shoulders of the jailed. It is beyond ironic that Mr. Delong also said, “There’s the old saying about people in glass houses.”

I am not naïve. There are bad people in this world. There are people who do bad things and will continue to do them.   There are good people who make bad decisions. There are addicts who are often not able to make any good decisions. There are people who are simply wrongly convicted. There are people under the age of twenty five who make ignorant choices that are not a reflection of their character. Treating people, whoever they are, with respect, will not bring about more crime. Crimes that are going to be committed will be committed, but exercising a level of humanity and respect will not create more crime.

I was told a story of a woman in custody in a West Virginia jail. She was one of several women who altered their hair style.   I was told these women shaved a patch of their hair underneath their longer hair.

So, what should the punishment be for altering your hair style? In a system that’s purpose is to reform, correct, and improve behavior before releasing people back into society, what should the punishment be? My child once cut his own hair. He was in first grade. It never occurred to me to shave his head bald. I would never have injured his self confidence like that. It never entered my mind to do something that degrading to him.

The women who altered their hair styles were given a choice.   Go into isolation or shave their heads. Whatever their crimes, where is the wisdom in that?  What does that accomplish? The climate in corrections is one of demoralizing people. Yes – these women may never alter their hairstyle again. Maybe that was accomplished.   Will it make them more confident? Will it give them a reason to respect authority?

These are the actions of the Corrections Officers at the bottom of the chain of command. At the top, we have a man quoted implying that the victims of sexual misconduct in the care of his jails are in some way responsible for that sexual misconduct. Officers are rarely held accountable. They are held accountable when they are caught, when somebody notices. That is why the system tries its best to keep eyes from reaching the inside.

As it turned out, the women who refused to shave their heads did not go into isolation. In the end, that was simply an empty threat in a game that had the losers ending up with no hair.

 

REFERENCES

Harold, Zach. “Claims of Sexual Misconduct at Prisons, Jails Costing W. Va. Millions.” N.p., n.d. Web.              

“Who, What, Where and Why.” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 14 Mar. 2014. Web. 06 Nov. 2016.           

                       

‘Indifferent’ Is Too Kind To Describe Jail’s Behavior

The word indifferent was used in an article I read to describe the ‘deadliest’ jail in my state. I thought it was an adequate word at first. I have written about the death of Jamycheal Mitchell at that same jail, and the ‘indifference’ in that instance was hard to ignore. It was blatant. In that case, a young man with a mental condition was allowed to die of ‘wasting’. I, as a layman, would call that starving. There was never any acknowledgement by the facility of wrongdoing in that case, nor remorse.

After careful consideration, I have changed my mind. The word ‘indifferent’ is too kind. It would not be a sufficiently strong enough word if it were my 24 year old son who had wasted away. I would probably use words more along the lines of incompetent. Knowing me, if it were my son, I would call his death ‘criminal’. In Mitchell’s case, the jail investigated itself and found its officers and staff guilty of no wrongdoing.

Another man died in that same jail not too long after Jamycheal. Henry Clay Stewart was 60 years old when he passed away. Mr. Stewart was at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail because of an upcoming trial for allegedly violating the terms of his release on a shoplifting conviction.

Mr. Stewart was not sentenced to life or ten years or even one. He was simply awaiting trial. While at the jail, Henry Stewart became ill. He repeatedly requested help. Some might say he begged for help, with words like, “I keep asking to go to the emergency room,” and “I need emergency assistance right away.” He informed employees that he couldn’t hold down his food or water.   More concerning than that, he reported to them that he had blacked out twice in less than 24 hours. Mr. Stewart needed help.

If you were to believe another inmate’s statements, Stewart had also been coughing up blood for weeks, and had lost weight.   Staff determined that Mr. Stewart’s August 4th plea for help, which wasn’t his first, was ‘not an emergency’.

Two days later, Stewart was found dead. The medical examiner’s office listed Stewart’s death as ‘perforated gastric ulcer due to chronic lymphocytic gastritis, H. Pylori positive’.

Following the death of Henry Clay Stewart, Lt. Col. Eugene Taylor III, the jail’s assistant superintendent said, as he did after Jamycheal’s death, the jail did not plan to change any of its policies, because its investigation found that none had been violated.

The jail’s previous superintendent, David L. Simons, was said to have stated that the death ‘was a natural death’ and there was ‘nothing out of the ordinary’.

Indifference is not strong enough a word in my opinion. The federal Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act entitles inmates to medical and mental health care.

‘Indifference’ would be a lack of sympathy or caring. The corrections profession has become one of indifference. This case, and the countless like it, is an indication it has gone beyond indifference. By not acknowledging the problem and striving to correct the indifferent system we have, the trend will continue to surpass indifference. It will continue to grow more incompetent, and eventually criminal. Kindness and compassion are of vital importance to any successful relationship or system, and those are qualities that don’t exist in our current Criminal Justice System.

REFERENCES

Dujardin, Peter. “Regional Jail Inmate Died of Perforated Ulcer, Medical Examiner Says.”  Daily Press. N.p., 04 Oct. 2016. Web. 01 Nov. 2016.       

Kleiner, Sarah, and K. Burnell Evans. “Hampton Roads Regional Jail Is Deadliest in the Virginia for Inmates.” Richmond Times-Dispatch. N.p., 03 Sept. 2016. Web. 01 Nov. 2016.