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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Bandaid On A Boil? Some Misgivings About Advocating For Prison Reform

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As many of you know, I'm passionate about improving conditions in our local jails and state prisons. Cramped quarters, poor medical treatment, inmates living in concrete buildings with oven-like summer temperatures, my list of grievances keeps growing.

Yet I'm wary of giving the impression that if all of these kinds of conditions were improved, that we would then have a humane and effective system for dealing with offenders.

The fact is that our 18th-century-based reliance on confining law breakers in steel cages is both inhumane and insane. Jails and prisons as we know them need to be eliminated and replaced--except in cases where some kind of restraint (normally temporary) is necessary to insure the safety of an offender and/or the community.

Some day our routine use of steel cages for incarcerating people will be seen with the same kind of disbelief with which we now view public floggings or other forms of torture, or putting people in stocks on the public square.

We can do better than that. In many cases, we can use some kind of restorative justice process in which offenders actually have to make restitution to their victims, including making things right with the community in which they live. In doing so, they need to continue to work to pay their fines, rectify their wrongs, support their families and rebuild their lives.

Having said all that, we must still work at improving conditions of confinement while we work at fundamentally changing a criminal justice system that is failing us all.

Meanwhile, here are some examples of needed changes at our local jail I'll continue to have concerns about:

• Having no one confined to the holding area for more than 12 hours without being provided with a blanket and mattress while waiting to be placed in a regular cell.

• Having no one confined who is awaiting trial simply because they can't afford bail.

• Not having inmates confined to segregation cells or placed on lockdown for long periods of time without opportunities for regular physical exercise and mental stimulation.

• Having non-violent offenders be able to come the visitation area without being in handcuffs and prison garb, and all inmates being able to wear ordinary civilian clothes to court appearances.

• Not having families bear the burden of paying an arbitrary $1 per day in jail “rent” ($3 for MRRJ) before their family members can purchase commissary items.

• Having commissary items and phone service provided at reasonable cost and not for profit. 

• Having quality health care provided for all inmates regardless of their ability to pay, with those on prescribed medications being able to continue them without interruption.

• No longer having suicidally depressed inmates placed in a restraint chair or the isolated padded cell due to the lack of sufficient mental health personnel.

What necessary bandaids would you add?
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