The Big Debate … How harsh is too harsh?

Letters from prisoners, Stateville Speaks submissions, prison reform laws, articles on prison conditions, …  The list of sources for debates about prison conditions and our justice system are endless.  And while I’ve enjoyed learning about these situations so far this semester, I can’t help but recognize a conflict within myself.

I have not personally dealt with prisons or the justice system very much.  The closest I’ve come to facing a night…or more… in prison are through others I know, which is enough for me!  But as I read these letters and articles and grow sad at the desperate pleas of those incarcerated, I can’t help but remind myself that almost all of them essentially asked to be there.  By saying this, I obviously don’t mean that they went to law enforcement and convinced them to send them to prison, but aside from the few innocent and those forced into crime, each and every person did something horrible that hurt others in the world.  We all know that prisoners must be held accountable in some way, but the ultimate question I keep facing is how much is necessary…and how much is too much?

While I wouldn’t wish harsh prison conditions on people I despise the most, I almost don’t feel bad for some of the criminals who knew well what they were doing to be put in there.  Prisons essentially have some element of rehabilitation, but isn’t punishment also a goal…if not, why do we take them out of society in the first place?  I’d love to hear other thoughts…has anyone else experience this conflict and what are your thoughts about how much is too much?

Sonia’s Response to the Elderly in Prison and other thoughts

This week’s readings were fairly depressing. To begin, geriatrics in general in this country is not a focus of medicine as very few doctors choose to specialize in it. The principle stays accurate when applied to institutions like prisons and nursing homes as the populations of aged adults is overlooked and pushed to the back. I actually don’t know how I feel about the Elderly Sentence Adjustment Bill as there can be arguments for both sides but I would lean towards supporting the bill because of my letters. It’s so different to read the article, “Studying Older Offenders” engaging plenty of statistics and a letter from someone pleading for their life back. Although the article was beneficial in providing an overview of just how many prisoners over 50 are flooding the prisons, there is not much of an argument to be made in regards to early releases other than lack of adequate resources to support them all. I don’t think there should be any early release that is dependent solely on age, but rather age should be the factor that lets one be considered—then there should be some kind of formula comparing the amount served to the amount left and the particular crime. There are so many factors to be considered, and I understand that already there are not enough resources to accurately investigate every individual and their motives and personalities, but it is their life. Just reading one of the letters sent shivers down my back as a woman was 22 when she was convicted of 2 armed robberies and has just finished 20 years of a 90 year sentence. She has obtained multiple degrees while incarcerated and taken advantage of every program offered. By the time she is technically released, she would be 112 years old and that is so scary to think about. She is hopeful and ended her letter very powerfully stating that she is a new woman who would one day like to be a mother and the daughter, aunt, and sister that she could not be before. So, it is fairly clear that she has made an attempt to reform, and although nobody knows if she would be tempted to commit robbery again, it is important to at least consider her life as significant and important. It is not so much that I think the system is wrong to have even put her in prison; I think the system is under too much stress to give all prisoners a chance to be reevaluated accurately. There are so many steps and so many failures that hopelessness seems very understandable as I saw in another one of my letters.
The article, “Adjustment to Prison Life” explained the situation of new elderly offenders and that was very interesting. I guess I did not really consider people being convicted in their late 50’s, but it makes sense that there is a great population convicted of violent crimes like murder and sex crimes and they have a whole new dilemma of adjustment considering the hopelessness of long term sentences. Broken families, loneliness, lost reputations, medical problems and inability to integrate into the prison system led by a younger generation of convicts would make it very difficult. Yet contrasting the population that cannot adjust is a population that would rather be in prison than on the outside. If I hadn’t seen Shawshank Redemption, this concept would be very difficult for me to grasp. I just don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t be so excited to be released, but it makes sense if after 50 years of uncontrollable dependence, they are thrown out in the world with nowhere to go. Even in one of my letters, one 51 year old man is scheduled for release next May and he is scared of where he is going to parole to. He says he cannot return to Chicago as that is where his crime of murdering a child molester that got him into prison took place 20 years earlier. He asked if our agency or group had any sort for newly released prisoners. In the article, it was stated that many prisoners appreciate the fact that their medications are always provided and it is of no cost to them. Another prisoner said that the medical care was not as bad as everyone made it out to be. Yet regardless, inherently, I agree with the prisoner who was quoted in “Aging Prisoners” who said “To keep a man in prison when you know he’s going to die, when his chances of being a threat to society are long passed…I’m scared to death of that” He described the 8 inmates that can always be found lying in the back of the hospital waiting to die. That is a miserable ending and so sad to think about.

I had never cut myself

Since I arrived at Tamms things have changed dramatically for me. Before I came to Tamms I had never cut myself but after coming to Tamms I started cutting on myself was placed in restraints numerous times was placed on psychotropic medication both voluntary and involuntary which I had never taken before coming to Tamms, as for relations with my family they were okay until my mother passed away in January of 2002 and my communication with others in my family went non-existent after that. I have stopped looking forward to positive things because it’s like nothing positive ever happens to me. I no longer look forward to leaving Tamms until my release even though I no longer get into trouble.
—name withheld for fear of retaliation, in Tamms supermax prison since 2000

tired boxer’s head

Since being at Tamms, I suffer symptoms of depression, frustration, paranoia, mental anguish, sleep disorder, deterioration of my physical health, general mental torture… These symptoms are made worse when the administration uses mentally ill prisoners as tools, or as torture device to either drive otherwise normal prisoners over the edge…the mentally ill prisoners drive the normal prisoners crazy by screaming, crying, yelling into the pod at all hours of the day and night for days non-stop, by banging on toilets, doors, walls, and/or by shaking or kicking the doors so hard that it sounds like rumbling thunder, flooding the wing with toilet water, and by throwing feces at other prisoners or inserting feces into the air vents so that the whole wing receives a dose of the smell for months. The actions of the mentally ill prisoners gives the guards an excuse to enter the pods and use tear gas….The constant bombardment of unrelenting stress takes its toll like flurry of well-placed punches on a tired boxer’s head… How long can I be expected to maintain my own mental health, when I am forced to live in an insane environment, surrounded by unbalanced people, in inhumane conditions?
—Anibal Santiago (in Tamms supermax prison since 1998)

this knowledge overwhelms us

This facility functions more as a mental institution than a prison of rehabilitation and it serves no penalogical purpose other than to warehouse prisoners. As the duration of our isolation drags on and the degree of our conditions of confinement deteriorate you begin to see the psychological effect that this place has on us. We know that we will spend all day in these cells with absolutely nothing constructive to do with our time and we do not know if we will ever leave here. This knowledge overwhelms many of us and it leads many of us to insanity, causing attempted suicide, suicide, body mutilation, hanging, eating and throwing feces, and other extreme acts.
—Joe Louis Young (in Tamms supermax since 2004)