Man Without Qualities

Monday, May 31, 2004

America's Abu Ghraibs

Bob Herbert is mostly right on the facts in this column describing how the conditions described as prevalent in the Abu Graib prison are often reproduced in prisons right here at home:

Most Americans were shocked by the sadistic treatment of Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison. But we shouldn't have been. Not only are inmates at prisons in the U.S. frequently subjected to similarly grotesque treatment, but Congress passed a law in 1996 to ensure that in most cases they were barred from receiving any financial compensation for the abuse.

We routinely treat prisoners in the United States like animals. We brutalize and degrade them, both men and women. And we have a lousy record when it comes to protecting well-behaved, weak and mentally ill prisoners from the predators surrounding them.

Very few Americans have raised their voices in opposition to our shameful prison policies. And I'm convinced that's primarily because the inmates are viewed as less than human.

The message brought by Mr. Herbert should be very disturbing to any Democrat who has been so foolish to believe that the Abu Graib doings will have a meaningful impact on the November elections. As I have noted in prior posts, such prisoner abuse scandals don't amount to much as election issues at either the state or federal levels - even though prison activists routinely bring these conditions to the media's attention (as Mr. Herbert is doing here) and even though the mistreated prisoners are Americans. And that remains the case even though there are sometimes "images" accompanying the reports of prisoner abuse in America. I note that the military has now banned cell phone cameras in Abu Graib, which should address some of the "images" issue in that quarter.

Actually, there is to my mind an even bigger issue with common thinking about American prisons than those raised by Mr. Herbert or the prison activists he cites: Prisons may actually increase the overall crime rate. And I don't mean that in the sense of "root cause" theory. I mean it seems entirely possible to me that sending people to prison actually and essentially immediately raises the crime rate quite a bit - but in a way of which the public silently approves.

For example, consider a man (call him "Spike") sent to prison for a serious felony such as armed robbery. Now, many armed robbers commit more than one such robbery. But it would take a very energetic robber indeed to commit an armed robbery once every day or so.

Suppose a new, young man is assigned to Spike's cell, and Spike imposes himself sexually on this new inmate ... in the manner the California Attorney General wished on Kenneth Lay, for example. Surely every act of sexual dominance will involve Spike in the commission of several serious felonies, beginning ... but by no means ending ... with homosexual rape. And Spike will likely commit such multiple felonies on a daily basis ... or near to it.

And the opportunities for daily commission of serious felonies in prison do not end with sex or crimes against a cellmate. Prisons have political structures among the prisoners. Those very structures are for the most part illegal "conspiracies." Prisoners are often involved in the bribing of guards, in the intimidation or robbery of other prisoners, in the obtaining and use of drugs ... and many other things. And many acts that are not crimes outside of prison are serious crimes when committed by prisoners inside of prison: fashioning a soda can or other metal object into a make-shift knife, for example. Threatening to report a prisoner's commission of a crime to the authorities unless the other prisoner pays up in some way or other is extortion .. another serious felony. And, of course, there is the fact that prison guards have wide latitude over prisoners' lives ... and if Mr. Herbert and his activists are right, those guards often and routinely commit quite a few crimes against prisoners.

Few crimes committed by prisoners or against prisoners are reported, especially crimes committed by prisoners or guards against other prisoners. And unreported crimes don't go into the crime statistics. It seems to me entirely possible that the recent reduction in overall crime we have experienced in this country would be much less striking - maybe nonexistent - if one were to include all crimes committed against prisoners by prisoners or guards. Crime in Los Angeles may go down because a repeat offender is taken off the streets, but crime in Soledad Prison may right away go up by more than enough to offset the decline in Los Angeles, especially if one includes crimes committed against the newly-incarcerated offender. Looking to the other side of the crime/punishment equation, many people have argued that prison has little of no deterrent efffect on future crime on the streets - it's said that the removal effect (that is, taking repeat criminals off the streets) of imprisonment that the biggest effect on "reducing" crime.

Incarcerating lots of criminals for long periods may reduce reported crime and crime on the streets, but it seems altogether possible that that reduction is more than off set by an increase in unreported crime in prisons.

To be clear: I am not arguing that I know or can prove that prisons increase the overall crime rate. But from what I have seen, including reports such as those cited by Mr. Herbert, it is entirely possible. And, of course, that would be just fine with most of the public if the inmates are viewed as less than human.

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