Is the Justice Department Putting Prisoners' Rights Ahead of Citizens' Security?

By Gavora, Jessica; Alexander, Elizabeth | Insight on the News, October 28, 1996 | Go to article overview
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Is the Justice Department Putting Prisoners' Rights Ahead of Citizens' Security?

Gavora, Jessica, Alexander, Elizabeth, Insight on the News

Yes: Supermax prison are society's last line of defense against violent predators.

It wasn't his murder of two pregnant women and their husbands that landed Rico Marzano in Maryland's supermax prison, but his second escape attempt. Marzano, who avoided conviction on six rather than four first-degree murder counts only because the unborn children of his victims did not die outside the womb as a result of their injuries, made his second escape from a Maryland State Trooper's squad car just hours after his conviction. But life on the lam was brief, and for just a few minutes of freedom, Marzano landed a stint in Maryland's highest-security prison.

Supermaximum-security prisons, or supermaxes, are the hottest trend in corrections today. Thirty states, the federal government and Canada all have supermaxes -- one third of which have been created since 1991. As prisons of last resort -- the end of the line in the corrections system for murderers and rapists who continue their violent behavior while on the inside -- supermaxes are premised on isolation. They isolate "bad" prisoners like Marzano from the general population and, in turn, these incorrigibles from each other.

While some see supermaxes as civilized society's last line of defense against its most violent predators, others see them as cruel and unusual punishment. This latter group includes the Clinton Department of Justice. Unveiling a major anticrime and drug-abuse initiative in Philadelphia in September, Bob Dole accused the administration of "launch[ing] lawsuits designed to make prisoners' lives easier." As Exhibit A, he cited a lawsuit the Clinton Justice Department is threatening to bring against Maryland's supermax.

In May, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Deval Patrick threatened to sue the state for alleged violations of prisoners' civil rights at supermax. Maryland officials vehemently deny the charges and counter that the Clinton Justice Department, aided and abetted by prisoners'-advocacy attorneys and civil-liberties groups, has an ideological bias against supermax prisons. In Maryland and elsewhere, they claim, a dangerous campaign is being conducted to defame these facilities and the correctional philosophy on which they are based. The ultimate losers, they charge, will be the citizens, from whom society's most violent predators are isolated behind the fortified walls of the nation's supermaxes.

"The Department of Justice is always willing to throw up Pelican Bay as a bogeyman, but not all of these facilities are Pelican Bay," said former New York State Prisons Commissioner Tom Coughlin. "You can have a constitutional high security facility."

Coughlin was referring to California's notorious Pelican Bay supermax, dubbed by some a "neo-Orwellian hell," which was the object of a 1991 class-action suit alleging physical and mental abuse of prisoners. Inmates at Pelican Bay claimed to have been assaulted by guards armed with high voltage Taser guns and rubber bullets and being chained for hours in fetal restraints with their wrists bound to their ankles. Without citing evidence -- or even allegations -- of comparable treatment in Maryland' Patrick wrote to Gov. Parris Glendening in May that conditions at the Maryland supermax were "similar" to those found at Pelican Bay.

It is this reference that has most infuriated prison officials --and led them to suspect a broader political agenda at work at the Justice Department. The state's Democratic Lt. Governor, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, told the Baltimore Sun that it was "outrageous" and "inflammatory" to equate supermax and Pelican Bay. "The fact that they have to reach so far to make the comparison makes you suspicious of the people who wrote this," she said of the federal investigation of the facility.

Maryland officials suspect that the Clinton Justice Department is out to expand prisoners' rights in general by building on the case law established with Pelican Bay.

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