Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Why Judges Intervene to Lift Prison Conditions There Is a World Behind Bars That Would Shock Many Unknowing Americans

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Why Judges Intervene to Lift Prison Conditions There Is a World Behind Bars That Would Shock Many Unknowing Americans

Article excerpt

CONSIDER these descriptions of prison conditions:

- Horses are used to herd inmates as if they were cattle, and a prisoner is forced to fight with dogs, then is beaten with a bullwhip.

- Cells are filthy, dilapidated, and unfit for human habitation.

- Medical facilities are the "modern equivalent of a medieval pest house."

Are these tales from Stalin's gulag or the Punishment Pavilion in Castro's Isla de Pinos? Unfortunately they relate to certain jails and prisons in the United States within the last 25 years. These "sordid aspects of our prison systems," in US Chief Justice William Rehnquist's phrase, are not of course manifestations of totalitarian political brutality. They stem from the fact that our generally humane citizens simply do not know what goes on behind prison walls, and the keepers of the public treasury feel no great pressure to put tax dollars into improving, or even repairing, the prisons. Also, wardens and guards work under conditions of daily risk, and the constant tensions blur the boundary between necessary control and unnecessary brutality.

In recent years the courts have weighed in heavily to deal with prison abuses. In an era sensitive to civil rights it was inevitable that the awful deprivations inflicted in come penal institutions would stimulate the judicial conscience.

The Eighth Amendment forbids "cruel and unusual punishment." The Supreme Court has ruled that the wanton infliction of pain and the deprivation of basic human needs amount to cruel and unusual punishment.

But critics see the judges as sentimental social engineers, destroying the ability of wardens and guards to deal with the realities of prison life. The other camp argues that judges have simply required obedience to the Constitution, a noble objective. So the courts are either blunderers or paragons, depending on which side you choose.

John J. DiIulio, a professor of politics at Princeton, has written extensively on these matters. He is editor and one of the authors of a new book, "Courts, Corrections, and the Constitution," a collection of papers by social scientists and legal scholars.

Professor DiIulio's purpose is to show "how to enhance judicial capacity" to deal with prisons. He concludes that judges should proceed "in an incremental but decisive fashion."

Begging the professor's pardon, his advice is a bit superfluous. When a judge decrees drastic changes in a prison system, and meets typical resistance, he has no choice but to be patient and to proceed by slow steps. He cannot hire his own wardens or guards, or appoint his own governor or legislature. Incrementalism is not theory; it is instinct.

But this does not detract from the book's great value in providing histories of important prison litigations. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.