VICTIMS, FUNDAMENTALISTS, AND RANT-RADIO HACKS
For seventy-two-year-old Miriam Shehane, trapped in a web of heartbreak spun decades earlier when three young men in Birmingham, Alabama, kidnapped and murdered her daughter Gwynette, the harshness of modern prison conditions is nothing more or less than criminals' just deserts. One of Gw ynette's murderers was executed in July 1990; as of 2005 the two others were still in prison.
“I would like to know that the two serving time in prison for killing my daughter have to think they're not in a place that is a place to reside with the comforts of home,” Shehane said softly, the years of pain and suffering apparent in her eyes. “Are they able to touch [visitors]? I would hope not. I would like to know they had to pay for their housing. They should have to grow their own food.” Generally speaking, the elderly lady asserted when we spoke in 2005, able-bodied prisoners should be sent out to work on the chain gang.
In a state with the worst guard-prisoner ratios in the country and a starting salary for guards not far above minimum wage; with prisons so dilapidated that raw sewage wells up into their yards after a rainstorm; with a ban on “perks” such as milk for adult prisoners; and with a thirty-year history of on-again-off-again federal court intervention against conditions repeatedly deemed cruel and inhumane—from rampant inmate-on-inmate murders to almost nonexistent medical care and extreme overcrowding—this wasn't an entirely unrealistic vision.
Drug treatment advocate Ralph Hendrix, sitting in an inner-city Birmingham office almost unfathomably cluttered with bric-a-brac—a battered horse saddle perched on an old computer, a stuffed peacock with a tie around its neck, a mannequin's head topped with a black cowboy hat, a poster from India, another from China—attributed the harshness of Alabama prison life in large part to the state's hardscrabble rural living conditions. In a city, Hendrix explained, pet owners, bound by the more delicate mores of urban living, generally take their sick animals to the vet to be “put to sleep.” By contrast,