Society Behind Bars: Race, Rights and Religion in American Prisons

By Larson, Janet Karsten | The Christian Century, November 10, 1993 | Go to article overview

Society Behind Bars: Race, Rights and Religion in American Prisons


Larson, Janet Karsten, The Christian Century


DISSENTING FROM a 1987 Supreme Court decision upholding a state prison's denial of weekly worship to a group of Black Muslims, Justice William Brennan wrote: "Prisoners are persons whom most of us would rather not think about. Banished from everyday sight, they exist in a shadow world that only dimly enters our awareness," a "|total institution' that controls their daily existence. . . |from sunup to sundown, sleeping, walking, speaking, silent, working, playing, viewing, eating, voiding, reading, alone, with others.'" It thus becomes "easy to think of prisoners as members of a separate netherworld, driven by its own demands, ordered by its own customs, ruled by those whose claim to power rests in raw necessity" (O'Lone v. Estate of Shabazz). We tend to reason that the peculiar requirements of this "other" place overrule human and legal rights. Lock them up, we say; let the penal experts give them their due--the rest is not our business.

But if you were the six-months-pregnant woman in the Vega Alta prison in Puerto Rico whom a guard sprayed with a fire extinguisher, or the Florida inmate left unattended in his cell during his epileptic seizures; if you were repeatedly denied parole because you were told you had the wrong political beliefs; if you were the thirsty man in the Allen County Lockup Facility in Indiana who was known by guards to be suffering from an AIDS-related complex and was told to drink from the toilet since he "was going to die anyway," or the young black man who went insane in the East Jersey State Prison isolation unit where he had been forced to trade sex for food and died of a tranquilizer overdose prescribed by prison doctors, or the Florida death-row prisoner about whom a guard said, after his execution, "It's about time to get rid of some niggers around here"--if you were any of these people or a member of their families, prisoners' rights would be your intimate concern.

Although the causality of crime lies beyond the scope of this article, society is the larger framework into which any discussion of prisoners' issues must be placed. One prominent fact is that the majority of prisoners have been convicted of economic crimes. Other statistics support the links between poverty, crime and imprisonment. As Norman Carlson, former federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) director, has pointed out, historically the one consistent variable correlating with the prison committal rate is the rate of unemployment. (Two-thirds of the arrested in the Los Angeles riots were jobless.) Some states report that even for prisoners employed at the time of their arrest, incomes under $6,000 a year are common; an alarming proportion nationwide is illiterate. It seems obvious that our penal systems perpetuate these conditions when one thinks, for example, of the revolving door between black ghettos and the world of the prison, which receives many of their poor in spirit and, after a term, turns them out again poorer than before, only to further the disintegration of the families and neighborhoods from which an alarming percentage then return for more hard time. This door is also spun by the "get rich quick" and go-for-it pleasure ethic behind many crimes--an ethic hardly peculiar to certain ethnic groups but endemic to what Cornel West calls our "culture of consumption."

Instead of taking the true dimensions of our nation's "crime problem" by examining historical connections between prison structure and social structure, Americans continue to support the simple principle that more "law" spells public security. We vote for legislators who crafted the criminal codes of the 1980s and '90s, giving longer and mandatory sentences even for first-time offenders. We seem not to be alarmed that, as Wilbert Rideau and Ron Wikberg report in Life Sentences: Rage and Survival Behind Bars (1992), "America entered 1991 with a record 4.1 million adults (1 of every 25 men and 1 of every 173 women) under direct control of its criminal justice system. …

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