Living Like Animals in a Cage
Does the way we treat prisoners violate the Constitution? For those
living on the inside, the answer is clear.
DO CONDITIONS in our nation's prisons violate the Constitution's guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment?
A very interesting question. One that could be argued either way, depending on where you've been and what you've seen. But one that, when put in proper perspective, can only be answered in the affirmative.
First, we must try to understand what exactly constitutes ``cruel and unusual punishment.'' The Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that the death penalty is not cruel and unusual, and has even allowed the execution of inmates who have proven their innocence.
To me, cruel and unusual punishment exists any time a person's basic human and constitutional rights are violated. Basic human rights include, first of all, the right to be considered as, and respected as, a human being.
After that follows the right to live like a human being and to be provided with that level of care that is expected of the most powerful and wealthy country on the face of the earth.
That level of care includes, but is not limited to, medical care, dental care, food fit for consumption, good drinking water, rehabilitation programs and housing consistent with the needs of a human being, together with a grievance forum that is not a sham.
I don't know what conditions are like in prisons outside California. But I suspect they are pretty much the same.
By now everyone knows that every prison in California is operating at over 200 percent capacity. The word ``overcrowding'' is as common to prisons as ``love'' is to relationships. In today's world you can't have one without the other -- prisons and overcrowding. This condition in and of itself violates the mandate against cruel and unusual punishment, because it forces us to live like animals in a cage. It violates our natural and legal human rights, not to mention our constitutional rights. It is very difficult to explain what it's like to live in an environment where space is at a premium. The cells themselves are nothing more than toilets with bunks. They are tolerable for one man, but hell for two. You have no privacy and you are forced to put up with some of the most disgusting habits of man.
The noise level in prison is unbelievable. Imagine being at a rock concert 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It is impossible to find a moment of peace and quiet. Tensions run high and the slightest misunderstanding can result in serious bodily harm. Every single minute of the day you must be on guard or else. This has a great impact on one's sanity.
The fact that we live in such close proximity to one another, at the highest levels of stress possible, contributes to the spread of disease in alarming numbers. And when you consider that medical care in prison is almost nonexistent, we have really entered the realm of cruel and unusual punishment.
I could write a whole essay on medical care in prison, but for now, know that doctors, medical assistants and the facilities themselves are the worst they can be. The medical workers operate under the belief that their job is to inflict whatever misery they can on the inmate rather than to provide adequate medical care. In other words, they function with a guard mentality.
And speaking of guard mentality, here is another instance of cruel and unusual punishment. Guards and correctional administrators are under the impression that their jobs are to inflict psychological torture on the inmates at every opportunity. They do so with delight and with the knowledge that we have no one to turn to for relief.
The administrative appeal process is a farce. Politicians and the courts have all adopted a hands-off approach to prison issues, secure in the knowledge that the public at large does not care about the plight of the incarcerated man. The lack of accountability lends itself to abuse of power. And when abuse of power becomes the norm rather than the exception, we suffer cruel and unusual punishment.
When you wake up every day not certain that your safety and security are guaranteed, you suffer cruel and unusual punishment. You violate a law, you are sent to prison to pay your debt to society, you expect to rejoin society at some point and embark on your shot at redemption (unless you were sentenced to die in the gas chamber).
However, today's prison conditions are de facto death sentences. Every day in prison means you can be shot and killed by a guard (whether intentionally or accidentally), you can be poisoned by rotten food, a serious medical condition could be misdiagnosed, another inmate could stab you over something meaningless, or exposure to TB and hepatitis can put you in the proverbial pine box. And to know that there is no one to complain to, that's cruel and unusual punishment.
We suffer double jeopardy. We are punished by the courts and we are punished by the California Department of Corrections. That is cruel and unusual punishment because we are being punished twice for the same offense. We have no due process and we have no equal protection.
Just ask Gov. Davis, who has decreed that all prisoners sentenced to ``life'' terms will die in prison. He makes no distinction between the degrees of murder. He spits in the face of the judicial system and the Constitution itself. That is cruel and unusual punishment.
But make no mistake. I'm coming from a rehabilitation perspective. If your thing is punishment, then the fact that we are allowed TV sets, recreational yards, and access to telephones, together with three meals a day, clothing, elementary education, and suspect medical care means we actually have it easy. If you think that, I beg you, let's trade places.
Pablo Agrio is serving a life sentence in a California state prison.
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle