I am leaving for Berlin in two days, so I’m going to review a pile of prison-related articles that I’ve accumulated—over a period of one weekend—that’s how often prison is in the news. I’ll give you the downers first, then the positive ones.
Ohio is having trouble obtaining drugs used to execute people, so the Ohio DOC has obtained an import license from the Drug Enforcement Administration to buy sodium thiopental and pentobarbital from overseas. Wow. Where overseas, I wonder? They “decline” to name the countries. I’m thinking China, North Korea, Iran, or Yemen, since these are our fellow members of the death penalty club. In case that doesn’t work, Ohio legislators passed an “execution secrecy law” (I am not making this up) in hopes it would get small-scale drug manufacturers called compounding pharmacies to sell them the drugs. These are unregulated companies that have been in the news for sickening people with contaminated pharmaceuticals. But hey, if you’re trying to kill someone, who cares what the quality of the drug is?
In Wisconsin, there is a prison guard shortage that has prompted two correctional facilities to call in guards from other institutions and pay overtime. So let me get this straight—we pack our prisons full of nonviolent drug offenders, which costs us taxpayers an arm and a leg, then we have to pay overtime to get guard coverage, which costs us more. Great system!
Which leads me to this editorial in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “Finding solutions for overcrowded prisons.” I like the opening line: “Either Americans are the most evil-people on Earth or there’s something terribly wrong with their criminal-justice system.” They mention something that’s news to me: “It’s a stretch to suggest that the bloated prison population is due mainly to the sentencing of nonviolent drug offenders. It’s not. Most of the increase comes from locking up greater numbers of thieves and violent criminals and keeping them behind bars longer. Even if all nonviolent drug offenders were set free today, the prison population of 2.2 million would drop to only 1.7 million … Still, on the margin, granting early release to nonviolent offenders and shortening sentences to better match crimes seems a sensible step….”
This information is new to me, and I wonder why I haven’t read it elsewhere. Everywhere else, the narrative is that, if we just release all the nonviolent drug offenders, our prison population will be drastically reduced. But if there are more violent criminals in America than elsewhere, maybe we are the most evil people on earth.
Still, 2.2 million total prisoners minus 1.7 million nonviolent drug offenders is 500 thousand people—not insignificant. And when you figure it costs (on average) $31,000 a year to keep someone in prison, that’s over $1.5 billion a year.
On the same day, there was this feature article about Damon Thibodeaux, an 18-year-old who was wrongly convicted of rape and murder who spent 16 years on death row before being exonerated and freed, in large part due to the efforts of Minneapolis attorney Steve Kaplan. Thibodeaux had been raped and beaten on a regular basis by his step “father” since the age of five and so he was easily bullied and manipulated into confessing to the crime. It’s a heart-rending story, but it has a happy ending. As I’ve written before, an important element of recovery from anything is feeling that you belong. And Kaplan has gone the distance to help Thibodeaux adjust to life after prison by including him in family and other social gatherings.
And there was this little factoid in The Week: that every day, on average, a dozen people die behind bars. The leading cause? Suicide, in local jails; cancer elsewhere.
Below are some prison-related images. The bully one made me shudder, because it’s how I felt when I was kicked out of Moose Lake for wearing “revealing clothing.” It wasn’t about my clothing; it was a power trip. Related to that is an interview with Richard Zimbardo, who led the Stanford Prison Experiment in which students were assigned to be prisoners or guards. The “guards” quickly became sadistic. “I lost my sense of compassion, I totally lost that,” said Zimbardo.
Next time, the good news.