In October, I wrote about Herman Wallace, a prisoner at the Louisiana State Penitentiary who had been kept in solitary confinement for an astounding 41 years. Now, a new story shows that there’s more than one way to torment an inmate at the prison known as Angola. On Thursday, a federal judge ruled that Angola officials subjected death row prisoners to cruel and unusual punishment by heating their cells to unbearably high temperatures.
Lauren McGaughy of the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports that prisoners were kept in unventilated cells and had limited access to cold water, even in the middle of the summer. As a result, the cell block “felt like a sauna in the morning and an oven in the afternoon,” according to one prisoner; the heat made prisoners dizzy and disoriented, and intensified existing health problems. Now, Judge Brian A. Jackson has ruled that Angola officials must take steps to ensure that the cell block heat index does not exceed 88 degrees Fahrenheit. Prison officials will likely appeal the decision.
One of the most disturbing things about America’s prison system is the way that so many stakeholders insist on adding insult to injury as a matter of policy. It isn’t enough to lock convicts up—they must also be degraded and made to suffer.
I loathe this type of thinking. Citizens in a free society ought to believe that the loss of liberty is punishment enough, that it is unnecessary to also impose some ad hoc regimen of corporal degradations. Petty torments like the Angola hothouse strategy have nothing to do with justice and everything to do with abuse of power. And there’s no place for them in a democratic society.
I am not so naïve to think that our prisons are filled with fallen angels. There are a lot of incorrigibly violent men who should not be out on the streets. While I understand why people might have little sympathy for prisoners who have been convicted of violent crimes, it serves no social purpose to keep grinding prisoners down even after they’ve been incarcerated. They might be convicts, but they are still men, and it does real harm to our justice system when we fail to treat them as such.
And while I’m on the topic of prisons, I’d like to take a moment to mention Just Detention International’s annual Words of Hope project, which invites random people on the Internet to send holiday cards to survivors of prison rape. Every year, thousands of American prisoners are sexually assaulted behind bars. Though the attack might be over in minutes, the subsequent shame can last a lifetime. By inviting strangers to send messages of support to prison-rape survivors, the Words of Hope project seeks to remind these men and women that the attack wasn’t their fault, and that they are not alone. I wrote about this project last year, and a lot of you decided to participate. If you have a spare minute today or tomorrow, why not consider doing so again? I did.