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Tough love

June 25, 2009

If there’s one thing America likes, it’s being tough on criminals. We send more people to prison and hold them there longer for the same crimes as compared with any other country in the world. Even China’s got nothing on us when it comes to imprisoning people.

And when they’re there we’re more worried that they’ll think that it’s a country club than actually reforming criminals or helping them have other options when they get out of prison. Take this story, for example, which highlights America’s lack of give a fuck when it comes to prisoners:

The announced purpose of the PLRA was to curb the filing of frivolous prisoner litigation. In reality, the PLRA makes it almost impossible for most prisoners to file any civil rights claims regardless of the merits: Prisoners are forever barred from seeking redress of their most fundamental constitutional and human rights in federal court unless, within a very few days of the violation, they can successfully navigate a maze of arcane, arbitrary and intricate internal grievance rules set by prison officials — rules which civil rights lawyers themselves often find baffling.

The PLRA has an especially harsh impact on victims of prison rape, as the ACLU has discovered time and again in interviews of scores of rape victims in prisons and jails around the country. It was the stuff of nightmares to discover (especially in Texas, which at least until recently deserved the name of Prison Rape Capital of the nation) how many young men are forced into prostitution by violent prison gangs (PDF). It is even more chilling to find out that the common response of prison officials to the victims’ desperate pleas for protection is to tell them their only two options were to “fight or fuck.”

It is equally horrific to discover how commonplace it is for women and men — especially those who are young, gay, mentally ill or otherwise especially vulnerable — to be sexually abused, and sometimes brutally raped, by custodial staff who then warn them that if they report the assault they will be disbelieved, punished and set up on bogus charges that would lengthen their prison terms by years. It is nothing short of heartbreaking to have to tell these men, women and youth that they have no right to go to federal court because, while they were still reeling, trembling and bleeding from sexual assault, they did not manage to fill out the proper forms in the proper order.

It’s apparently too much to ask that prisoners not be treated this way in America. And I can’t imagine any problem with having a sector of the population who’s made some bad decisions physically and mentally traumatized….

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