by Brianna Cooley

“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

Alan Elsner. Gates of Injustice : The Crisis in America’s Prisons.

In Gates of Injustice: The Crisis in America’s Prisons, Alan Elsner questions America’s correctional facilities, as barriers to freedom, and calls into question our country’s values and morals. These freedoms are balanced on a scale with “the observer” on one side and “the trapped” on the other. Divisions between the trapped and the observer multiply when iron bars are put into place, and later dissolve when an observer’s freedom is tested. Americans might rightly question whether or not we sometimes exchange the value of our human rights for our security. The real answer to that question lies beneath the human structure of correctional authorities and institutions.

The well being of the imprisoned can go unnoticed if people on the outside are blinded by threats (real or imagined) to their own lives. This can result from a state of emotional fear. When one places their own security over that of others (i.e. prisoners) the result is a prison system devoid of humanity.  As Elsner explains, it can come down to the realization that “society clearly has an overwhelming interest in protecting itself from dangerous criminals, and nothing should be done to compromise that task. But it also has an interest in ensuring that human rights and standards of decency are observed behind bars to the maximum possible extent” (Elsner).  Thus, Elsner advocates for a balance between safety for those innocent of crimes, while also maintaining a sense of decency and humanity for those imprisoned.  The phrase “lock them up and throw away the key” is apropos in this instance because once criminals are sentenced, they are removed from public view.  Much of society has no interest in what happens to these people afterwards; in other words, the bounds of society’s concern extend primarily to their own family unit. What happens in cellblocks and dark corners are beyond our daily thoughts.  The situation takes a turn when suddenly the cards have flipped, and we have implicitly become the punishers supporting the mistreatment of inmates.  Despite being criminals, the legal standard in America states no person should be subject to cruel and unusual punishment, yet for some inmates this is exactly what their sentence represents.

Remarkably, some prison systems have been labeled as being too humane to inmates.   In the book Punishment in America, James Dawson, a supervisor from Brasher, New York claims, “Prisons are environmentally sound. They have no smoke-stacks, no noise, no pollution. It’s like a college campus with a fence around it” (Welch).  Hence it is fair for Americans to ask: “What’s so bad about prison if you are being supported by the government through an institution where everything is free of charge?”  Author and ex-convict, J.J. Maloney is someone who agrees that luxuries should not exist for prisoners. Maloney wants prison sentences to be taken more seriously. In America’s Prisons: Opposing Viewpoints, Maloney suggests prisons move in a new direction where there are, “No factory or jobs, thereby cutting off the source of weapons. No Commissary: no cigarettes, coffee, or candy bars. No personal radios or televisions. No phone calls, unless the phone call is substituted for a visit. Curtailed correspondence and one visit a month” (Szumski).  He posits these revisions to the current system could potentially decrease violence, fire hazards, and mistreatment.  He further claims that a shift to this type of prison system would encourage the pursuit of education among inmates.  However, if these possessions, both material and emotional, were taken away then what would happen to an inmate’s psychological being?  A drastic move such as Maloney’s would impose isolation on inmates to a degree that their psychological wellbeing could be impacted.  The ability to be entertained, connect with family, and just get by in life with a cup of black coffee and the ashes of a cigarette butt are perhaps the only things preserving a sense of humanity for the convicted.  As people such as Maloney advocate for less creature comforts for the imprisoned, it is important to recall, that although convicted, those imprisoned are still human beings.

When the details of a person’s crime are splashed across the headlines the common response is to draw a line between “us” (law abiding citizens) and “them” (the monsters capable of heinous crimes).  The convicted are viewed through the dichotomy of animal vs. human.  California correctional officer, Lance Corcoran notes, “If you treat men like men, they generally behave like men. If they are treated like animals, they respond like animals” (Elsner). The degradation of prisoners only contributes to their psychological dismay, which is problematic for society because most prisoners will eventually be released.  Meaning the “animals” created by the inhumanity of the system will one day walk alongside you on Main Street.  Only time will tell what will happen when inmates are freed.  As Elsner observes, “First, try as we might, we cannot separate ourselves from those who are behind bars. The vast majority of inmates—around 95 percent—eventually are released to return to the community” (Elsner).  Therefore it is important to consider what happens when people are admitted to our prison systems.  In doing so, society must ensure that humane conditions are extended to all inmates because the connectivity between “us” and “them” is much more cohesive than many like to acknowledge.

Conditions and treatment of the “guilty”, when incarcerated, have only added to a sense of learned helplessness and recidivism.  According to Bonnie Szumski, “There is simply no evidence that making prisons harsher will make them more effective. Truly harsher prisons might just worsen recidivism. Segregated housing often strips prisoners of the social skills they need if they are to succeed on release” (Szumski). Prisoners exist within a system destined to ensure their failure.  Other problems were raised when an investigation into conditions at the Warren Correction Institution revealed that inmates were exposed to unhealthy rusted metal in inmate rooms, complete lack of privacy, insufficient food rations, and limited access to writing utensils and books to educate the incarcerated (Welcome to Warren). When conditions are at their worst, such as those at the Warren facility, it is difficult to imagine a smooth transition back into society once released.  So while the human urge is to punish those guilty of crimes, perhaps we should also look beyond the crime and consider how prison conditions shape the inmate who will someday be released.

In America justice is often represented through the process of locking up the bad and punishing them because it is what they deserve.  But what does this punishment entail?  Should inmates be subjected to harassment, name-calling, etc.?  This scenario is addressed when author, Szumski interviews a man named Berns who states,  “We want to punish them in order to pay them back. We think they must be made to pay for their crimes with their lives, and we think that we, the survivors of the world they violated, may legitimately exact that payment because we, too, are their victims” (Szumski).  It is only right that America deserves this much. Sadly, we can become ignorant of what punishment really leads to: humiliation, disrespect, and dignity are ripped from an inmate once incarcerated.  Prisoners are forced to succumb to degrading procedures such as strip searches and body narcotics checks.  This scene is often portrayed with one guard laughing while the other slouches in a corner giving orders.  It is not to say that all correctional guards or officers act the same way, but it remains true that such inhumane acts do happen. Abuse by guards reveals plenty about the poor conditions in many American prisons, as this type of abuse functions on both an emotional and physical level.  A female correctional officer from the Warren Institution elaborates on what it means to be a prison guard, “A guard is so negative. To me a guard is descriptive of someone that is not well-trained or well-educated, just an overseer.  Kind of like in Shawshank Redemption. You get together you pick on some. You beat the hell out of them. There are no education requirements” (Welcome to Warren). Guards have reportedly shattered the integrity of inmates with dirty words and nicknames. Welch takes no shame in letting the truth be told when he announces the following in Punishment in America, “They are routinely called slime balls, dirt balls, pukes, scum, kronks, and the most popular reference, assholes” (Welch).  Punishment is certainly part of prison, consider the common refrain “you did the crime, now do the time”, however, frequent degradation violates all legal standards in America and prisoners deserve better.

The lives of people held in correctional facilities cause us to evaluate human rights. The concept of freedom has, in a sense, been manipulated by the American penal system with the government’s approval.  If we are not trapped in one block cell robbed of liberty, then we are trapped as an observer witnessing the robbery.  We may forever be faced with consequences of privileging our own liberty.




Works Cited

Elsner, Alan. Gates of Injustice : The Crisis in America’s Prisons. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Upper Saddle River, NJ : Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006. Print.

Szumski, Bonnie.  America’s Prisons : Opposing Viewpoints. St. Paul, Minn.: St. Paul, Minn. : Greenhaven Press, 1985. Print.

Welch, Michael,Ph.D. Punishment in America : Social Control and the Ironies of Imprisonment. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Thousand Oaks, Calif. : Sage Publications, 1999. Print.

Welcome to Warren Inmates and Guards on Life in Prison. Dir. Huffman, E. Brent. Films for the Humanities, Media Group Films, and German Camera Prod. New York, N.Y. : Films Media Group, 2004.