prison pressure-cookers, literally

A few days ago I heard a story on NPR about Texas inmates suing to force the Department of Criminal Justice to bring down to temperature in their prison to a balmy 88 degrees.  According to the suit, filed on behalf of four prisoners near College Station, it is often so hot that inmates have to put towels on scalding-hot tables in order to rest their arms down.  The small windows in the cells provide no air; and often it is hotter inside the cell than outside in the summer Texas sun.  This isn’t new, because in most cases, Texas prisons are not air-conditioned (only 21 of the 111).  The Houston Chronicle reported that there are more than half a dozen other hot-prison lawsuits in Texas, and inmates have died from the heat.  Whaaat? 

Here is the story if you haven’t read it.   I recommend it.

There are a few reasons that this gets my blood boiling.  And not just because I have gained a particular affinity for the US prison population after watching two seasons of Orange is the New Black, and am now on a ACLU-like crusade for justice.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the US has incarcerated 2.4 million people on any given day.  Chew on that for a second, and check out this graph.  It’s insane. IN-SANE. We lock up more people, per capita, than any other nation.  And it makes me think we lock up people for too many things, like children running away, or immigration offenses, and really technical, or other? What does that EVEN mean?

Now, I’m not a fancy lawyer.  But I know two things: that can’t be good when being a prisoner in the US is more common than being a high school teacher, and it must be really freaking expensive (upwards of $50K per year/per inmate according to the Economist).  Is that really good value for money?

And here is my real grudge.  Ready? Eventually most of these prisoners are going to be released back into society.  And hopefully they will seen the error of their ways, and lead well-meaning lives, and not reoffend.  But how likely is that if we can do no better than treat them like less-than while in prison?  Or provide inhumane conditions? Now, prison shouldn’t be summer camp.  However, shouldn’t it be a place of both retribution and rehabilitation?  Isn’t that the point for most offenders?

The problem is that we, our politicians and our prisons aren’t doing a very good job at providing a place of rehabilitation.  According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an estimated 68% of prisoners released in 30 states in 2005 were arrested for a new crime within three years of release from prison, and 77% were arrested within five years.   

So it particularly irks me when I see this:  State Senator John Whitmire, a Democrat from Houston and chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, said he was concerned about the inmate deaths [in Texas] but wanted to examine the circumstances of each. “Texans are not motivated to air-condition inmates,” he said he was not sympathetic to complaints about a lack of air-conditioning, partly out of concern about the costs, but also out of principle that offenders were not a priority.


And so I end with a quote from the great Nelson Mandela: “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

Amen, friend.