How does the US prison system work

Prison misery in the USA

Suddenly the prisoner collapses and breaks out into loud howls. "Open the door," the guard orders at him. A few seconds later the cell door is open. The guards grabbed his cane, handcuffed him, and led him away.

The badly lit video with the fluctuating images is used by the security company Taser to advertise one of their most popular products: a pistol that shoots two electric arrows at the same time when the impression is made and electrocutes the person for a few seconds. Long enough to checkmate a rebellious prison brother.

The taser is just one of the many products that are offered at the regular prison fairs in the United States. It was last in Philadelphia where the largest such fair in the world was held. A huge exhibition area, almost the size of a soccer field, offers security fences, shock guns and electronic surveillance systems. Technology instructor Billy Skillman is at one of the stands and shows how such a surveillance system works on his computer screen.

The system can tell us who escaped and where they are because every prisoner has a bracelet on that they cannot remove. We also see if there is an officer nearby who can overwhelm the escapee. The officers also carry a device with a chip in it so that they can be located. From the data we have saved on the prisoner, we can tell whether he is violent, whether he should be kept away from female officers and what he eats for breakfast.

Nobody likes to talk about the dark side of this absolute control at the prison fair. Human rights organizations have repeatedly pointed out that some of these monitoring methods are incompatible with international standards. The Taser, for example, is not sold in Europe. Jamie Fellner of New York-based Human Rights Watch:

Virginia is one of the states that has the most consistent complaints of physical abuse among men. And excessive use of force - alarm guns or stun guns - are part of it, but also restraint methods with which a prisoner can be completely incapacitated. This system has gotten out of hand. We and others complained to the authorities and the answer was: We don't believe you, and everything we do is okay.

The US prison industry has grown into a thriving business over the past 20 years. The number of prisoners is rising steadily, mainly due to harsh drug laws. It has now reached two million - more than in China, which has four times as many inhabitants. At the same time, the number of long-term inmates explodes. Mark Mauer of a prisoner lobby group in Washington explains the origins of this development:

This get-taff movement has been around since the 1960s, the idea that you put more and more people in jail to deter others from committing crimes. The USA is more or less experimenting with prisoners, something that is not really known in the western world. This is a very different political climate and that has distorted the political debate. People have lost sight of what is right.

The consequences of the rigid penal laws are overcrowded prisons, poor prison conditions and the inevitable legal actions that follow, which in most cases take human rights organizations into their own hands. Jeffrey Greene describes how quickly a prison usually fills up. He works as an arts educator in the state of Connecticut.

Harsh perceptions of breaking the law and crime have also become popular in Connecticut. The prison population has also grown here in recent years. It started with 9,000 prisoners, now there are 20,000. And it is estimated that the prisons will swell to 30,000 inmates in the next five years. We don't have enough beds, not enough prisons, and the state doesn't want to overstretch its budget.

One of the toughest criminal laws currently applies in California. For example, if you commit a crime three times in a row in this state, you can get life sentence. Jamie Fellner describes the dimensions that this practice has already assumed:

There was a case that went to the Supreme Court two years ago where a man stole food from a church. Food was collected to be distributed and he stole some and was sentenced to life. People get life sentences for stealing jeans or a bike. You have a file and there is nothing the judge can do about it, it is his duty to obey the law.

Because the system produced more and more criminals and more and more prisons in this way, a private industry was set in motion that makes huge profits from the prisoners' business. It costs forty billion dollars to run the prison this year alone.

We firmly believe that our facilities have a cost-saving effect for the benefit of taxpayers ..,

... Louise Green swears by such a private prison operator. But the private prison industry, which now looks after 6.3 percent of prisoners in the United States, has fallen into disrepute. State authorities pointed out that this did not save any public money. A recent report from the Justice Department found that savings were mainly driven by savings in prison staff, security measures and medical care. Ex-prisoner Sam Morales, who has lived with HIV for 16 years, can only confirm this.

They didn't want to give me the right medication, they gave the same to all prisoners. They had so-called specialists who only gave you the cheapest medication. Also, if you want something different, they said this is what you need.

Sam Morales is one of several AIDS activists. You have teamed up with prisoners' organizations in Philadelphia to raise awareness of the abuses in the prisons. A few dozen civil rights activists, pacifists and opponents of globalization have gathered here in an alternative center, only a few blocks away from the dignified hotel atmosphere of the prison operators' conference.

The canteen is open for lunch. A young woman in pigtails and knee socks is chopping up melons and serving bagels with peanut butter, free of charge. In the next room, a handful of young people are practicing the protest staccato for the next demonstration.

In a bare conference room on the first floor, 39-year-old Schajid tells how he got caught in the cost-cutting mill of prison operations.

The tall African-American with the black caftan and white barrett has been suffering from the side effects of AIDS for years. He tried to get adequate treatment while he was in prison. This is what the eighth amendment to the American Constitution requires. Instead, Schajid reports, the life-prolonging medication was withheld from him for weeks, which can lead to resistance to the tablets in the body. After a flu epidemic in prison, he was denied additional examinations - with the advice that it was taking a little longer for him. After he collapsed and was in a coma for two weeks, they released him from custody "because they didn't want another dead person in their statistics," as he himself says.

Many inmates put up with this treatment. They are poor and do not know their rights. "Anyone who picks up is harassed," purrs Sam Morales, who sits next to Schajid on a plastic chair and tells of cell raids and solitary confinement in the "hole". Morales had tried to sue, but he can't see through the scramble of laws and can't afford a lawyer.

When you decide to fight it, you realize that you don't just have to sue one agency, but that every problem is handled by someone else, and that's very confusing. That's why it's important to me that I at least open my mouth and make noise. Then they say I am a threat to society. Sometimes the guards come three times a week and send me naked from my cell so that it can be searched. They completely dismantle them, knowing that they will not find anything. They just want to bully you.

In the experience of Asia Russell of the Act Up Philadelphia AIDS support group, this is not an isolated example.

There are some facilities across the country - so it does not affect all prisons - where the medical needs of inmates are neglected. In Philadelphia, for example, we see that prisoners do not always have access to medicines that are desperately needed and some are not hospitalized and treated when they need it. Some insurance companies even promise doctors a bonus if they fail to provide emergency treatment. For example, in a Florida prison, a prison doctor gets $ 250 for every emergency room visit that doesn't come.

The misery of treatment also occurs in state prisons. The problem is more acute when private companies manage the prisons. This development is getting creepy for North Carolina prison expert Woodward Middleton.

It's all about money, you want to save as much as possible, and there are no rehabilitation programs with the system. If you just lock people away and then throw away the key, you shouldn't be surprised that they keep coming back.

Some prisons, such as California, are also being sued by inmates for being mistreated by the guards there. In New York, for example, an inmate has filed a lawsuit because the authorities have denied him adequate treatment for the liver disease hepatitis C. Some inmates die before a sentence is passed. Prisoner lobbyist Mark Mauer:

Detainees have tried to sue the authorities over the conditions of detention for over 30 years. In prisons in forty states, court orders are pending on overburdening. Many prisons do not have adequate health care, there is insufficient nutrition, rats roam the prisons, kitchens are in an impossible state, or access to medicines is limited. There are a lot of such problems. And court after court across the country has confirmed that.

You don't even have to ask radical anti-jail activists or the increasingly rare prisoner associations to get information about the misery in the US. Often it is employees from the state prisons themselves who willingly provide information. Not least because they too have to fear that they will be marginalized or lose their job as part of the wave of privatization. One of them is Jeffrey Greene. He works as an arts educator and teaches in Connecticut's 19 state prisons. Contrary to popular belief, art in jail is not an occupation that inmates only dedicate themselves to, says Jeffrey Greene:

In all prisons, inmates make art. They are trying to prove to themselves and the outside world that they still exist. One product that appears quite often is baby shoes, either prisoners make them themselves for their own children, or they commission other inmates to produce them. And pretty much all utensils in prison can be turned into art, potato chip bags, deodorant, soap, pasta packs, socks.

Jeffrey Greene proudly talks about an exhibition of jail art that he organized in Hartford, Connecticut. He was able to persuade more than 50 artists from American prisons to have their works exhibited. The Connecticut arts program is one of only 13 in the entire United States, and it's the largest. But the trend is against the prisoners and against the already sparse means of expression. More prisons, more prisoners and more guarding also mean: less care. There has long been no talk of rehabilitation in the American prison system. The lobbyist Mark Mauer:

One of the biggest problems is that a lot of people get sent to jail too quickly. A stay in a rehab clinic would help them a lot more. Three quarters of all prisoners had previously been in contact with drugs or alcohol. Some of them, of course, have to go to jail because they put others at risk, but many offenders would be better placed in a community service. In our country people are locked away for much longer than in other countries.

Jeffrey Greene can only confirm from his 15 years of experience in the prison system that the funds for rehabilitation measures are continuously being cut.

The Prison Arts Program has existed since 1978. First it was funded by the state prison authority, and later private sources were added. In the beginning we had music classes, painting classes, and theater programs. Five years ago, the authorities began to restrict the grants until they were stopped altogether. This was clearly a result of the political decision to make life as difficult for prisoners as possible.

Everyday prison life can also work differently. For example, in some areas prisons offer seminars where prisoners learn to reintegrate into a normal working life. This is of particular benefit to drug addicts. Mark Mauer:

There have been some encouraging developments in recent years, such as the drug courts. There, people who are supposed to go to jail but were previously drug addicts are given the opportunity to join a rehab program instead. This is now happening in 300 cities across the United States where drug addicts go to treatment instead of jail. You can already see today that in this case they are less prone to relapse and are also less likely to commit criminal offenses. But the political climate, in which it is preferred to keep building new prisons, goes in the other direction. These are two contradicting experiences and the question is still open where it will ultimately end.

For Jamie Fellner of Human Rights Watch, the flaw is clearly in the system. And the American prison system is far below expectations by international standards. And that too has to do with a lack of rehabilitation opportunities.

People are stuffed into prisons where they have little to do. They have to serve long sentences with little chance of getting out early. So there is no incentive to behave properly either. They live in appalling conditions simply from overcrowding and inactivity that there is nothing to be done about. Even then, international norms are being violated, namely how one should actually treat the inmates.

But even if all financial problems were eliminated, that would not solve the main problem. Because that lies - in the opinion of Mark Mauer - in the minds of the Americans.

We have this cliché in this country that criminals were born criminals and are no longer usable for anything else. But that's just not the way it is. And as soon as you notice that, you change your mind.