Monday, July 12, 2010

Heartbreaking video on elderly and dying prisoners

Readers appreciated the video documentary I posted last week on the mentally ill in U.S. prisons, so here's a newer video on the elderly in prison. Forget humanitarianism; the economic costs alone of incarcerating so many elderly and infirm should be cause for alarm.



Al Jazeera's investigative reporting continues to impress me. In this special investigation, "Fault Lines: Dying Inside," we see amazing footage that includes:

  • a prisoner with Huntington’s Chorea in the nation's first specialized unit for demented patients, a 30-bed facility in New York that has never before been filmed for TV
  • 100-year-old Sherman Parker, demented and missing one leg, being cared for by a prisoner earning $5 a month in an Oklahoma prison "operating in warehouse mode" due to severe budget cuts
  • 86-year-old Plutarcho Hill, imprisoned for 66 years for a 1947 murder, who has escaped and returned to prison 10 times
  • Larry White, a 72-year-old ex-convict released from prison three years ago who is "going back and helping those I left behind" by lobbying for compassionate release for elderly prisoners
  • a woman volunteer who is dedicating her life to providing hospice for dying prisoners in the Pennyslvania prisons

5 comments:

  1. You have to meet my co-blogger, ClinkShrink.
    Visit us on Shrink Rap

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  2. So few people care that our Prison Industrial System has so many non dangerous men behind bars. More than China and Russia put together. It's a money-making machine,so it's apt to keep growing and it adds to the coffers of states, so their attitude is "keep 'em comin'" ..From an 8/09 article from Pulitzer price-winner Nicholas Kristoff, New York Times see the following:
    "Mr. Wilkerson is serving a life sentence in California — for stealing a $2.50 pair of socks. As The Economist noted recently, he already had two offenses on his record (both for abetting robbery at age 19), and so the “three strikes” law resulted in a life sentence.
    This is unjust, of course. But considering that California spends almost $49,000 annually per prison inmate, it’s also an extraordinary waste of money.

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  3. Astonishingly, many politicians seem to think that we should lead the world in prisons, not in health care or education. The United States is anomalous among industrialized countries in the high proportion of people we incarcerate; likewise, we stand out in the high proportion of people who have no medical care — and partly as a result, our health care outcomes such as life expectancy and infant mortality are unusually poor. It’s time for a fundamental re-evaluation of the criminal justice system, as legislation sponsored by Senator Jim Webb has called for, so that we’re no longer squandering money that would be far better spent on education or health.

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  4. Consider a few facts:
    The United States incarcerates people at nearly five times the world average. Of those sentenced to state prisons, 82 percent were convicted of nonviolent crimes, according to one study. California spends $216,000 annually on each inmate in the juvenile justice system. In contrast, it spends only $8,000 on each child attending the troubled Oakland public school system, according to the Urban Strategies Council.
    For most of American history, we had incarceration rates similar to those in other countries. Then with the “war on drugs” and the focus on law and order in the 1970s, incarceration rates soared. One in 10 black men ages 25 to 29 were imprisoned last year, partly because possession of crack cocaine (disproportionately used in black communities) draws sentences equivalent to having 100 times as much powder cocaine. Black men in the United States have a 32 percent chance of serving time in prison at some point in their lives, according to the Sentencing Project. Look, there’s no doubt that many people in prison are cold-blooded monsters who deserve to be there. But over all, in a time of limited resources, we’re overinvesting in prisons and underinvesting in schools.
    Indeed, education spending may reduce the need for incarceration. The evidence on this isn’t conclusive, but it’s noteworthy that graduates of the Perry Preschool program in Michigan, an intensive effort for disadvantaged children in the 1960s, were some 40 percent less likely to be arrested than those in a control group.
    Above all, it’s time for a rethink of our drug policy. The point is not to surrender to narcotics, but to learn from our approach to both tobacco and alcohol. Over time, we have developed public health strategies that have been quite successful in reducing the harm from smoking and drinking. If we want to try a public health approach to drugs, we could learn from Portugal. In 2001, it decriminalized the possession of all drugs for personal use. Ordinary drug users can still be required to participate in a treatment program, but they are no longer dispatched to jail. “Decriminalization has had no adverse effect on drug usage rates in Portugal,” notes a report this year from the Cato Institute. It notes that drug use appears to be lower in Portugal than in most other European countries, and that Portuguese public opinion is strongly behind this approach. A new United Nations study, World Drug Report 2009, commends the Portuguese experiment and urges countries to continue to pursue traffickers while largely avoiding imprisoning users. Instead, it suggests that users, particularly addicts, should get treatment.
    Senator Webb has introduced legislation that would create a national commission to investigate criminal justice issues — for such a commission may be the best way to depoliticize the issue and give feckless politicians the cover they need to institute changes. “There are only two possibilities here,” Mr. Webb said in introducing his bill, noting that America imprisons so many more people than other countries. “Either we have the most evil people on earth living in the United States, or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice.” Opponents of universal health care and early childhood education say we can’t afford them. Granted, deficits are a real constraint and we can’t do everything, and prison reform won’t come near to fully financing health care reform. Still, would we rather use scarce resources to educate children and heal the sick, or to imprison people because they used drugs or stole a pair of socks?
    I invite you to visit my blog, On the Ground. Please also join me on Facebook, watch my YouTube videos and follow me on Twitter.
    Lothar Weiß
    Berlin, Germany
    August 20th, 2009
    10:16 am

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  5. Mr. Kristof,
    here in Germany we have an imprisonment rate of 95 per 100,000 inhabitants (about average for Western Europe, several countries have substantially lower rates), just 1/8 of the American rate of 760 prisoners per 100.000 inhabitants, and less than 1/3 of the imprisonment rate for white, non-hispanic Americans. That is not because Americans are so much more criminally inclined, they aren't, or because we are willing to accept a lower level of security, we don't, or because we are lacking in poorly integrated minorities with disturbingly elevated imprisonment rates, we have them, too.
    The American criminal justice has become, within a span of merely 40 years, the horror of the civilized world (more particularly of those of its denizens who take a friendly or loving interest in America, most anti-Americans simply not being informed well enough to shudder at what's going on). No Western system is that error-prone, is such a massive menace to the innocent (You will have heard of the 243 exonerations of purported murderers and rapists by new DNA analyses; have you wondered how many comparable cases there were in Germany? Although post-final-conviction appeal in Germany, though difficult and unreliable, is much easier, even after completion of the sentence, than in any American jurisdiction, I haven't heard of a single case; what did make the news were a dozen or so very old cases where former suspects who for lack of evidence had not been indicted, or indicted but acquitted, were finally identified as true perpetrators.), none is so vindictive and so mindlessly cruel. That cruelty shows not only, as you suggest, Mr. Kristof, in the abundance of codified offenses, and the Byzantine sentencing practices, but at least at much in prison conditions: the insufficient medical care not only in Californian prisons, but also on Ryker's Island, the generally almost totally lacking psychiatric care for so many psychotic inmates, the inedible food and the willfull humiliations in Sheriff Arpaio's jails, the impediments to family contacts, the gang violence, the murders, assaults, and rapes in many medium-security prisons, and most horribly in the entombment in the concrete vaults of maximum-security prisons.

    It is an unmitigated disgrace. If many Europeans hyperventilate merely at the death penalty, the icing on the cake, that is mainly because they have little knowledge of the putrefaction it covers so appropriately.
    Any overhaul with the aim of reintroducing more decency and humaneness into the criminal justice system will have to address the prisons and jails. It requires new or soundly revamped facilities, smaller, preferably in urban environments more easily accessible to the visiting families of the inmates, more and better qualified personnel not only for the reduction of violence, drug trade, and prostitution, but also for education and treatment and behavioral training. If such a reform merely doubles the cost per day and prisoner, you're well off. An audacious reform which halves the number of prisoners and which really pursues the aims that you, Mr. Kristof, advocate, will therefore not have any positive fiscal effect at all.

    That said, it seems a bit disingenuous to dangle fiscal rewards of criminal justice reform before the public. Moreover, it is somewhat indecent: justice and humaneness are duties; recognition is their sole fitting reward.

    Lothar Weiss
    Presiding Judge at the Berlin Court of Appeals (Kammergericht) (rtd.)

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