October 18, 2007

Prison culture: Think of a state

Think quick: Which U.S. state most symbolizes prison culture?

If you're like me, the state that came to mind was either Texas or California.

But the acquittal of a group of guards in the death of a 14-year-old boot camp resident is shining a spotlight on the Sunshine State, which houses the third-largest prison population in Prison Nation.

Last week's acquittal was reminiscent of a similar case eight years ago in Florida, in which prison guards were acquitted of stomping prisoner Frank Valdes to death in his cell, even though guards' boot prints were found all over his back.

Yesterday, Time magazine recalled that earlier verdict in a scathing expose on "the rot of Florida's corrections culture." As the article points out, mentally ill prisoners are at especially high risk of abuse:
"Despite its Sunshine State image, Florida's prisons and juvenile detention centers are often associated with the more troubled corrections systems of its Deep South neighbors. While no one is asking Florida to coddle its prisoners, adult or juvenile, many fear it has yet to break its dark habit of coddling abusive guards and other officials watching over those prisoners."

"The state is facing lawsuits alleging that its prisons subject too many inmates, including the mentally ill, to a prisoner 'warehousing' culture of unlawfully extreme isolation and deprivation, usually with little or no rehabilitation efforts to prevent recidivism. Other suits decry what one calls excessive as well as 'malicious and sadistic' use of pepper spray and other chemicals to keep mentally ill prisoners under control. In many cases the sprays have burned off inmates' skin, according to the suit."
It's one of a series of Time exposes on prison problems. Earlier this year, the magazine spotlighted both the crisis in California prisons and the burgeoning trend toward solitary confinement that literally drives some prisoners crazy. (I have more information on "segregation psychosis" on my website.)

Photo credit: The Black Commentator