Lloyd Waters: When does humanity become inhumane?

August 18, 2013|By LLOYD WATERS

In California, some 30,000 inmates are taking part in a hunger strike to protest their “inhumane” treatment within that state’s prison system.

Prisoners are demanding changes to the practice of long-term placement in solitary confinement units. It is estimated that more than 3,000 inmates in California prisons are housed in high security isolation units.

Although I suppose it’s all right to go on a hunger strike to protest something you believe in, when I read of the recent assault of a staff person at the North Branch Correctional facility, I have to wonder about one’s definition of “inhumane.”

Is it more inhumane to confine a violent inmate to a cell for a long period of time, or permit that same individual to commit a vicious assault against another human being (staff person) without provocation?

Often state officials and the courts will be quick to address one aspect of “inhumane” treatment of inmates while often ignoring the other, the safety and welfare of staff.

Rabid dogs are treated in one fashion by our society, because rabies can be detrimental to one’s health. The safety of those in our community requires certain actions and responses when the docility of an animal becomes vicious and unpredictable.

In 1997, while traveling the coast of California, I had just come through the spectacular Redwood forest near Del Norte, when I happened upon the Pelican Bay State Prison. After a quick phone call to the warden, he invited me to stop by and tour his prison.

In the mid-1980s, then Gov. George Deukmejian decided to build a prison to accommodate 1,000 violent inmates. Pelican Bay was designed to house the worst inmates whose crimes included murder, assaults, riots, those who threatened staff or fellow inmates, or significant gang affiliation.

In 1997, inmates of this prison, because of their lack of conformity to humane principles, would be locked down for 23 hours a day and live in an 80-square-foot cell with a concrete slab for a bed, a toilet, small concrete stool and no windows.  Exercise would be provided.

Although those extended long periods of isolation can have a detrimental effect on an individual, permitting that same individual who has no sincere desire to show humane treatment for anyone, as demonstrated by his violent and past anti-social behaviors, cannot be condoned.

As Maryland Public Safety Secretary Gary Maynard continues to spend his days trying to fix those problems at the Baltimore City Detention Center, we may need to clone him, because equally serious problems are brewing in other state facilities, including the North Branch prison in Cumberland.

In 1991, I dealt with a similar problem at the Maryland Correctional Institution.

One of the primary tenets of my prison philosophy runs contrary to the courts and their observations.

If some of those judges had to walk daily the corridors of those prisons, I bet they would have a far different perspective on isolation.

The use of solitary confinement is often the last tool available to protect your staff from violent prison assaults.

Some prisoners, and I’m not suggesting all prisoners, have a tendency toward violence and mayhem. Those nonconforming individuals need to be separated from the rest of their community. For how long? For as long as it takes to change their behavior.

I used this tool successfully in 1991 at MCI. Maynard should apply the use of isolation liberally at the North Branch facility when these assaults occur without provocation.

Although it is always the goal to promote positive changes in each of those individuals convicted of a crime in Maryland, the reality is simple. Some people can and will change; some others, in all likelihood, will not.

Those prisoners prone to violence and nonconformity are impediments to any successful rehabilitation program for others, and a danger to both staff and inmates.

Is long-time isolation inhumane? Perhaps, but so are prison staff assaults.   

Lloyd “Pete” Waters is a Sharpsburg resident who writes columns for The Herald-Mail.

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