Human Rights - Facing Death Row

Fifteen SMU students, faculty members and others will travel by bus through the Deep South Aug. 2-10 to visit the people and places involved in operating, reporting on and opposing the death penalty in America. The 10-day experience is designed “to expose people to the physical and emotional aspects affiliated with our country’s use of the death penalty, the majority of which is carried out in the states we’ll visit – Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana and Texas,” says capital punishment expert/activist Rick Halperin, director of SMU’s Embrey Human Rights Program, the trip’s sponsor.

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Different Kinds of Misery

An update from Jennifer M., doctoral candidate studying prison reform:

Andersonville, Georgia
Standing in a muggy, buggy Georgia field, we tried to imagine Andersonville Prison as it was during the Civil War. Established as a Confederate prison to house Union soldiers, it was originally intended for 8,000–10,000 men.  At its most heavily populated in the summer of 1864, it held 33,000 men. Of the 45,000 who passed through Andersonville, 13,000 died, mostly of diarrhea, scurvy, and dysentery.  The prison closed in May 1865, but in its barely 18-month existence, it earned the reputation of “the most notorious of Confederate atrocities inflicted on Union troops.”

The National Parks Service now manages this historic site, and there is a museum at Andersonville with exhibits about other prisoner of war camps throughout U.S. history.  POWs have suffered terrible physical, material, and psychological deprivation. Some were tortured. But it struck me as I walked around the exhibits and saw how these POWs lived and coped, that such prisoners were almost all united by a common cause, were supportive of each other, and developed a solidarity from which they could create hope.

Raiford State Prison, Florida
Such solidarity would be hard to achieve for the prisoners in Raiford State Prison, in Florida. This facility has 1,200 single-man cells, with three levels of management classification, which includes a “maximum management” unit, aka solitary confinement.  Raiford also houses Florida’s death row. The inmates at Raiford typically have had behavioral problems in other correctional facilities and come from all over Florida. Those convicted of capital murder go there directly after sentencing. Our tour guide, Lt. Cauwenberghs, explained that despite having a chapel, library, and gym, these inmates are not permitted to spend time together in any of these places, because “they will assault one another.” Depending on their classification, prisoners can exercise two, four, or six hours per week, outside in cages, alone.

The extreme isolation that Raiford’s prisoners have to endure, even in the lower security classifications, is not conducive to the type of solidarity that can give some measure of hope and psychological security to POWs, despite other deprivations. The inmates at Raiford are not united in a common cause. In fact common causes would likely be viewed as potential security threats, what French philosopher Michel Foucault memorably referred to as “dangerous coagulations.”  Every aspect of inmates’ day-to-day existence is controlled and scrutinized. Many of the aspects of life that ordinary people take for granted, such as taking a shower or moving from the room you sleep in to another area, only happen with the permission and supervision of correctional officers. All time out of the inmates’ cells is preceded and concluded with strip searches that involve body cavity checks. Human contact is with correctional and, sometimes, medical staffs at the prison, who “handle,” inspect, restrain, and watch the inmates. There are rarely opportunities for association of any kind with other inmates, except for those whose good behavior allows them educational privileges.

We heard from the Lieutenant about some of these educational programs. In response to the links between low educational attainment and criminality, and increased educational programs and lower recidivism, Raiford’s goal is to make sure that as many inmates as possible get their GEDs. It appeared that the Florida Department of Corrections had also begun to grapple with why inmates constantly assault one another when they are not restrained, contained, or otherwise socially incapacitated. The prevailing wisdom is that the men who end up at Raiford are “the worst of the worst,” and there is not much else you can do with them. But the deleterious effects of long-term confinement in extraordinarily locked-down circumstances, and the realization that some of these men will re-enter society at some point, has led to an anger management pilot program at Raiford.

As we passed by the gymnasium, Lt. Cauwenberghs invited us to look through the windows at anger management classes in process. Two groups of about eight inmates each sat in wooden chairs in a semi-circle around female facilitators. The men were about 10 feet from the women. As I was gazing down at these men, our tour guide pointed out that the inmates were sitting in special chairs with restraints. These men were tied to their chairs. I immediately thought of the book, The Girl With All the Gifts, and the chilling opening, in which the author describes a classroom of children sitting in heavy chairs in restraints. This is a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel, about a world in which a fungus has turned people into flesh-eating zombies, and these restrained children have the virus.  The Girl With All the Gifts explores the ways in which humans rationalize denying their humanity. The book asks another question: how much of our own humanity do we lose when we see any group of others as less than us, and treat them accordingly? All this was passing through my mind, when the inmates in the gym turned and looked at us. All of those faces were black.

Angola State Prison, Louisiana
Our final prison visit was to Angola, an 18,000-acre prison farm and the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Administrative staff boasted that Angola was the size of Manhattan. Angola is like a city. In fact I saw two signs that said, “City of Angola.” The prison houses 3,000 inmates, 85% of which will likely die there because they are “lifers,” and “life means life in Louisiana,” a sort of mantra I heard repeated several times on the tour.

They range in age from 17 to about 80, two-thirds of them are first-time offenders, and the average length of sentence is 88 years. As we cruised the perimeter road, we saw groups of field workers, out in the heat and humidity, working in lines, supervised by a couple of officers on horseback, carrying rifles. The first three years of any inmate’s sentence is spent working in the fields, for no pay. After that time, they can earn 2 cents an hour and request other kinds of work. Every change in circumstances for the better for an Angola inmate is based on good behavior.  “Management problems” go to Camp J, Angola’s version of solitary confinement, with 90 days spent there for each infraction. Of all the inmates I saw at Angola, most from a distance, I saw only two white faces, and the rest were black.

For anyone who was ever in doubt about the links between slavery, Jim Crow, and the current system of mass incarceration in the United States, a tour of prisons in the Deep South will make it clear as day. Harsh sentences, harsh practices, the dehumanizing tactics of the command and control culture of the American prison system, all targeted at poor, under-educated, mostly people of color, is consigning large numbers of citizens to what one commentator has called a “social death.” How did we get here?  Take a look at the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime      whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.  (my italics)

The license to treat prisoners as less than human is enshrined in the Constitution of the most powerful first-world country on this planet. What does this say about America? How much of our humanity do we lose when we ignore the appalling conditions of confinement that are commonplace in this country’s prisons? As Dostoyevsky famously said, “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” If we ignore what is happening in America’s prisons, we are bystanders and our collective humanity is compromised.

We are all affected.  We are all implicated.

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