Children Locked Up For Life: 10 Shockers About America's Prison System

Even if we already know the statistic, hearing it is pretty chilling: one out of every 100 Americans is behind bars, by far the highest incarceration rate in the world. Things get even more terrifying when we look at the impact of the criminal justice system on particular marginalized communities. One in three African-American males born today will likely spend some time on the inside. With terms like the prison-industrial complex and the school-to-prison pipeline now part of our daily political lexicon, we know that things are bad.

But exactly how bad are they? Here are 10 reasons why our criminal justice system is even more obscene than you thought.

1. Margin of error? A mere technicality to death penalty advocates.

In case you were on the lookout for new and novel government loopholes, here’s one: the “margin of error” excuse. Florida courts declared Freddie Hall “retarded” in both 1992 and 1999. Yet despite the Supreme Court’s 1999 finding in Atkins v. Virginia that executing mentally retarded individuals violates the Eighth Amendment, Hall is still facing the death penalty. That’s because in Atkins the Supreme Court left the process of defining who is mentally retarded up to the states. In Florida, where individuals are required to prove they have an IQ of 70 or below, Hall was found to have an IQ of 71—on a test with a margin of error of 5 points. Last year, the Florida Supreme Court ignored that fact and ruled Hall eligible for execution, but this October, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Hall’s appeal. Let’s hope the Supreme Court justices remember more from Introduction to Statistics than that Florida crowd.

2. You can get spider bites like this... and still be refused medical attention.

As if prison weren’t scary enough.

Carolos Archuleta, an inmate in Tuscon, asked repeatedly for medical attention after being bitten by a spider in the groin. Four days later, Archuleta was finally transported to the hospital, where he had to have an emergency operation to remove infected fluid and tissue; he needed to be resuscitated while on the operating table. Other prisoners in Arizona have suffered miscarriages or died of cancer after being denied medical treatment for months or years. A class action lawsuit filed by the ACLU in March 2012 details some of the many instances in which prisoners in the state have endured unnecessary pain, amputation and even death because of inadequate care.

This deliberate indifference for prisoners’ physical and mental health is an endemic problem in Arizona and across the United States. California had such an “extensive and disturbing” history of violating of prisoners’ constitutional rights that a district court forced its medical services into receivership. At the time, it was estimated that “an inmate in California’s prisons die[d] needlessly every six to seven days due to grossly deficient medical care."

3. Mass incarceration of children and the elderly.

Shimeek Gridene was only 14 years old when he walked into the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office with his grandparents to give himself up; he and a 12-year-old friend had found a gun under a car and fired it at a local restaurant worker (the injured victim was released from the hospital on the day of the shooting). In 2010, Gridene was tried as an adult, convicted of attempted murder, and subsequently sentenced to 70 years—a hefty sentence for someone barely in high school. This past September the Florida Supreme Court heard Gridene’s case and will rule on whether he qualifies for resentencing under Graham v. Florida.

Then there’s elderly inmates. In a report released last year, Human Rights Watch found that “the number of US state and federal prisoners age 65 or older grew at 94 times the rate of the overall prison population between 2007 and 2010.” Although terminally ill (and soon, elderly) prisoners can technically petition for compassionate release, they rely on the Bureau of Prisons to bring their cases forward for consideration, which is extremely rare. In a 2012 report researchers found that “since 1992, the Bureau of Prisons has averaged annually only two dozen motions to the courts for early release, out of a prison population that now exceeds 218,000."

4. Neo-slavery.

The 13th Amendment abolished slavery… except of course, “as a punishment for crime,” something we Americans really seem to have taken to heart. Today, more black men are behind bars today than were enslaved in 1850. For the hundreds of thousands of people locked up in the federal system, work is not a choice, it’s a requirement.

To say that federal prisoners receive a wage for their forced labor is mostly a technicality: in 2001 the hourly minimum wage in Haiti, 30 cents, was higher than that of inmates working for UNICOR, the federal prison industries: 23 cents. Still, 23 cents an hour more than some prisoners receive. When Georgia prisoners went on strike in December 2010, their number-one demand was to receive a living wage. You could hardly blame them—paying inmates is prohibited under state law.

Then there’s the corporations like Bank of America, AT&T and Walmart making use of prison labor. And why wouldn’t they? Inmates are a captive labor pool; they’re banned from union organizing; and they don’t to be provided with costly benefits like heath insurance.

5. Rendition.

Remember how embarrassing it was under Bush, when suspected terrorists were kidnapped off the streets of foreign countries and detained by US authorities on the flimsiest of evidence? That’s still happening—but instead of ending up in Guantanamo, rendition victims are ending up right here at home. 

You might have heard about Anas al-Libi, who was indicted in a New York court last month after being snatched off the streets of Tripoli by US Special Forces. And then there's Mahdi Hashi, who was only 23 years old when he was picked up by the Djiouti secret police at the behest of the US authorities. He alleges he was held for months, threatened with electrocution and sexual abuse before being handed over to the CIA. According to Hashi, once they had a confession he was put on a plane to New York, where he was indicted on federal terrorism charges. He is currently held in solitary confinement at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Manhattan.

The Ker-Frisbie doctrine means that criminal defendants can be prosecuted in US courts regardless of whether or not they were transported onto US soil in accordance with the relevant extradition treaties. Which means President Obama can gain liberal kudos points by reiterating his promise to shut Guantanamo Bay, and still keep his hands clean when those pesky legal channels get in his way.

6. 15,180 days in solitary confinement… and counting.

That’s how long it’s been for Albert Woodfox, the last member of the Angola 3 to remain on the inside. On any given day, almost 80,000 people across the United States spend almost 23 hours in total isolation, a practice described as torture by UN Special Rapporteur Juan Mendez.

People are not only driven to insanity by spending months, years and decades in solitary, they are also denied mental healthcare. A lawsuit filed in June 2012 outlines the desperation of prisons in ADX Florence:

“Prisoners interminably wail, scream and bang on the walls of their cells. Some mutilate their bodies with razors, shards of glass, writing utensils and whatever other objects they can obtain. Some swallow razor blades, nail clippers, parts of radios and televisions, broken glass and other dangerous objects.”

In California, where the “wrong” Christmas card can get you thrown in isolation, prisoners in isolation make up just 5% of the prison population, but nearly half of its suicides. Across the United States, children are also placed in solitary confinement for days, weeks or even months.

7. Special Administrative Measures (SAMs).

Although SAMs were originally designed to prevent terrorists from planning attacks from the inside, in practice the BOP and the Attorney General have used them to pressure people into pleading guilty, and subsequently isolate and demean them. Even before Fahad Hashmi had been convicted of a single crime, he endured 23-hour lockdown with 24-hour electronic monitoring and was forced to shower and relieve himself in front of a camera. Each week he was allowed to write one 3-page letter, and every other week he was allowed a no-contact visit from an immediate family member. Hashmi was prohibited from participating in group prayer and could only read newspapers older than 30 days. After spending nearly three years in almost complete isolation, and with the prospect of a lifetime of similar conditions before him, Fahad Hashmi pled guilty to providing material support for a terrorist group. (He still lives under SAMs today.)

John Walker Lynne, the so-called American Taliban, was stripped naked, cavity searched, and thrown into the SHU for violating one particular order on his SAM: “all communications with others will be in English.” His crime? Uttering the customary Islamic response (“Walaikum assalam”) when a Muslim brother greeted him in the cafeteria.

8. We still criminalize “evil” bodies: HIV+ people and pregnant drug users.

Nearly three-quarters of states criminalize exposure or potential exposure to HIV through sex, shared needles or even bodily fluids. Generally, prosecutors do not have to prove that the individual had the intent to transmit HIV or that actual transmission took place; nor do these prosecutions reflect how HIV is transmitted or the risks involved in particular behaviors. In one case, a homeless man was sentenced to 35 years in prison for assaulting a police officer with a deadly weapon… his HIV+ saliva. (No one has ever contracted HIV through contact with saliva.)

According to the New York Times, four states across the country have passed legislation to confine women who struggle with substance abuse. Many other states rely on civil-confinement, child protection, or criminal to control or criminalize pregnant drug users—all despite the objections of obstetricians and gynecologists. This past January, the Alabama Supreme Court upheld the conviction of a woman sentenced to 10 years in prison for using meth while she was pregnant, after her premature son died within minutes of his birth. 

9. In 2011, twice as many people were locked up in federal prisons for crack cocaine offenses (15%) than violent crimes (7.6%). 

In the last 25 years the US prison population has skyrocketed by almost 800%, due in large part due to the draconian mandatory minimum drug statues and three-strikes laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s. The crack-cocaine disparity in sentencing, perhaps the most notoriously racist manifestation of mandatory minimums, is still at a shameful 18:1 today. Of the 30,000 people on the inside for crack-cocaine offenses, over 80% are African American.

There are so many shocking cases it is difficult to know which ones to list. Todd Hannigan went to a park in Florida with 31 Vicodin and a six-pack of beer with the intention of committing suicide, but the cops arrested him before he took the pills. Mandatory minimums kicked in and he was sentenced to 15 years. 

10. According to Amnesty International, “the single most reliable predictor of whether someone will be sentenced to death is the race of the victim.

What more is there to say?


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