The other prison scandal

Posted: May 13, 2004 12:00 AM

    If we insist on having an orgy of self-flagellation about the prison abuses at Abu Ghraib, we might as well gain something from it. That something shouldn't be a change in our interrogation tactics in the war on terror -- they don't seem at fault for the perverse acts of a few MPs -- but reform of the ongoing scandal that is the U.S. prison system.
   It is telling that two of the guards involved in the Iraq scandal were prison guards in the United States. Our prisons aren't run the way cellblocks 1-A and 1-B in Abu Ghraib were between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. last fall, thank goodness, but they tend to be pits of sexual violence, madness and drug abuse. They are at once too brutal and too lax. Fixing them is not something we owe the international community or anyone else -- besides ourselves.

    Events at Abu Ghraib have established that we are horrified at the idea of forcible sodomy -- some of which might be featured in the new batch of photos -- in prisons. Good. That sense of outraged disgust should apply here. An estimated 10 percent of prison inmates are victims of rape at least once. Two-thirds of the victims are raped repeatedly, and some male prisoners report 100 or more incidents of sexual assault a year. According to Cindy Struckman-Johnson of the University of South Dakota, a third of the victims have thoughts of committing suicide, and 17 percent attempt it.

    Suicidal despair is a common feature of prisons, since they are used to warehouse the mentally ill. Instead of deinstitutionalizing the mentally ill, we have trans-institutionalized them, effectively transferring them from mental-health hospitals into prisons. There are more mentally ill people in America's jails and prisons -- somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 -- than in all its psychiatric hospitals. They don't get proper treatment and are often punished for the consequences of their illness by being placed in solitary confinement, thus exacerbating their sickness.

    On top of these problems, there are gangs, drugs, abusive guards and more. How do we improve our prisons? The most important change has to be in our attitude. Prisons can do great good -- they have been the most important factor in declining crime during the past decade. But the people who go there, despite their weakness or wickedness, are human beings and deserve to be treated as such. Incarceration is itself the punishment and shouldn't be augmented by random brutality or poor treatment.

    A message should be sent from the very top, i.e. governors, that the abuse of prisoners, by fellow inmates or by guards, will not be tolerated. It is especially important that inmate-on-inmate rape and acts of abuse by guards be punished, even if powerful look-the-other-way prison-guard unions don't like it. Overcrowding, which overwhelms guards and helps create the conditions for rape and other violence, should be alleviated. If we are going to jail more people than any other country in the world, let's build more prisons. But since there are limits on resources, the incarceration-intense drug war needs to be re-examined. And the mentally ill should be diverted into mental institutions.

    Meanwhile, as criminal-justice expert Eli Lehrer argues, while prisoners are under our control we might as well try to do some good for them. Work programs in prison can get prisoners in the habit of working and reduce recidivism. More than 10 percent of prisoners test positive for drugs at any given time. Coercive treatment programs should attempt to wean them of addiction. Finally, prisoners tend to be simply dumped on the streets when they are released. More intensive post-prison monitoring can help keep them from going back.

    It is understandable that Abu Ghraib has raised such an outcry. The abuses there will get more American soldiers killed. But there is something odd about a country that gets more exercised about the treatment of foreign prisoners than the treatment of its own. Let's not expend all of our prison outrage on behalf of Iraqis.