Prison conditions must be reformed

At the Waupun Correctional Institution, a maximum security Wisconsin penitentiary located about three hours northwest of Chicago, some 1,000 prisoners have been confined mostly to their cells for more than four months. In an Aug. 19 report on the horrendous conditions, the New York Times alleged “walls speckled with feces and blood,” birds flying around cells, an absence of toilet paper, the cancellation of all visits with family and no meaningful time whatsoever in the fresh air.

Officials argued that staff shortages and threats of disorder had forced their hand — but that is no excuse for such inhumane treatment over so long a spell. Whatever their offense.

Waupun is hardly alone. Take, in a very different setting, the Metropolitan Detention Center in New York City, where Sam Bankman-Fried, the disgraced crypto mogul known as SBF, was remanded after a federal judge found he had violated the conditions of his bail. That was the occasion for much media schadenfreude and gloating headlines like ” SBF is headed to one of America’s most notorious prisons.”

“In recent years, MDC has been plagued by persistent staffing shortages, power outages and maggots in inmates’ food,” Reuters reported Aug. 14.

So when Sam Bankman-Fried’s mother, Stanford University law Prof. Barbara Fried, tried to approach her son in the courtroom as he was led away to this place, only to be prevented from touching him, you can bet such conditions were foremost in her mind, as would have been her son’s safety. It is worth noting here that SBF was not a violent offender and his case has not yet gone to trial. This is where we land persons awaiting their day in court.

You can believe that SBF should have gone to prison for not following the court’s bail conditions without wishing upon him maggots in his food, or wishing legitimate fears for a son’s physical safety upon his mother.

Poor prison conditions, of course, are nothing new. And it’s certainly true that not all U.S. prisons fall into this category. That said, the debate over crime and detention often proceeds as if none of this was relevant, which could not be further from the truth.

It’s now received wisdom that U.S. prisons are hell on earth, especially for young people. This is what many progressives say motivates them to keep as many people as possible out of these prisons, even as conservatives tend to focus on the dangers of quickly returning offenders to their old stamping grounds.

But what if prisons actually contained the number of inmates for which they built, offered better educational programs, and provided more access to fresh air, while budgets were increased to hire more and better trained staff?

That’s hardly coddling criminals. The U.S. prison system is cruel when compared with Europe, where prisons are more likely to focus more on giving prisoners work and new skills. Those incarcerated there still lose their freedom but at least they are not brutalized.

This all should be part of the debate over incarceration and public safety. To paraphrase U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan in the SBF case, no one expects prisons to be five-star facilities.

But, especially when someone has yet to be tried by a jury of their peers, we should expect them to be safe, sanitary and inclusive of toilet paper, clean tap water and fresh air.

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