This Crisis Goes All the Way Down to Our County Jails

It is no secret that, at both the state and federal level, the American system of incarceration is a huge chain of time bombs, each waiting for the most auspicious moment to explode. For a while there, back in the 20-teens, it looked like reforming the penal systems, and the criminal justice system, would be a key to the return of bipartisan comity and general rationality to our politics. Hell, even El Caudillo del Mar-a-Lago was on the bandwagon for a while, getting behind a criminal justice reform bill called the First Step Act.

(The issue also was originally going to be Bernie Kerik’s return to public life, but that was prior to his joining Rudy Giuliani on that big ship of fools now docking at various ports of call in courthouses across America.)

However, it turned out that politicians have been campaigning on the old boogedy-boogedy for too long to stop now. As Politico points out, the Republican party has moved far away from its tentative committment to reform. Not even the former president* mentions it any more. In what should be anything but a surprise, the GOP has reverted to form, adopting the stance first taken by Senator Tom Cotton, the bobble-throated slapdick from Arkansas. Cotton led the Republican opposition to the First Step Act. One of Cotton’s main points was that we don’t have enough prisons. In a speech he gave to the Hudson Institute, Cotton said,

“Take a look at the facts. First, the claim that too many criminals are being jailed, that there is over-incarceration, ignores an unfortunate fact: for the vast majority of crimes, a perpetrator is never identified or arrested, let alone prosecuted, convicted, and jailed,” Cotton said during a speech at The Hudson Institute, according to his prepared remarks.

“Law enforcement is able to arrest or identify a likely perpetrator for only 19 percent of property crimes and 47 percent of violent crimes. If anything, we have an under-incarceration problem…I believe the criminal-leniency bill in the Senate is dead in this year’s Congress. And it should remain so if future versions allow for the release of violent felons from prison. I will, though, happily work with my colleagues on true criminal-justice reform—to ensure prisons aren’t anarchic jungles that endanger both inmates and corrections officers, to promote rehabilitation and reintegration for those who seek it, and to stop the over-criminalization of private conduct under federal law. But I will continue to oppose any effort to give leniency to dangerous felons who prey on our communities.”

Which brings us to the Waupun Correctional Institution, a maximum security state facility in Wisconsin that, for a number of reasons, has been on full lockdown for over four months. The New York Times went long on the prison over the weekend and, lo and behold, it discovered a reasonable facsimile of an anarchic jungle endangering both inmates and corrections officers.

Prisoners locked in their cells for days on end report walls speckled with feces and blood. Birds have moved in, leaving droppings on the food trays and ice bags handed out to keep inmates cool. Blocked from visiting the law library, prisoners say they have missed court deadlines and jeopardized appeals. Unable to access toilet paper, one prisoner tore his clothing into patches to use for tissue.

More than two dozen inmates at Waupun, the state’s oldest prison, have revealed to The New York Times that since late March they have been forced to eat all meals in their cells, received no visits from friends or family, seen complaints of pain ignored and been allowed limited, if any, fresh air or recreation time. The state’s Department of Corrections has offered little explanation about the lockdown or why it has lasted so long. “There were multiple threats of disruption and assaultive behavior toward staff or other persons in our care, but there was not one specific incident that prompted the facility to go into modified movement,” said Kevin Hoffman, the department’s deputy director of communications. According to state data, nearly 100 assaults have occurred there in the past fiscal year.

The reasons for the lockdown are not as vague as this spokesman seems to make them appear. For one, the Waupun prison is, you should pardon the expression, criminally understaffed.

What is happening in Waupun illustrates a reality at prisons across the country: Lockdowns, once a rare action taken in a crisis, are becoming a common way to deal with chronic staffing and budget shortages. Critics say these shutdowns became easier to justify during the pandemic, when prison officials could cite the need to control the spread of the Covid. But even as most Covid-related restrictions have been lifted, lockdowns continue to be applied. “They are using it at the drop of a hat because it makes day to day operations easier,” said Tammie Gregg, deputy director for the A.C.L.U.’s National Prison Project.

This is a crisis that reaches the correctional institutions from the federal system down to the county jails. Staffing takes money that for, whatever reasons, most of them political and almost all of them bad, many state legislatures are disinclined to provide to their departments of corrections.

State prisons across the country have been denying inmates showers, exercise and timely medical care. In Mississippi, North Carolina and Texas, thousands of people have been kept in their cells as officials scrambled to hire more officers. Last year, a former lawmaker and director of an association that represents prison workers in Oklahoma said staffing shortages had led to increased violence and repeated lockdowns. And in the federal prison system, which is also suffering severe labor shortages, officials in recent years have turned to nurses, teachers and cooks to guard inmates as nearly one-third of correctional officer jobs sat vacant. Staffing shortages led one prison in Texas to lock inmates in their cells on the weekends.

What we have created in these people is a gulag of desperation, scattered all over the country. In Waupun, for example, inmates have taken to threatening suicide just to get medical care.

“People are threatening suicide every day, and there’s no treatment here,” said a Waupun inmate, Jayvon Flemming, referring to mental health care. “You have to harm yourself or threaten suicide just to get staff’s attention. I’m in a nightmare.” “I’ve attempted suicide four times in the past months just because of this lockdown and not being able to go outside to get sunlight,” said another inmate, Ashton Dreiling.

The NYT reports that, on one occasion, there were a total of eight staff members working inside the Waupun facility, which houses 900 inmates. This is not a recipe for disaster. This is an ongoing disaster. Ever since the “tax revolt” came roaring out of California in the late 1970’s, politicians have successfully managed to convince the public that they can have a decent society without paying for it, over and over again. Landmines, everywhere, and we’re walking through them blind.

Headshot of Charles P. Pierce

Charles P Pierce is the author of four books, most recently Idiot America, and has been a working journalist since 1976. He lives near Boston and has three children. 

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