Rape, solitary confinement, and death: American prisons need reform

Barack Obama finally seems to be paying attention to the crisis that is afflicting American's incarcerated, but that has more to do with economics than heart

The United States is suffering a crisis of conscience over its incarcerated. Sort of. And why not? Today, no fewer than 2.4 million Americans are behind bars – close to one out of every 100 in the land with a disproportionate number being black or poor or both.

It is alone among developed nations to maintain the death penalty, though not in all states, and to subject inmates, including the mentally impaired, to extended periods of solitary confinement.

Barack Obama is finally paying some attention. His Attorney General, Eric Holder, began moving last year to require shorter sentences for non-violent drug offenders, finally overhauling the draconian system of mandatory sentences introduced at a time when rampant crime rates and the spread of crack cocaine were considered one and the same problem. Last month, he unveiled a clemency programme for drug offenders already behind bars serving far more time than they would if sentenced today. “That is simply not right,” he said.

This is not just a liberal thing. Some on the right support sentencing reforms too. A new draft bill to cut the federal prison population, in part with an early release programme, has just sailed through the Senate Judiciary Committee, co-sponsored by Senator John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas. Its provisions, he said, had been inspired by what has been going on in his own state. Under the leadership of Governor Rick Perry, a Republican, Texas has achieved a 6 per cent drop in its incarceration rate since 2009.

So has Texas – and America – rediscovered its heart? The decrease in the numbers being put behind bars in the Lone Star State is in part the result of reforms passed by the state legislature in 2007, which shifted significant sums to alternatives to incarceration. Mr Perry, who is flirting with another run at the presidency in 2016, touts this success all around the land.

But wait a second. This is sadly more about cash than compassion. The Justice Department can’t afford to keep spending one third of its budget on housing federal inmates. And Texas was tired of adding billions to its budget annually just to expand the numbers of beds in its prisons. Rehabilitation is cheaper than incarceration. If this was really about human rights, the death penalty would be on its way out. So would solitary confinement. 

That there is a big difference between wanting to reduce prison populations and wanting to join the industrialised world in treating inmates more humanely is best seen in Texas. Brag all you like, Mr Perry. Your state executes far and away more inmates than any other state in the country (268 since you came to office). You may have seen this week’s study by statisticians from several universities reckoning that 4 per cent of people on death row are probably innocent.

And pray do explain your remarkable willingness to allow inmates to cook to death and your refusal to abide by new federal regulations designed merely to protect minors behind bars from rape.

I am not kidding about cooking. There is no air-conditioning in Texan jails. Truly. In April, the Human Rights Clinic of the University of Texas School of Law said in a study that at least 14 inmates have died from excessive heat in Texan jails since 2007. What is being done to remedy this? You guessed it.

Yes, there has been some progress on reform in Texas, at least in recognising that imprisonment is not always the best response, even if it’s because it is costly. In an editorial, the Houston Chronicle said: “We are optimistic and proud of our Texas legislators’ efforts, but at the moment it still seems like we’re on probation.”

You could say that about the rest of the country. But on the whole, it seems generous.

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