Cruel and Unusual

Every so often a newspaper report presents information that prompts head scratching and/or the question: what was the thinking here? No one would dispute that our prison or, more precisely, corrections system, is both overcrowded and in need of deep reform. Inmate deaths due to inadequate health care and assaults by fellow inmates and sometimes by guards (Jeffrey Epstein?) are not uncommon. Episodic violent mayhem is not unusual. Among underlying causes, experts cite the failure of corrections to correct anything, especially in providing training for post-incarceration employment (not to mention adequate training for guards).

In addition to the grim dynamics of life in prison, society has piled on civil penalties, including but not limited to loss of voting rights, ability to obtain public housing, and service as a juror or notary public, to name just a few. In some respects these conditions are exacerbated by the confinement itself, and exaggerated by solitary confinement. Together, even the armchair analyst would conclude that considerable mental and emotional stress result.

In response to heavy criticism of the use of solitary confinement, inmates organized a protest; in its wisdom, corrections officials shipped a group of them across the state into solitary confinement in other facilities.

However, we should not be overly concerned about the welfare of inmates, at least in Washington state, as officials there have introduced ways and means to meet these difficulties. In response to heavy criticism of the use of solitary confinement, inmates organized a protest; in its wisdom, corrections officials shipped a group of them across the state into solitary confinement in other facilities. The following paragraphs from a New York Times report (November 19, 2019) adequately, if unbelievably, describe Washington’s Department of Corrections’ stunning insight:

As Joey Pedersen made his way to solitary confinement last month, Washington State Prison officers handed him a roll of toilet paper, a bar of soap, and a pack of documents including a flier titled 101 Ways to Relieve Stress.

He reviewed the suggestions in his new cell, where he would spend 23 hours a day alone. “Plant a tree.” “Go on a Picnic.” “Put air freshener in your car.” “Avoid negative people.” “Relax.” The document concluded, “you have the rest of your life.”

The options did not give Mr. Pedersen, who is serving life sentences for murders, much peace, but they did make him chuckle. To him, the document was just the latest sign that prison officials were out of touch with mental health issues among inmates while using solitary confinement to address even minor slights.

After the document was brought to their attention, leaders of the state Department of Corrections said in interviews this week that they would no longer use it, calling it a well-intentioned effort that “missed the mark.”

The first question that occurs is, who dreamed up this intervention to relieve stress? The response by officials over and above the “mark missing” comment has been to substitute this intervention by replacing the 101 Ways with soft cover library books and crossword puzzles to inmates as they enter solitary. Mr. Pedersen was quoted as characterizing the stress relief document as “absurd,” suggesting that his vocabulary could only improve from reading the library selections and completing some crosswords.

If the 101 Ways stress reliever was not cruel, it must be judged by any observer to be unusual.

 



Categories: Issues, Local, National

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