Brown v Plata: The Humanity Of Prisoners

To put it bluntly, California's justice/prison system is utterly, completely broken.  Thanks to what is widely acknowledged as the most draconian three-strikes law (on your third conviction of a felony, the sentence is life imprisonment, period, no exceptions) in the nation, our prisons are overloaded with mostly-nonviolent offenders, most of them convicted of various drug possession or sale offenses.  The state prison system was built to house around 80,000 prisoners; it currently houses nearly 150,000.  Overcrowding of such epic proportions, combined with constant budget cuts, has led to a situation in which "on average, an inmate in one of California's prisons needlessly dies every six to seven days due to constitutional deficiencies in the medical delivery system."

SCOTUS has now stepped in with a ruling yesterday, Brown v Plata, which holds that the level of overcrowding and resulting deficiencies in care violate the 8th Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.  That's how bad it is.   The document describes unthinkable, mass-storage conditions, like cramming 200 prisoners into a gymnasium supervised by only two or three officers.  It's just horrifying.

It made me remember a project I did, years ago in college, about health-care delivery systems in the prison system.  (I took a course on "structures in clinical health care" or something like that as an "Oh, shit, I need credits." sort of elective thing.)  The rates of Hep C were unthinkable, treatment was scarce, prisoners who were entering more or less healthy were leaving with lifelong diseases that the system had neither bothered to prevent nor treat.  I was horrified to read about the complete disregard with which prisoners in my state were being treated - or rather, not treated.

And yet I remember a conversation with a coworker and a customer and I on a slow day last year, still fresh in my mind, where the customer was griping about how "those damn prisoners get organ transplants paid for by my tax dollars," and "they get better medical care than I do."  And I said, first of all, that's not true, at least in this state; the medical care in our prison system is awful-to-nonexistent.  But that aside, why shouldn't prisoners receive necessary medical care?  We're not talking about cosmetic boob jobs here, we're talking about necessary-to-survive medications and operations and other forms of care.  At which point my coworker jumped in and sided with the customer, saying that it's just not fair and they fucked up so they don't deserve anything (heavily paraphrasing, but that was the gist of it). 

And I think of the criminal-in-chief of Maricopa County, Arizona, Joe Arpaio, too.  His tent cities in the desert and his chain gangs, and how strangely, and horrifyingly, he has remained in power for nearly twenty years now.  That people defend him, and reelect him, over and over, because his awful human rights abuses are "only" against prisoners (and immigrants, and anybody non-white, really) and they "deserve" it. 

Why is this okay?  Why is it commonly accepted that being convicted of a crime - without knowing what the crime was, mind you.  People end up in prison for rape and murder, yes, but also for drug possession or other nonviolent offenses, and I hope people aren't trying to make those out to be equally bad - means you deserve whatever kind of treatment those in power dish out?  Do we really want a culture where one bad decision is enough to completely strip a person of hir humanity, hir rights to decency and a certain minimum standard of treatment?  I'm sure it's only a coincidence that these views coincide with a "justice" system that is heavily racist, so most of the time when one talks about "prisoners" it's also a sort of code for "lower-class PoC", right? /sarcasm 

I can understand being angry at the fact that, for many people, prison healthcare *is* actually better than what we can access on the outside.  It's galling to know that while I, having never committed a crime, struggle along without access to any healthcare at all, people who have committed crimes are having their health care paid for on the state's dime.  So I get that envy and anger, I really do.  But I don't think the solution is to heap further abuse on the prison population.  It's not their fault our government has shitty priorities.  When there is an inequality between haves and have-nots, the solution is not to tear down those who have, it's to raise up those who have not.  And you know, maybe if we provided universal healthcare and a living wage and decent educational opportunities, not only would the people on the outside not have to be jealous of medical care afforded to prisoners, a lot of people in prison, who turned to the least-worst path available to them despite the illegality of that path, might not *be* in prison in the first place. 

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