Saturday, April 7, 2012

"The Cemetery of the Living": Hideous Conditions in U.S. Prisons

U.S. prisons, which hold well over 2 million human beings in incarceration, ranging from minimum security to Supermax prisons where people are kept in total isolation for years on end, are an abomination to humanity, a sign of the barbarity of the society we live in. The poem reposted below was found on a webpage of the Massachusetts Statewide Harm Reduction Coalition (SHaRC), from 2007 hearings held on prison suicides and prison mental health.

SHaRC notes:
While we acknowledge that some behaviors may be diagnosed mental illness, designating and placing the focus on “mentally ill” prisoners allows administrators, guards and staff to evade responsibility for the cruel, inhuman and degrading conditions to which suicidal and other prisoners react. Further, labeling people as “mentally ill” masks “disablement” caused by child abuse, poverty, racism, sexism, etc.. Coping responses to inequality and unhealthy and unsafe conditions must be differentiated from mental illness. Counterproductive measures meted out for such coping responses punishes individuals unfairly for the harms we have inflicted upon them. Vitally important questions are not asked such as why so many are diagnosed mentally ill and how do we restore social policies and practices to alleviate disability while fulfilling human rights obligations, reducing crime rates and ultimately, prisoner suicides.

The International Convention Against Torture governing imprisonment has been ratified by the U.S. From the extremes of sensory deprivation to seemingly mundane daily occurances, prison policy and practice violates human rights. In addition to concerns about our international obligations these violations of rights mean that many leave prison worse off than when they went in. Post Incarceration Syndrome (PICS) is caused by incarceration. 60% of prisoners have been in prison before. They are at even greater risk for further harm, again subjected to “environments of punishment with few opportunities for education, job training, or rehabilitation. The symptoms are most severe in prisoners subjected to prolonged solitary confinement and severe institutional abuse.”
The Massachusetts hearings came after "the Boston Globe did a comprehensive exposé on what it called the ”Prison Suicide Crisis” in Massachusetts." But the conditions that led to the hearings still continue.

Indeed, cruel conditions are not by any means limited to Massachusetts prisons. An article at Solitary Watch notes, "A report just released by Amnesty International documents and denounces conditons in Arizona’s state prisons, including their gross overuse of long-term solitary confinement."

Solitary Watch has been working assiduously to publicize the fights around the country against cruel and inhuman prison conditions that damage and destroy hundreds of thousands of people every year, and by extension traumatize millions more, as the families of those victimized suffer intensely. Recent article concern the fight to close Tamms Supermax prison in Illinois, the use of solitary confinement at Rikers Island, and the ongoing fight to change California's policies in regards to Security Housing Units (SHUs) at Pelican Bay and elsewhere. The latter were the subject of hunger strikes by inmates throughout the California prison system last year.

The following poem was written by C.T., a prisoner at Massachusetts' Bay State Correctional Center.
The Cemetery of the Living

The cemetery of the living, this I call the place;
Where my heart beats, my blood flows, yet it has no one to embrace.
Many have visited, not everyone survives;
It’s not a horror story, and now I’ll tell you why:
Time is hard, lonely, and unforgetful;
The dead rest in peace, but this rest is painful.
I had many by my side, upon entering these walls;
The ones I called my friends were the first who I lost.
My Baby’s Mother took my daughter away, I ask why?
Every night I ask God to watch over her, as I cry.
Mom and dad, even they fell apart,
How much more can one take to the heart?
I live but I’m dead, and in this casket I lie.
In prison, the cemetery, I speak of today,
I guarantee my soul will never stay!!

March 9, 2005
Supporting documentation to the 2007 Massachusetts hearings can be downloaded as a PDF here.

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