Yesterday, I listened to Margaret Winter, Associate Director of the ACLU National Prison Project, describe the “living nightmare” on Mississippi’s death row in 2002. Her words were visceral and painted an image, but of course no images exist.
On that death row, cells had no power. Men languished in “perpetual twilight without enough light to read.” Radios were silent. Summer temperatures soared to a life-threatening 120 degrees fahrenheit. Year-round, mosquitos from the surrounding swamps filled the cell-tiers at dawn and dusk. No toilets worked. The stench was unbearable. Every sense was under constant assault. Prisoners’ shrieks, sobs and babbling filled the air. Suicides and self-harm were routine and the prison officers maintained order with the deployment of pepper spray. The majority of the prisoners had severe mental illness, and of those that arrived in the unit sane, few were lucky to have the strength of mind to remain so.
If an individual treats an animal this way, they’re punished by law and yet in America our law sends people to wallow in such conditions and worse.
Attorney Winter explained that court-orders often provide legal professionals access into prisons that the media has been denied access for years, even decades. Class action litigation alongside advocacy and responsible reporting all contribute to a reliable view of prisons for the tax-paying public. That such deplorable conditions could exist in America in the 21st century surely makes the case for robust and independent monitoring of America’s prisons.
Winter and ACLU only became aware of the abuse after they received letters from dozens of men on death row. As I listened to Winter’s account, I thought back to a day earlier when I’d asked the same audience to consider not only what images they see of prisons, but also the images they do not see.
Right now, Oklahoma is making a case-study of itself. Under the orders of new Dept. of Corrections Director Robert Patton, Oklahoma prisons now allow journalists to enter only with pen and paper. Apparently, the OK DOC has been “slammed” by over a dozen media requests. Slammed!?!? How low is the bar? No cameras or audio recording devices inside Oklahoma prisons.
Unsurprisingly, Patton cites security reasons. Who are we to argue? What do we, the uninformed public know about security? The tone is patronising. A healthy relationship between the press which serves the public and the administrations in control of our tax funded institutions would make me feel safer. This stinks.
The Tulsa World reports that Patton believes that the requirement to search the camera equipment diverts staff resources and time. He also fears images of sensitive security equipment wouldn’t end up in photos or videos.
“It is very staff intensive to process this type of equipment in and out of a facility. More importantly, we need to ensure that any security function not be recorded or filmed in a way that may jeopardize the safety of our facilities,” says DOC spokesman Jerry Massie.
All of this smacks of an institution stretched, stressed and flailing. And indeed it is. The Oklahoma prison system is overcrowded. To add to the pressure, OK has the lowest levels of staffing of any state. Moral is low and pay is lower. Oklahoma has created a tumorous prison machine that does not rehabilitate but just churns up prisoners and staff and spits them out the other side.
No one is doubting Patton’s job is tough, but making adversaries of the press is not any type of solution. If anything he should be using the press more to expose the fractured department and broken lives he’s having to manage.
Unfortunately, some panicked lawmakers in Oklahoma think more private prison contracts are the solution. Private prisons use under-qualified staff, warehouse prisoners for longer, cut corners, and treat humans as commodity. They are based on efficiency models. Trying to make prisons more efficient IS the problem. Patton and Oklahoma’s only solution is to rely on incarceration less. Patton must establish community supervision programs for those prosecuted by law — they are cheaper and more effective.
I urge Patton not to listen to calls for extended privatisation and to put human needs ahead of budget needs. If he doesn’t, he’ll exacerbate the problem and fail the people of Oklahoma to whom he is (theoretically, at least) in service. By banning cameras and story-telling equipment, Patton will only succeed in alienating Oklahomans further.
This Tulsa World editorial hits the nail on the head: “This is no way to treat taxpayers who pony up a half-billion dollars annually to keep their prisons operating.”
FIRST HAND ACCOUNT
If I cannot convince you, perhaps a concerned Oklahoman might? I recently received this email from the loved one of a man imprisoned in Oklahoma.
“I’m aware that a camera inside, in the hands of a loved one, a visitor, is never going to happen. But journalism? Journalism is a must. I recently sent my loved one an article in print. It was about a prizewinning author who is incarcerated for life. The prison mail-guard and the contraband review board withheld that piece. Destroyed it. When I pressed, the reason given was that it contained a photographic image of a prisoner!
Photography is powerful. I imagine what my partner would capture if I could give him a camera — the haunted and defeated look in the eyes, the conditions inside the giant quonset hut housing 66 men in 33 bunk-beds.
Oklahoma has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country, and one of the highest uses of for-profit prisons. And now no one can take a photo inside? Dangerous stuff.”
This source asked to remain anonymous in order to protect her partner from any punitive response by the DOC.
Image: Seniors Walking Across America.