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NHprisonguard

Claudia Cass with her children, Matthew, Kaylee, left, and Courtney in 2006. Credit: Alysia Santo/The Marshall Project

The lives of prison officers, as I have said before, are rarely represented by means of photography. I don’t know if that is the case for other mediums. Regardless, Alysia Santo‘s profile of Claudia Cass, a prison officer in New Hampshire, is essential reading.

“Her work in the prison had become so overwhelming that Matthew, her 11-year old son, was often alone, cooking his own dinner and seeing himself off to school,” writes Santo.

Cass, 42, is so stretched by the long hours of her job she feels unable to care adequately for her son. She made the toughest decision of her life and transferred legal custody of Matthew to her mother.

Imagine that? Having to give up legal custody of your child because you’re spending all your waking hours working in a prison? Crazy and depressing.

Santo writes:

Prison guards are often characterized, whether in news accounts or movies, as living under some constant threat of mayhem. But for Cass and her fellow officers, the recurring nightmare is not a prison riot. It is falling asleep at the wheel after a series of 16-hour shifts. Or nodding off with your sidearm exposed while escorting a sick inmate to the hospital. Or even having to tell your child that you don’t have time to be a mother.

 Read 16-Hour Shifts, 300 Prisoners to Watch and 1 Lonely Son

Governing Through Crime recently noted that photographs more than legalese may have swayed the opinion of Justice Breyer during December’s SCOTUS discussion of Schwarzenegger vs. Plata.

VIEW ALL PHOTOGRAPHS SUBMITTED HERE.

Breyer saw the photos in an amicus brief submitted by a coalition of religious group (PDF) in support of the plaintiff:

“It’s a big record. What I did was I – it refers to on-line evidence – I went and looked at the pictures, and the pictures are pretty horrendous to me. And I would say Page 10 of the religious group’s brief (PDF), for example, shows you one of them. And what [the religious groups] are saying is obvious. Just look at it. In conditions such as these, you cannot have mental health facilities that will stop people from killing themselves, and you cannot have medical facilities that will stop staph and tubercular infection.”

Schwarzenegger v. Plata is a federal class-action suit challenging health care conditions in the California prisons. In 2009, a California-based three-judge federal court found that massive overcrowding in the state’s prisons contributed to untreated mental illness, suicides and other preventable deaths of inmates. The overcrowding, the judges ruled, violated the Eighth Amendment rights of prisoners to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.

The three judge panel ordered the release of 35,000 – 45,000 prisoners to ease overcrowding and restore constitutional rights. Schwarzenegger and the CDCr authroities immediately appealed. SCOTUS are currently deciding if the three judge panel was within jurisdiction to order the mass release of prisoners; AND if overcrowding does directly cause poor medical and mental health-care.

Commentators have noted the apparent empathy of many Justices. It is common knowledge that California’s prison policy has been tumorous and it is no surprise it has come to the most drastic court ordered release of prisoners in US history to solve the problem. The Atlanta Post reports California Sheds Light On The Need for Criminal Justice Reform.

Thanks to John Malsbary for the tip.
Chino

California Institute for Men at Chino, 2008 (Prior to Riot). Photo Credit: CDCR

Michael Shaw over at the excellent BAGnewsNotes pointed out a rather bizarre anomaly in our image-saturated world. There exist barely any photographs of the prison riot at the California Institute for Men at Chino that occurred this weekend.

Given that Shaw has his hand firmly on the newswire pulse of America I’ll take him at his word … photojournalist coverage of this significant riot was is scant.

I even think that the image Shaw presents is a concession; a still from film footage.

Today, the Los Angeles Times published this image showing the aftermath of the riot.

aftermath

Photo: A view from outside the fence after weekend rioting at the California Institute for Men at Chino shows a dorm with a hole burned through its roof and a yard littered with mattresses and other debris. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

The BBC was quick to cover the riot. Most news sources framed the riot as a result of racial tension, but in truth those tensions only came to surface due to inexcusable and acknowledged overcrowding. In 2007, Doyle Wayne Scott, a former Texas corrections chief consulting on California prison security reported that overcrowding at the California Institute for Men at Chino created “a serious disturbance waiting to happen.”

chinofire

Overcrowding is a problem that ignites other problems, and represents a serious issue that has no easy answers. Some prison reform activists would be wiling to see new (temporary) facilities built to ease the tensions, but this is an unlikely scenario as trust between they and the legislature, Governor’s office, CDCr and CCPOA is low. Recent history has taught us that when new prisons are built, they are filled and calls for more prisons follow. The solution is to change the laws that over the past two decades have warehoused increasing numbers of non-violent offenders.

One of the other depressing aspects to this story is that the racial tensions are apparently the result, partly, of enforced desegregation at Chino. Prison populations operate on strict codes and it would seem that top-down-enforcement of an anti-racist policy doesn’t change the attitudes of the men only agitates their existing prejudices, distrust and expected antagonisms toward one another.

My humble suggestion to work against these deep-seated hatreds would be to operate smaller facilities with immediate access to education programs. Sociological models taught as part of a basic curricula are revelatory for many prisoners. Many inmates, given the tools and the logic to explain their oppositions will identify other ways of seeing race.

It is true that some prisoners don’t want to rehabilitate, but they are in the minority. Often it is simply the case that race for this population has never been discussed in complex or nuanced terms.

Here’s some video of the aftermath.

Thanks to Scott Ortner and Stan Banos for the tips on this story.

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