Why treat prisoners humanely? What’s the point? This is prison we're talking about, not a country club. What can they expect?
And that leads to the next question, as a voter and taxpayer in the State of Michigan, what do I expect of our prison system? What should I expect?
Ask these questions of a dozen people in one room, and you’ll get a dozen different answers.
From our experience in the office of Humanity for Prisoners, which advocates specifically for what our name indicates, there will be a common thread that goes something like this: prisoners cannot expect very good treatment. They’re behind bars as punishment. Conditions aren’t supposed to be good. “If they hadn’t done the crime, they wouldn’t be doing the time.”
Corrections officials in Norway would strongly challenge that statement, in a country where they provide exceptionally humane treatment for persons convicted of the most violent of crimes, and where the rate of return to prison is about the lowest in the world. But that’s for another discussion.
Let me give you an idea of the things we have dealt with right here in Michigan:
- refusal of a compassionate release to a dying inmate by the Michigan Parole Board;
- denial of dentures by prison dentists because the inmate still had two teeth;
- refusal of eye-glasses for the visually impaired;
- refusal of hearing aids for the hearing impaired;
- denial of a wheelchair to a handicapped person;
- overcrowded conditions that deprive inmates of a chair or adequate bathroom time;
- extreme abuse of mentally ill women including use of Taser weapons, pepper spray, and illegal hog-tying of those who do not understand how to obey rules;
- surgery refusal, despite obvious medical needs;
- prescription termination, for no apparent reason;
- cold showers for weeks before plumbing repairs were made;
- scalding showers that actually caused injury;
- senior citizens being terrorized and extorted by gang members; and
- unreasonable rationing of sanitary pads for women.
This list is just the tip of the iceberg. The stories that cross my desk on a daily basis are heart-breaking.
If we are to take seriously these words in Hebrews 13, “…remember those in prison as if you were together with them,” how should we respond to the above? Should inmates with terminal illnesses and approaching death be permitted to die surrounded by family and loved ones? If an inmate has eyes functioning so poorly that he or she cannot read instructions, should reading glasses be prescribed? If an inmate cannot hear directions and orders from the guards, should hearing aids be provided? If teeth are needed in order to simply consume daily meals, should this need be met? Do you see what I’m saying? Just because one is in prison, shouldn’t he or she still be permitted to receive prescription medicine, and in a timely manner? These are human beings, not a statistic, and they were created in the image of God!
Here’s where thinking appears to get confused. Some of us simply do not care to accept the fact that the incarceration is the punishment. And that’s where the punishment stops. We do not have the right to add to it by treating inmates in an inhumane manner. If torture is banned in our nation, then the ban applies to prisoners as well.
Here are two things worthy of additional consideration as we think on these things: many people do not belong in prison; and most of our inmates will be released someday.
Those who should not be in our adult prison system include those who are wrongly convicted (up to 10%), the mentally ill (at least 20%), convicted teenagers who should be kept separate from other inmates, parolable inmates whom the Parole Board has chosen not to release, and geriatric inmates who cannot possibly be considered a threat to society.
Approximately 85% of our inmates are going to be released someday. Our organization’s philosophy is to show these people kindness and compassion now, in preparation for their life in the free world. We hold the hands of lonely and hurting prisoners, try to obtain humane treatment for them, fight against abuse, battle for compassion at time of death, and help them to prepare properly for meetings with the Parole Board. Some US corrections officials were vising Dutch and German prisons in Europe, and one of the visitors commented: “If we treat them like human beings, (upon release) they’ll act like human beings.” One of our cohorts puts it more bluntly: “If we treat prisoners like dogs, how do you expect them to act when they get out?”
Isn’t that what the writer of Hebrews is getting at?
[Image: Flickr user Marc Soller]