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Abusing a Privilege

Prisoners get mistreated — and that’s how we want it

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While thumbing through the June edition of the Northside Chronicle in an East Ohio Street watering hole, I learned that Rev. Ronald Wanless of the New Hope United Methodist Church and a prisoner-rights advocate named Kenneth Sible are demanding an independent investigation into the operations of three state prisons: SCI Greene, SCI Somerset and SCI Fayette. At a press conference last month, the two men claimed that prisoners are subjected to severe abuse at the hands of guards and medical officials.

Even though my sympathies lie with the prisoners, I confess that my first thought upon reading this was, "Here we go again."

The bottom line is, people don't get treated very well in prison. A lot of this is by design. There is a school of thought that merely being locked up is an insufficient punishment; thus it is necessary to make a more active effort to make convicts miserable. A lot of the unpleasantness is also due to the sort of incompetent boobs who are attracted to prison work. Hacking is not pleasant work: Hacks spend nearly half of their waking hours locked up themselves.

The result is that all convicts get screwed with at one time or another. The guards will read your mail, including your legal mail, even though they aren't supposed to. If you call them on it, they'll play dumb, even when there is a judge's or a lawyer's name printed on the envelope in bold letters. It is part of prison myth everywhere that one guy wrote both his wife and his girlfriend on the same day … and that a hack in the mailroom switched the letters. I figure that it must have happened somewhere.

I can't speak for state joints, never having had the pleasure of visiting one. But if you mouth off to the wrong cop in a county jail, you'll catch a beating. I saw a couple of the senior staff at the old Allegheny County Jail handcuff a guy to his bunk and break his arm for calling them "assholes." In a federal prison, you'd have to slug a guard to merit that sort of treatment — but a lot of handcuffed guys accidentally fall down the cement steps in seg at Lewisburg.

The head games are never-ending. There are rules and procedures that everyone, including the administration, is supposed to follow, but there is always a Catch-22. Conventional prison wisdom is that if you are having a problem in prison, the best thing to do is to pull a chair into the corner and talk to the wall. It's as effective as talking to staff, and less frustrating.

This sort of psychological abuse is worse in the hole. The hacks who choose to work in seg do it because they like to screw with people. It's no coincidence that Charles A. Graner, formerly a hack at maximum-security SCI Greene — one of the prisons Reverend Wanless cited for abuse — was also a hack at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. He was the guy smiling next to the pile of naked Iraqis in the famous picture.

Money isn't everything: Some people truly enjoy their work.

Prison medicine is another issue. Five or more years in prison often requires a year or so of seeing doctors and dentists out on the street, just to recover from the neglect. Health care in prison is free, but you get what you pay for.

Lastly, if a con complains about any of this too much — say he calls a lawyer or files too many administrative-remedy forms — he'd might as well paint a target on his back. The guards and the administration will get even with him. Even the prison shrink and the chaplain will get in on the act. Getting to a judge isn't any help: They know the score, and they'll bend over backward to maintain the status quo.

So, here we go again. It's not that I don't believe that there are abuses in prison. But they exist because that's the way the voting public wants prison to be. I admire the good reverend and his friend for making a sincere effort, but they are wasting their time.

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