This is the Missing Piece in Every Prison Debate


After a week of counting, recounting, and speculation, Bill Thompson conceded to Bill de Blasio in New York City’s relevant mayoral primary. The race was close. The major candidates ran startlingly left-of-center (in this day and age), showing particular scorn for former mayor Michael Bloomberg’s record on policing, surveillance, and sentencing. Bill de Blasio, in fact, may have earned victory with his more antagonistic stance toward “Stop and Frisk” — and, generally, toward the lame duck’s tough-on-crime, high-on-incarceration approach to justice.

Bill de Blasio’s ascent, meanwhile, is the most recent moment in a series of moments, books, speeches, policy shifts and tragedies that are, together, refocusing the American public on how we punish people. Thanks to Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, George Zimmerman’s bizarre “not guilty” verdict, and Eric Holder’s order that federal prosecutors disregard some mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, we’re all finally talking about whether our criminal justice system is fair.

That is so good, and so important.

I’m concerned and surprised, however, that our new conversation seems to only address what happens before the moment of sentencing. Yes, it’s imperative that we question the constitutionality, fairness, and efficacy of racial profiling; Stop-and-Frisk; the use of paramilitary police force; pre-textual traffic stops; the diminution of “consent”; the affordability of effective defense; race-based peremptory challenges to jury selection; sentencing disparities; and so on (and on).

Yet none of that will ravage the American conscience, the way it ought to, until we also acknowledge what happens after sentencing: we need to speak with brutal and absolute specificity about what prison is like.

It's quite extraordinary — and wrong — to do all this debating about who, when, why, and how often we ought to exact punishment, as a society, without saying out loud what the punishment entails.

What do the walls of a cell look like? How expensive is it for a prisoner to call his mother or his son? Who, in this country, are correctional officers, and how is their behavior monitored? Is it monitored? What is a privatized prison like, and why are there so many? What happens if you get sick in prison? Are you treated? Should you be? Is the staff trained to handle mental illness? Are drugs for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder dispensed safely and regularly? When you put in hours of labor, at a prison, are you paid? Should you be? How common is rape in prison? What is rape like? What exactly is a prison rodeo? What do we know about what supermax isolation does to the human brain?

Until we acknowledge and attempt to answer these questions — until we very frankly lay out what prison actually means, in human terms — the dialogue on unfair policing, prosecuting, and sentencing will lack force. Until we consciously and rigorously face up to what prison is, it will be as if we’re arguing the rules of a game most of us have no idea what it means to lose.

Ultimately, the American taxpayers who finance, vote for and implicitly endorse the mass incarceration of predominantly black and brown nonviolent drug offenders ought to understand what exactly it is we're sentencing those kind of offenders to. We should be taught about this in school.

We ought to be aware of at least some of the following:

According to the Justice Department, 70,000 prisoners are raped every year, more often by prison staff than by other prisoners, and with no legal recourse. Victims disproportionately include children, gay inmates, the mentally ill, and first-time offenders.

According to Human Rights Watch, 56% of state prisoners and 45% of federal prisoners are mentally ill, yet over half the country's correctional facilities report under-staffing or no staffing for mental illness (and what mental health care there is consists of "stopping at the cell front to ask how the prisoner is doing"). Many mentally ill prisoners, meanwhile, "beat their heads against cell walls, smear themselves with feces, self-mutilate, commit suicide... [or] eat their own flesh."

The Los Angeles Times reports that prisoners who are paid 10 cents an hour to hoe weeds from 3 a.m. through the afternoon are expected to pay a dollar an hour to speak with the people who love them. These again, are predominantly drug offenders.

Every time a Bill de Blasio and a Michael Bloomberg argue how many New Yorkers (and of which color) to stop, frisk, arrest, and incarcerate; every time we compare the sentences for crack and powder cocaine; any time we have any conversation about the processes by which we send people away — we must also remember, envision, and say clearly where we're sending them to.