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EDITORIAL: We must rectify injustices of prisons

Misconduct, dehumanization pervasive in criminal justice system

The mere loss of liberty has been supplemented with the absolute theft of human dignity. Our system of punishment begins before the crime and reaches its end when buried 6 feet below. But that is how we prefer our societal problems: buried, hidden, locked away, often off of a remote exit on a highway such that the commuters can reach work and the mall shoppers can expand their debt without the implosion of our national cognitive dissonance. A nation of inalienable rights, a world leader of human dignity and democracy, and yet America is a country of mass incarceration and abuse of the imprisoned. 

The axiom of incarceration must not solely be the incapacitation of the convicted, but rather it must be fundamentally grounded in rehabilitation and re-entry. These goals are unattainable in a system of punishment that dehumanizes and strips those incarcerated of their human rights.

New Jersey’s only women’s prison has a history of sexual misconduct and abuse of inmates. A former senior corrections officer currently faces three years in prison after authorities said he “engaged in a sexual relationship with two different inmates.” One of six officers accused of sexual misconduct at the women’s prison, Joel Mercado pleaded guilty to two counts of official misconduct, according to NJ Advance Media

Mercado was an academy instructor at the prison, whose training of correctional officers is supposed to include New Jersey’s law which prohibits any form of sexual contact between officers and inmates in compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act. In 2017, an NJ Advance Media special report revealed a history of sexual abuse at the same facility, including accounts of one correctional officer who turned a cell unit in to a “perverted personal playground, hazing, mocking and sexually abusing (inmates) for several years without repercussion.”

The pervasiveness of sexual misconduct in prisons is a national crisis symptomatic of an unjust and oppressively constructed system of incarceration. We are a people that allow for human beings to die of starvation and dehydration while locked in a 6-foot-by-8-foot cell. No robbery would constitute such a theft of human rights. In “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison,” Michel Foucault pointedly asserts, “There remains, therefore, a trace of ‘torture’ in the modern mechanisms of criminal justice – a trace that has not been entirely overcome, but which is enveloped, increasingly, by the non-corporal nature of the penal system.” 

As a whiplash of warmth ends the polar vortex, the sound of metal clangs that cluttered the streets outside the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn will either be forgotten or never heard. Without heat or power, inmates sat in inescapable darkness as freezing temperatures penetrated the walls and vents. In protest of their conditions, inmates held in the federal prison that had no heat or power for days during the bone-chilling cold front made banging noises that rang out as a call for humanity. 

Last August, a nationwide strike of incarcerated workers began and was set to end on Sept. 9, 2018, the anniversary of the 1971 Attica prison uprising in which 43 people died, according to the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC). The IWOC is committed to bringing about the necessary end to the unlivable prison conditions, racial disparity in sentencing, disenfranchisement and “death by incarceration” that has been woven in to the nature of America’s penal system.

Imprisonment masquerades as a practical means of solving the problem of crime, perpetuating the idea of retribution, maintaining the endless cycle of violence and substituting the elimination of the conditions of poverty, unemployment, racism and greed that are at the root of most punished crime. Organizations that advocate for prisoners like the IWOC must garner our support as the current era of criminal justice reform attempts to correct the injustice of decades of draconian policies.


The Daily Targum's editorials represent the views of the majority of the 151st editorial board. Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff. 

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