GRAHAM: Media failed to respond to poor prison practices

Opinion Column: Considerations of Crime

Very few Americans see a prison unless they are visiting an inmate or are incarcerated. Yet, most seem to believe they have a good idea of how a prison is run and what life while incarcerated entails. 

This false certainty can be attributed to the media, both fictional and non-fictional. Thanks to storylines such as "Orange is the New Black" and "Beyond Scared Straight," many Americans have a false sense of comfort with how a prison is run and the reasons behind its operation.

That is, until Jeffrey Epstein killed himself inside Metropolitan Correctional Center’s (MCC) walls, while supposedly under close watch.

Now that a high-profile account of prison quality has entered news cycles, more and more people seem to care. The facts of Epstein’s suicide have highlighted clear problems within the administration of facilities in the corrections system. 

Epstein himself had been placed on suicide watch, later to be released to special housing in MCC, where he would then take his own life after being left without a cellmate and unmonitored by sleeping guards. Receiving extensive media attention and political commentary, Epstein’s suicide and the resulting investigation have opened the floodgates for discussion about corrections quality and cruel treatment of inmates. 

In some respects, though, the treatment of prisoners was not exactly top-secret information. There were already articles and publications written, such as those by political scientist Jeanna Theoharis and attorney Bryan Stevenson, documenting the atrocities occurring behind bars. 

Regardless of the advocacy of professionals like these, it took the suicide of a wealthy, white public figure for the general population to “care” about this research.

Some of the ignorance at hand is due to legal hurdles implemented by the justice system and the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). Especially through the use of special administrative measures (SAMs), the detained have been stripped of rights that would allow information about their conditions to leave prison walls. 

Originally formulated for terrorists or those who posed a severe safety risk, these measures restrict all forms of contact for those under their reach. Varying from prisoner to prisoner, the foundation of SAMs rest in the restriction of contact between prisoners and from a prisoner to the outside world. 

They are not permitted to speak to others in their cell block and are only permitted to make a phone call to immediate family, calls which are allotted approximately 15 minutes per month. They are not even permitted privileged discussions with their own attorney. 

The restrictions themselves make it virtually impossible for a prisoner to appeal their SAMs, as they are often denied representation and not provided with a justification for the implementation of these SAMS. “The net result is that SAMs seal off the prisoner from the outside world and shield his treatment from public scrutiny," according to a report published by Yale Law School.

Not all inmates are restricted by SAMs, though, and many have attempted to have their stories heard to no avail. Andrew Laufer, a civil rights attorney, has pursued many lawsuits against the BOP. He described several cases against the MCC, including an inmate whose finger was chopped off by a cell door, and another inmate who was beaten to death by guards. These guards went as far as to tell the inmate’s family that he had overdosed, attempting to cover up the crime. 

Lauder has first-hand experienced the lack of interest towards the cruelty faced by prisoners, and said: “You have someone who’s beaten to death in MCC, and there are cameras everywhere. There’s not an inch of that facility that is not surveilled. No one cares.” This article was published in 2018, more than a year before Epstein’s suicide. 

There was not a lack of research into the BOP and its prisons. It just took a high-profile suicide for media cycles to care. 

This wouldn't be the first time that attempts for reform of prisons were catalyzed by an issue other than the direct mistreatment of inmates. The Department of Justice (DOJ) investigated Alabama’s prison system after allegations of sexual relationships between guards and prisoners. After visiting four prisoners and meeting with 270 prisoners, the DOJ concluded the prisons in Alabama are in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s guarantees against cruel and unusual punishment. 

Like Epstein’s death, it took a high-profile allegation for the powerful few to care about the many facing unspeakable conditions. 

Media cycles play an undeniable role in igniting a fire for change. The general population of America does not regularly read Yale Law School journals or dig through papers to find research into the unfair treatment of others. It is true that the current legal state is to blame for the treatment of prisoners, and for attempting to prevent knowledge of this mistreatment from spreading. 

But that information was out there, and nobody cared to publicize it. A larger microscope needs to be pointed at media outlets, and their failure to respond to warnings from researchers. Americans cannot remain in the dark.  

Jess Graham is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in political science. Her column, "Considerations of Crime," runs on alternate Wedesdays. 


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