Behind Closed Bars: How Do We Define Cruel and Unusual Punishment?

We’ve all heard metaphors about sending people to jail. “Don’t drop the soap.” “Big Bubba will like your purty mouth.” Many people find these metaphors humorous. This is odd, for it seems like those people do not find sexual assault to be cruel or unusual punishment.

Cruel and unusual punishment is prohibited by the Constitution. In Furman v. Georgia, Justice Brennan wrote that there were 4 criteria that need to be used in order to determine if a punishment is cruel and unusual:

1. A punishment must not be degrading to human dignity.
2. A punishment must not be inflicted in a wholly arbitrary fashion.
3. A punishment must not be used that is clearly and totally rejected throughout society.
4. A severe punishment must not be patently unnecessary.

Here are a few examples of what we treat, house, or subject our inmates to that might not meet the Supreme Court’s criteria.

Perhaps the most degrading to human dignity on the list, sexual abuse. Sexual victimization allegations are reported by the thousands every year. The number of unreported cases could possibly be much greater than that.

According to a Justice Department study, about half of all sexual assault allegations involve the prison staff; more specifically, a sexual act made by a staff member toward an inmate. According to this same study, less than half of the perpetrators were arrested or convicted.

The effects to someone’s mental health after sexual trauma can be extremely severe. Studies have shown sexual trauma to cause high rates of depression, sleep loss, substance abuse, anxiety, PTSD, and many more serious disorders.

Not only are some guards sexually assaulting inmates, but some are beating them, harassing them, and even killing them. Every year there are videos or reports of staff violence in prisons. In 2015, we had the cases of Sandra Bland, David Stojcevski, and Elord Revolte.

According to Justice Brennan's criteria, it would seem that most of the norms in our current prison system should not be allowed.
In the facility Elord was in, guards were forcing other detainees to fight for food and the guards would have a detainee attacked if the guard didn’t like them. A man named Bernard Scott ended up comatose because a jail supervisor would not allow him to seek medical attention. Michael Robinson died in jail this year because his jailers denied him insulin for his type 1 diabetes. The list goes on.

The rest of the violence comes from the other prisoners. Through threats of violence, inmates can force other inmates to do their chores, carry messages, or hide contraband. Prison gangs are the cause of many violent assaults and deaths.

There could be bullies in the chow hall who force other inmates to give them their food. This can lead to malnutrition, which in turn can lead to brain damage. That is assuming the food stolen had nutrition to begin with, or wouldn’t have made a person ill.

The prison commissary will allow a prisoner’s family to send the prisoner money — for a fee — for them to buy prepackaged noodles and candy, items with little to no nutritional value.

Gangs have been known to force other inmates’ families to send money to the gang’s commissary account by threatening to have their members who aren’t behind bars “pay [these families] a visit” or by threatening to harm their loved one who is in jail.

Mental abuse is arguably more damaging than physical abuse. Solitary confinement, also know as Ad Seg, can cause severe psychological damage, according to studies done by Terry Kupers. A few symptoms he lists are extreme paranoia, cognitive and memory problems, panic attacks, sleep problems, and headaches “like they’ve never had before.”

Former chief of Colorado’s corrections department, Rick Raemisch, decided to stay in solitary confinement for 20 hours in 2014, to see for himself what psychological effects it had. He published an article in the New York Times describing his stay.

“I sat with my mind. How long would it take before Ad Seg chipped that away? I don’t know, but I’m confident that it would be a battle I would lose,” Raemisch writes.

According to Justice Brennan’s criteria, it would seem that most of the norms in our current prison system should not be allowed. That raises potential problems. How should a prison deal with an inmate if that inmate likes to harm other inmates, and solitary confinement is no longer an option? How do you prevent all the sexual assaults from the staff and the inmates? Is it unconstitutional to send an inmate to a prison where these problems exist? If so, what do we do with the inmate?

Criminals need to be punished. That is why our justice system exists. However, the idea behind “correctional facilities” is to “correct” the inmates, so they can learn from their mistakes and ultimately, fit back into society. In our current prison system, people are at high risks to be mentally scarred for life, which yields the opposite result of “correcting.”

The idea is that a prison needs to be unpleasant so that people do not want to go back, but how can that be done without the mental torture or the constant fear of losing one’s life?

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