Lest Ye Be
“Jesus. How long does she have?” I asked my cellmate as I nodded toward a woman with one arm at her side, lifeless, as if every nerve had been cut. She didn’t have a cast or a bandage. Whatever happened to her arm was permanent. She seemed like the hanging appendage wasn’t there and walked like nothing was wrong.
“I dunno, six months?” TL guessed.
“So whatever she did wasn’t that serious,” I concluded out loud.
“Guess not. Why’s it matter?”
“The judge just absolutely had to send her to prison? A six-month sentence is like, for what, drugs, minor stealing? Someone could have sentenced her to probation so she didn’t have to come in here and be subjected to possible assaults, never mind how people taunt her for her disability. That’s all I’m saying.”
“She’ll be fine,” TL assured me.
And she was fine. For the next few hours. Until her cellmate beat her up over a Goody hair elastic, ones that sell for 99¢ for 20 of them off the commissary.
“Jesus, is she okay?” I asked when TL informed me.
“Well, she’s in seg.”
“Why?” I was pissed.
“Well, she, ya know, fought back. You know them deadarms don’t feel no pain. She probably got a few good shots off,” TL explained.
“What have we become that one of us is beating the shit out of a handicapped girl for a hair tie?!” shouted LD as she overheard us. She used to be a correction officer before a drug addiction derailed her life.
“What have we become that we think ‘them deadarms’ are an advantage, a weapon?! Jesus.” It was all I could say.
When I see inmates walk around the compound with canes and severe limps, women who are missing eyes and legally blind, ladies with dwarfism or in wheelchairs, I think to myself: Wow, Lady Justice really doesn’t see any difference in defendants. What a cold-hearted bitch.
Crime really is equal opportunity so individuals with disabilities are allowed to break the law, too. Fairness dictates that people should be punished uniformly. But when I see an inmate, a Little Person, get cut down even further by guards who make fun of her size like she’s an exhibit, or a woman who’s paralyzed on one side because she was shot in the face and unable to carry her tray and no one helps her, I don’t think this is fair at all.
The only living person who can put someone in a correctional facility, at least in Connecticut, is a judge; police and prosecutors can’t do it alone. Accused persons can be held in police stations before arraignment but that’s considered “lock-up,” not prison. To get to a prison, a defendant must be officially remanded which means that a judge orders her into custody.
To me, judges are like mothers who drop their kids at a day-care center. They have the power to determine where another human being lives, even if it’s just for a number of hours. If a mother left her child at a day-care where that double-edged razor blades came with the juice boxes and the place was staffed with convicted sex-offenders, we would call her a bad mother, possibly kick her into prison for endangering her child. The mother’s not knowing what happens in the day-care doesn’t lessen her culpability; it was her decision and discretion that sent the child there. The kid has no choice and is powerless to collect all the blades safely and fend off dangerous adults.
Disabled inmates are a bit like those day-care kiddies. Harsh words and taunts from C/O’s slice up their self-esteem and they are, very often, unable to fight off violence from sociopathic prisoners.
The judges who place them in these positions should be ashamed of themselves, especially since sentencing alternatives and diversionary programs exist that can prevent exposing vulnerable people to peril.
Sometimes the environment is so hostile that the danger it poses reaches constitutional violation levels. A judge in Nebraska caught flak when she thought that the defendant, convicted of sex offenses, was too short and his obvious size disadvantage subjected him to potentially cruel and unusual punishment in the Dog-Beat-Dog culture of a men’s maximum-security prison. Apparently, critics of the judge thought that defendant Pip Squeak should suffer the death penalty at the hands of other violent offenders. That was a punishment they considered fair.
If judges really want to dispense justice tempered with mercy, they would familiarize themselves not only with prison conditions but prison culture. At the very least, the emotional and mental torment that a different-looking or different-walking inmate experiences in prison should factor into sentencing decisions. The physical risk put to many disabled inmates is, quite frankly, enough to justify putting them on house arrest and letting them stay home.
But judges will never comprehend prison safety problems because they never experience them first-hand. “That’s DOC. That’s not my territory,” is a common judicial punt whenever prison perils appear in the arguments before them.
But it is the judges’ territory which is why every new jurist should have to spend one week in prison as an average inmate. The judges’ one-week stopover will be most defendants’ stays, so even one week won’t constitute a full meal of correction, only a mouthful.
But then judges will be able to put their money where their mouthfuls are if they willingly subject themselves to the confinement conditions they inflict on defendants who quake before their benches, terrified about what might happen to them when prison walls envelop them.
Only when a real Do-Unto-Others ethic appears in the decisions judges make will we have true fairness in our courtrooms and the only way to impart that context to judges is to send them to the slammer, only for a little while. I think we’d see that they’d call Lady Justice a bitch when she deadarms them. She, too, is in here now, sent by a judge for a misdemeanor even though she’s blind.
THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM FROM DECEMBER 28, 2015 – JANUARY 3, 2016
Hacktivist group Anonymous claims to have evidence that clears Steven Avery, the prisoner who is the subject of the hit Netflix documentary series “Making a Murderer.” Okay…we’re waiting…and a man you say is innocent is languishing in prison. A little less conversation and a little more hacktion, please.
The State of Washington’s Department of Correction’s computer glitch has been releasing people early in error. Now two people released early have been charged with homicides. These people probably would have re-offended anyway when they were released properly because rehabilitation is clearly not taking hold in Washington prisons.
Buzzfeed reports that Cleveland Judge Calls Prosecutor’s Approach in Tamir Rice Case “Unorthodox” after the prosecutor instructs a grand jury not to indict two policemen in the shooting death of a 12 year-old boy. Is what Judge Ronald B. Adine calls “unorthodox” really just standard operating procedure?