Dealing with the Devil Himself: Maximum Security Prisons

There was an interesting article I read this morning via the Chicago Sun Times bringing forth a problem that is not necessarily new in the relationship politics and prisons share, but a rather new point of view that often gets pushed to the side. To simplify the issue, what’s at stake here is what role solitary confinement should play in maximum security prisons and how does the legal and societal systems determine the ethics in assigning someone to reside in these conditions (you can read the article here.)

America has a difficult enough time dealing with two-sided issues, this issue has so many prominent parameters that if we mapped it out on a pie chart it would look more clustered than Lake Shore Drive in the evening rush. One of the major problems in this scenario is that this isn’t your generic prison where a prisoner gets sent to solitary confinement for a few days because of misbehavior. This is a maximum security prison housing inmates whose crimes make Jerry Sandusky’s actions look mild. I won’t get into the details of their crimes because it will make your stomach sick with disgust but if you want to read about them follow the link I posted above.

The dilemma involved here is not the scope of the crimes committed by felons nor their actions while imprisoned, the multi-faceted problem here highlights a struggle between how we define basic human rights, economics, politics, and the role of isolating heinous criminals from society.

The Sun Times article aims to stir up feelings of empathy between the reader and the ex-inmate. It strikes one on an individual level and makes them imagine what it would be like to be removed from any social interaction in a confined area for 23 hours a day with nothing to do but re write every bible verse and converse with spiders. At the same time the article highlights potential mental disabilities that were caused by this extended period of confinement. These prisoners are not housed in solitary confinement for a few days, they are locked in there for years.

Surely my ACLU side here is gleaming with accusations of denial of human rights and essentially forced development of depression and other mental illnesses. Allow myself to disagree with myself. This is where the pie chart comes into play. I have no alternative solution, but how else do you deal with child rapists and murderers that extend their immoral and inhumane actions onto prison where they incite violence towards prison guards or rape prison psychologists? These people have committed actions that no matter how regretful they are for them, are still labeled as the lowest of the low.

I think the overarching question here is how do you deal with that? If there was a cut and dry answer this discussion wouldn’t be occurring. This isn’t taking into account that it costs the government an average of over $64,000 a year just to maintain these prisoners. If Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposed shutdown of Tamms becomes a reality, the Sun Times article estimates that the state would be saving around $26 million per year.

See how this spider web keeps getting more tangled by the minute? It really is a sticky scenario that I have a hard time taking any firm stance on. One State Senator was quoted as saying that people don’t end up at Tamms unless their actions justify it. This isn’t the Cook County jail where you’ll end up for holding up a 7-11. This is an institution where the “worst of the worst” end up. Institutions like this must exist, however the manner in which they detain these types of individuals must be questioned.

These inmates are clearly not suited to be anywhere near society let alone an over populated prison. Is locking them up by themselves for 23 hours a day the solution though? I don’t think so and although I have not seen evidence that backs up the claim extended periods of isolation cause mental disturbances, on the surface it appears as some validity exists towards this argument. It is going to cost the state a pretty penny to maintain prisoners regardless of whether they are in a maximum security prison or in the Cook County Penitentiary. As a tax payer, I would feel much safer if I knew my money was going towards keeping the “worst of the worst” as far removed from society as possible. If the state wants to save money, then stop locking up individuals for petty crimes that are not harming society. I would feel much more secure if I knew a serial killer was locked up with no feasible way to even give them the chance of being near my city than a guy who was caught with a few grams of pot on his way home.

There has to be a more efficient mechanism for dealing with this problem and identifying it is the first step. I don’t know if one types of inmates locked up for long periods in solitary confinement will exactly benefit from that time and come out a better person. If there are extensive problems accosted to these inmates from this time, the way the penal system deals with them needs to be assessed. At the same time, it needs to be done so in a manner that will ensure they will never pose a threat to anyone whether they be another inmate or a prison official.

Quite a sticky situation huh?

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