Fix Prisons So People Don't Have to Pay for an Upgrade
“The cells,” my client said to me, “smell of piss and shit and blood.” I sat at the table across from him, looking at him awkwardly, wondering what I could say. We were in the middle of a discussion about his disciplinary record. “They treat us like animals in here, so I act like one.”
It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that American prisons are no model of compassion and rehabilitation. They are routinely overcrowded and filled with our poor and mentally ill. Inmates are shuttled into prisons after being sentenced to serve disproportionately high sentences for crimes, berated by judges, prosecutors and the public alike, repeatedly reminded that they are worthless and reviled.
This might explain, in part, the level of physical and sexual violence in our prisons. A 2016 study by Mother Jones reported that 1 in 5 inmates are physically abused by other inmates and a similar number are assaulted by staff. Anywhere from 3-9% of inmates say they've been sexually assaulted behind bars, with about 200,000 reporting sexual abuse in 2011. A 2012 report – and ensuing lawsuit – by the ACLU found multiple and increasing instances of physical abuse of prisoners in LA County jails.
The backlash launched at California's pay-to-stay prisons, then, seems somewhat confusing. For those who were focused on other things, the Marshall Project and the L.A. Times released an in-depth investigative report chronicling the growing use of “pay-to-stay” prisons, where financially better off individuals could “upgrade” their prison stay and serve their time in relative comfort and security.
There are two general areas of criticism of pay-to-stay prisons: one, they reinforce the socio-economically divided criminal justice system, where those with money get better treatment and results; and, two, serving a sentence in a luxury prison is an affront to the victims and doesn't punish the perpetrator.
While both are superficially appealing, there is a greater argument to be made that the ire is focused on the wrong entity. We must closely examine what it is that makes pay-to-stay jails possible and appealing to individuals.
As described above, prisons are notoriously filthy, dangerous and punitive places where citizens of society are walled off, kept from their families, denied basic amenities, prohibited from interacting with others, permitted to be outside only in a cage and only for brief periods a day, forced to eat unhealthy food, made to wait weeks, if not months, for basic medical care, not given any treatment for crippling mental health and substance abuse problems that led them to prison in the first place, denied life skills coaching or training or anything remotely approaching rehabilitation and then on top of that subjected to violence, mental illness of others and sexual abuse on a regular basis.
Given the choice, wouldn't you pay a little to stay somewhere else? Is the problem not “pay-to-stay” but rather the appalling conditions under which over 95% of our prison population “lives?” When we treat our citizens so poorly, it is hardly surprising that those with any sense or money will jump at alternatives.
All our prisons must be like the pay-to-stay prisons: safe, clean and rehabilitative. We must reject the idea seemingly espoused by some that in order to truly punish an individual, they must be subjected to the inhumane conditions in our prisons, lest they be deemed to have gotten off easily otherwise.
Instead of focusing on the perceived opulence of “pay-to-stay” prisons, we should devote our time, energy and anger at the conditions of the vast majority of state and federal prisons and demand that they be made more humane and conducive to rehabilitation. We must demand an end to overcrowding and prison violence and urge our legislators to fund programs and mental health treatment. It is not outrageous to allow an individual in prison to sleep at night without fear of being assaulted or harassed.
A criminal record, separation from family, long terms of incarceration and societal roadblocks to successful reintegration are punishment enough. We don't need to demand that our fellow citizens also be beaten, raped and mistreated in order to make ourselves feel whole again.