Aviva Stahl — Alternet Nov 7, 2013
Even if we already know the statistic, hearing it is pretty chilling: one out of every 100 Americans is behind bars, by far the highest incarceration rate in the world. Things get even more terrifying when we look at the impact of the criminal justice system on particular marginalized communities. One in three African-American males born today will likely spend some time on the inside. With terms like the prison-industrial complex and the school-to-prison pipeline now part of our daily political lexicon, we know that things are bad.
But exactly how bad are they? Here are 10 reasons why our criminal justice system is even more obscene than you thought.
1. Margin of error? A mere technicality to death penalty advocates.
In case you were on the lookout for new and novel government loopholes, here’s one: the “margin of error” excuse. Florida courts declared Freddie Hall “retarded” in both 1992 and 1999. Yet despite the Supreme Court’s 1999 finding in Atkins v. Virginia that executing mentally retarded individuals violates the Eighth Amendment, Hall is still facing the death penalty. That’s because in Atkins the Supreme Court left the process of defining who is mentally retarded up to the states. In Florida, where individuals are required to prove they have an IQ of 70 or below, Hall was found to have an IQ of 71—on a test with a margin of error of 5 points. Last year, the Florida Supreme Court ignored that fact and ruled Hall eligible for execution, but this October, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Hall’s appeal. Let’s hope the Supreme Court justices remember more from Introduction to Statistics than that Florida crowd.
2. You can get spider bites like this… and still be refused medical attention.
As if prison weren’t scary enough.
Carolos Archuleta, an inmate in Tuscon, asked repeatedly for medical attention after being bitten by a spider in the groin. Four days later, Archuleta was finally transported to the hospital, where he had to have an emergency operation to remove infected fluid and tissue; he needed to be resuscitated while on the operating table. Other prisoners in Arizona have suffered miscarriages or died of cancer after being denied medical treatment for months or years. A class action lawsuit filed by the ACLU in March 2012 details some of the many instances in which prisoners in the state have endured unnecessary pain, amputation and even death because of inadequate care.
This deliberate indifference for prisoners’ physical and mental health is an endemic problem in Arizona and across the United States. California had such an “extensive and disturbing” history of violating of prisoners’ constitutional rights that a district court forced its medical services into receivership. At the time, it was estimated that “an inmate in California’s prisons die[d] needlessly every six to seven days due to grossly deficient medical care.”
3. Mass incarceration of children and the elderly.
Shimeek Gridene was only 14 years old when he walked into the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office with his grandparents to give himself up; he and a 12-year-old friend had found a gun under a car and fired it at a local restaurant worker (the injured victim was released from the hospital on the day of the shooting). In 2010, Gridene was tried as an adult, convicted of attempted murder, and subsequently sentenced to 70 years—a hefty sentence for someone barely in high school. This past September the Florida Supreme Court heard Gridene’s case and will rule on whether he qualifies for resentencing under Graham v. Florida.
Then there’s elderly inmates. In a report released last year, Human Rights Watch found that “the number of US state and federal prisoners age 65 or older grew at 94 times the rate of the overall prison population between 2007 and 2010.” Although terminally ill ( and soon, elderly) prisoners can technically petition for compassionate release, they rely on the Bureau of Prisons to bring their cases forward for consideration, which is extremely rare. In a 2012 report researchers found that “since 1992, the Bureau of Prisons has averaged annually only two dozen motions to the courts for early release, out of a prison population that now exceeds 218,000.”