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Editorial: Psychological consequences of U.S. penal system

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | JULY 23, 2015 5:00 AM

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New York City’s major jail complex, Rikers Island, is considered by many to be one of the toughest, most violent, and out of control prisons in the United States. The violence that occurs on the 413-acre island is  poorly managed by the officials who run the institution.

In certain cases, there have actually been allegations of prison guards encouraging inmate violence through Palahniuk-esque “fight clubs,” in which if new inmate refuse to participate, guards look the other way as they are violently beaten, or in the 2008 case of 18-year old Christopher Robinson, killed.

This is the same jail that Kalief Browder spent three years awaiting trial with no convictions, two years in solitary confinement, after being accused of stealing a backpack at the age of 16. Just after turning 22, Browder took his own life on June 13.

Before his death, Browder had become more or less the prime example of the U.S. broken justice system. According to the Washington Post, “the disquieting truth is that the United States has more inmates locked away in isolation than any other democratic nation, with an estimated 25,000 in so-called ‘supermax’ prisons in 44 states and as many as 80,000 in other types of segregated facilities nationwide.”

Solitary confinement is as mentally taxing on the inmate as it is common in the U.S. penal system. According to the Scientific American, University of California-Santa Cruz Professor of psychology Chris Haney documented numerous cases of imprisoned peoples with no prior history of mental illness develop paranoid psychosis, requiring medical attention after lengthy stays in solitary. The publication later confirms that “about half of all prison suicides happen in isolation cells.”

All of this leans toward a broken penal system, which exacerbates violent behavior and potentially permanently damages individuals, rather than reforming them. Though Browder’s case is an anomaly, because his suicide occurred after his stay at Rikers, he was presumed innocent. Nevertheless, facts of his case seem to emphasize a backwards American justice system.

The notion of a 16-year-old being arrested and jailed for three years under, later proven false, allegations of stealing something comparatively as trivial as stealing a backpack is absolutely absurd. Furthermore, the result of that three years, stemming from a saturated and crippled bureaucratic system in the New York City jail system rather than a sentence given as a result of a guilty verdict, is equally as absurd.

The abhorrent conditions to which this teenager was subjected to over the course of three years, ultimately leading to his suicide, compounds this problem into a glimpse of perhaps an all-too-frequent phenomenon that hits the empathetic reader in the pit of the stomach like river stones.

How to we remedy such tragic scenarios? The easy solution would be prison reform, which some presidential hopefuls, including Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., have taken vague yet passionate stances on.

But opposition could be strong, with the for-profit American prison industrial complex netting around $3.3 billion annually, according to the Post. This, partnered with a “tough on crime” mentality heralded by public figures such as Sherriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona, popular support on such endeavors could be hard to garner.


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