In 1995, New Jersey politician Dick Zimmer famously called prisons “vacation spas”. Is rape a problem at vacation spas? Zimmer used a couple of examples of misuses of taxpayer money within the prisons to justify his claim, but overall it was not true then and it certainly is not true now. Incarceration rates have skyrocketed since then, so the poor conditions in prisons and jails affect more people and need to be dealt with now more than ever.
Sexual violence in prisons is perhaps the most tragic and urgent problem. Prison rape is used as a source of comedy in Hollywood films and popular culture, which can only be described as disgraceful. Imagine the public outrage if a movie joked about rape in general. But it is OK when it is a prisoner? Sexual violence against minors is considered particularly heinous outside of prisons, yet it is often minors that are targeted the most in prisons. Almost every minor in prison has admitted being a victim of abuse or sexual violence and one in twenty prisoners has reported being sexually abused. That is not counting the thousands of other prisoners that have likely been victims, but were too ashamed to report it. Nobody, not even prisoners, should have to experience the life changing horrors of sexual violence.
In California, conditions in prisons we bad enough to spark a massive hunger strike among inmates in July 2011. The hunger strike started at Pelican Bay State Prison where prisoners were kept in their cells alone all day except for an hour and a half during which time they were moved to an exercise yard alone. At its peak there were over 6,600 inmates refusing to eat in prisons all over California until their demands were met. The demands were simply for an end to the solitary confinement they were kept in. Many of the prisoners were suffering from life-threatening health problems due to their hunger strike. If prisoners are willing to risk their lives for better conditions, it is time to reexamine the prisons.
These isolation prisons are sometimes called “supermax” prisons. Supermax prisons were not in use until 1983, and since then, like American incarceration rates, they have exploded in numbers. It is hard for the average person to comprehend the mental toll extended isolation can take on someone because we have human contact every day. Studies have shown that prisoners kept in isolation can experience devastating mental health effects including hallucinations, irrational anger, depression, and irrational fear. Long-term isolation can make social interaction stressful and challenging. No wonder the Pelican Bay prisoners were willing to give up food.
Under the capitalist system in America, there are a growing number of private prisons and their primary goal is to increase profits. To do so, they must increase the number of prisoners and decrease the cost of detaining them. Disease spreads in the close quarters of prisons, but to save money some prisons have denied testing to inmates so treatments would not have to be paid for.
How can these problems be solved, especially when it is sometimes private corporations running the prisons? Europe may have the answer. In the European Union, all detention facilities must be frequently visited by the Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT). The European definition of torture is much less vague then the American one and includes “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” The CPT inspects prisons and even interviews prisoners in private to listen to complaints. The results are made public and given to the government which improves upon any poor or inhuman conditions. There is no such system in America, and inmates are not allowed even allowed to vote let alone be interviewed by a protective organization. Therefore, they have no hope of improving their conditions by themselves without a voice.
Rape, isolation, and a lack of disease testing are serious problems in the American Prison Industrial Complex. Rape is never funny, isolation tortures the mind, and cutting back on disease testing endangers lives.