Rotting in Hell

There’s all sorts of reconsideration going on across the U.S. political spectrum about the War on Drugs, mandatory sentencing, and other relics of the law enforcement policies of the 1980s, that happy period of American life presided over by Ronald Reagan. There are particularly hopeful signs, which David Dagan and Steven Teles wrote about in the November/December 2012 issue of the Washington Monthly, of growing interest among conservatives in once-heretical thoughts about perpetually high levels of incarceration and barbarous prison conditions.

But nice as it is to think that these trends will soon bear fruit, it hasn’t much happened yet, and it is morally important to remember how many Americans, many of them non-violent drug offenders, are for all practical purposes rotting in hell in prisons around the country.

MoJo’s Maggie Severns gives us a look at some of the evidence supporting an ACLU class-action lawsuit against a Mississippi prison, run on a for-profit basis, and housing prisoners with serious mental illnesses. My gut reaction is that anyone entering this facility without a serious mental illness would probably develop one before long:

In the solitary confinement unit of East Mississippi Correctional Facility, it’s common for inmates to set some clothing or an old milk carton on fire to get an officer’s attention when they are in desperate need of a doctor—or if, say, their cell has been flooded by a broken pipe. Otherwise, it might be days before anyone took notice, according to a class-action lawsuit filed last week by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The fires sometimes got the guards’ attention, but not always in the way the inmates were hoping: At least one inmate, the suit claims, was maced by a corrections officer through his feeding slot.

It gets a whole lot worse, even in Severn’s brief account. I don’t know if Mississippi’s fine governor, Phil Bryant, whose Christian solicitude for zygotes led him to champion a “personhood initiative,” knows or cares about this particular facility, or considers its inmates fully human. But people of good will regardless of party or ideology (and I’m including myself in this indictment of indifference) need to get serious about dealing with the ongoing incarceration crisis as something we think about more than once in a blue moon.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.