Prison Fun Facts

What place (in space and time) does this describe?

Plaintiffs also complain that numerous problems allegedly exist in the units in which they are housed including: (1) the toilets in the solitary confinement units do not function for long periods of time; and that feces, urine, food, and other debris covers the floors and walls, (2) the units are infested with vermin, (3) some prisoners do not have working light bulbs in their cells, while others are subjected to “bright artificial light around the clock,” and (4) the noise in the units “is often deafening”.

Answer after the break.

The above paragraph comes from an order granting class certification in Dockery v. Fischer, a suit by inmates of East Mississippi Correctional Facility (“EMCF”) in Meridian, Mississippi, “which is designed to provide treatment and housing for mentally ill prisoners.” The paragraph above refers only to the part of the complaint dealing with solitary confinement; prisoners at the facility are also making claims that the medical and mental health care in the prison is constitutionally deficient. That the class is certified is a huge win, but the facts as alleged in the complaint are truly horrifying. Never mind the fact that solitary is terrible for anyone, much less people with mental illnesses. It’s appalling that solitary takes place under these conditions.

Because I don’t want to bash just Mississippi (though I agree with Steve Earle that it’s high time to change the state flag) I’ll throw in a bonus quiz. What place (in space and time) does this describe?

In the “long room,” so-called … are turned loose, like so many brute animals in a corral, to stay and sleep, the young, middle-aged and old, (the boy of fifteen, perhaps for his first offence, with upwards of three hundred convicts, among whom are necessarily many of the vilest of the vile,) thus rendering reform and reformation seemingly impossible. The bedding in this room is … in a worse condition, being … infested with [lice] …. The manner of stowing away such a number in so small a space is accomplished by placing a row of standee bunks close to each other on each side of the room, with their heads to the wall, leaving an open space through the middle of the room, the bunks being one above another, and into which the prisoners crawl from the end, the open space being so small that before any take their bunks it is with a good deal of difficulty you can make your way through the crowd; and the stench issuing from the room when opened in the morning will have to be imagined, as a description in words is impossible.

California in 2011, from Brown v. Plata? Certainly could be (scroll to page 51). But this was from California in the 1850’s, taken from an article I’ve written about the first 50 years of the California prison system, when, according to one contemporary historian, the prisons were never anything but overcrowded. When it comes to prison conditions, I think of the old French saying (as modified slightly by my brother): plus ça change, plus c’est la meme shit.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

David Ball

David Ball is an Associate Professor at Santa Clara School of Law. He writes and teaches primarily in the fields of criminal law and criminal procedure, with a special focus on sentencing and corrections. He also serves as the Co-Chair of the Corrections Committee of the American Bar Association.