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Prison Perspective


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Thanks to Ryan Burns ("Caged," Sept. 29) for an insightful look at "media day" at Pelican Bay State Prison. However, it is worth perspective. We could be elsewhere. Consider Alan Gross in a Cuban prison for giving away laptops, the two Americans who spent two years in an Iranian prison for hiking, and, of course, Amanda Knox, appealing a murder conviction in Italy. She is dealing with incompetent investigators and a maniacal and overzealous prosecutor. Oh wait. Let me take that one back. The prosecutor can sue me for libel. I think we would welcome a comprehensive improvement of our justice system. But how?  A SHU inmate to whom I write every day admits he is an habitual troublemaker. He has never once said the system got it wrong. Still, it is good that the prison opens its door for those photo-ops. It's better than nothing.

Dave Silverbrand, Eureka



Ryan Burns' article on Pelican Bay and California prison policy may be the best essay I've read this year.

The self-destructiveness of our society is remarkable. Our attempts to lower tax burdens by backing off on the responsibilities every society must carry have led to extraordinarily high-cost programs that just make things worse. The tradeoff between spending on prisons and spending on schools is one particularly sad example.

I'm not a bleeding heart. I believe criminal behavior must be punished. The best societal approach would be to limit the perceived benefits of criminal behavior by providing every person with a good education and a useful job paying a decent wage. That alone would reduce the number of criminals we warehouse. Changes to our drug policy would eliminate whole classes of criminal behavior, by removing "drug dealing" from the top of the list of ways to make decent money in a bad neighborhood. The drug problem would remain, just as the alcohol problem has not been solved by ending prohibition. But imagine how much worse the alcohol problem would be if liquor vendors formed criminal cartels and the society responded by sending liquor store owners to prison.

People will still commit crimes. Punish them. Withdraw them from general society. But recognize that with very rare exceptions, a person is far more than their crime. Devote resources to bringing out the "better angels" of our nature, and we won't need a metastasizing prison industry. Devote resources to mental illness, and stop treating mental illness as criminal. Recognize that a society that incarcerates a far larger percentage of its population than its neighbors must either be made up of worse people or must be doing something badly wrong that is causing more people to break its laws than break laws elsewhere.

Like every other society, ours harvests what it sows. Our collective refusal to view fellow citizens as our brothers and sisters has created a bumper harvest of needless cruelty, at great financial expense. We're on a path which, unless reversed, will lead to our destruction.

Mitch Trachtenberg, Trinidad



Kudos to the Journal and Ryan Burns for "Caged." That America has more people in prisons per capita than any other country in the world is horrific.

Prisons are angry punishment machines. They have nothing to do with corrections or rehabilitation. People are told that prisons keep them safe, but given the recidivism rates and the criminal skills learned in prisons, that assumption of safety must come into question.

Among more than 2 million people in our prisons there are some commonalities that our culture largely ignores. Rates of illiteracy and functional illiteracy are significantly higher within our prison populations. The higher the level of education achieved by a prison inmate, the lower the likelihood of recidivism. But we no longer offer educational opportunities in our prisons.  Seventy percent of prisoners are non-white; we must also look at the high rates of illiteracy as an indicator of racial/educational inequities.

In 1980 we had 500,000 people in prison. By 2008 the number had jumped to over 2 million. Why the sudden, enormous jump? Is it a coincidence that the privatization of prisons that began in the '80s coincides with that jump? With privatization came corporate interests and Wall Street seeing big money to be made with a growing prison industry. And again not coincidentally, penalties became much more severe. Add the growing industries within prisons, where prisoners work for peon wages for Victoria's Secret, Macy's, Boeing, Revlon, and many more. No need for Third World labor; we have it right here. Prisons and prisoners are big money. Could that be why in 2008 one in 31 adults was in prison, on probation or parole? 

As for the SHU, there are reams of studies that show the horrible effects of isolation, but I don't know why any rational person would need to read those studies. It is torture and, pay attention Cheney, torture in a culture claiming to be civilized is simply unacceptable. And by the way, folks, when they let those guys out after years in mind-twisting isolation, they just put them on a bus and ship them back home.

Sylvia De Rooy, Westhaven



I read with interest Ryan Burns' story on the Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay State Prison that has sparked a prisoner hunger strike. Thank you for covering this important issue and for taking the opportunity to send a reporter on a rare media tour of the prison.

I correspond with SHU prisoners through Bar None, a local organization. I know families in Humboldt with loved ones at PBSP, and individuals who have worked inside the prison. I was surprised that in Burns' story there was very little local voice discussing the impact of the prison. Where were the voices of people who have served time, their families and loved ones, or the teachers, nurses, or CO's who have worked at PBSP? Surely they could have provided some insight on "day-to-day" life inside PBSP. Instead Burns relied on assumptions about who is "real" authority, the "experts" who can provide "objective" information (judges, prison officials and academics).

Burns blames the boom in prison construction over the past 40 years to public attitude -- "lock-up mania." But events like the Attica riots did not naturally lead to public opinion that motivated prison construction. Instead, the stories that were told about Attica, and the stories that were left out (such as that prisoners from many races participated), were constructed and circulated in order to reinforce and justify existing power structures. Politicians used and use stories about crime as political leverage. Companies and unions like the CCPOA described prisons as the answer to crime in order to make money, and they continue to lobby state officials in order to ensure that story is still the dominant one.

There are other stories we could tell about violence, drugs, mental illness, and parole violations that would lead to different conclusions. Is it inevitable that new prisoners are doomed to join a gang? Or do officials assign new prisoners to gangs in order to promote racial discord, as some prisoners have argued? Collecting these less circulated stories has been the work of prison activists. Interested in the coalition that supports hunger strikers? Visit: http://prisonerhungerstrikesolidarity.wordpress.com/.

Jessica Whatcott, Arcata



Your front page story "Caged" was correctly titled. Ryan Burns' reporting was well researched.
The subject of incarceration in America, and California in particular, is as complex as it is unworkable.
When we lock individuals up, the whole family is affected. Kids lose parents, mothers and fathers lose sons and daughters, and seldom does one leave prison "rehabilitated."
Everything about the Prison Industrial Complex is mean spirited and unproductive.
Most people do not pay attention to this crisis. But someday, you or someone you love may end up, for whatever reason, locked up. Then you will know.
Please take a look at www.stopmax.org for a short view into the workings of solitary confinement. We must end this practice right now. I hope Mr. Burns continues the exploration of our prison system. There is so much more to tell.

Sharon Fennell, Manila



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