A Voice from Prison Blog | Criminal Justice Reform & Constitutional Rights

Post 6: Common Stigmas In The Criminal Justice System

Today, I would like to address some common stigmas (or stereotypes) against convicted individuals, at least in the United States. There are several labels which are placed upon a person as soon as they plea or are found guilty. These stigmas exist primarily to separate those who commit crime and those who follow the law, in effect promoting the nature of law abiding citizens. The problem with attaching such stigmas, is that they are commonly based upon misconceptions or misinformation, and are not always true. In effect, these stigmas have created a caste system again within the United States.

There are several stigmas attached to those who have been convicted or plea guilty in court. These can include that they are dangerous, that constitutional rights are upheld so they must be guilty if convicted, that the goal of prison is to rehabilitate criminals, that prison labor does not constitute a form of legal slavery, that criminals are inherently different from the rest of civilization, and that prison rape is a common occurrence. We will address some of these thoughts today.

According to popular culture and beliefs, is this what you imagine when you think of me in prison?

All Criminals Are Dangerous And The Community Is Safer With Inmates In Prison

One of the biggest problems with this stereotype is that it is completely untrue. The mass majority of the criminal justice system houses non-violent offenders. While a few inmates do resort to violence, it is often a less common occurrence among the larger population and used as a last resort for dealing with problems. The violence that does occur usually revolves around respect or a lack thereof. Just being respectful and minding your own business can virtually eliminate most of the risks of violence in most institutions. A minority of prisoners resort to violence due to short temper. While the prison system does of course house dangerous individuals, this is far from the majority of the prison population and only accounts for a very small amount of individuals.

In fact, as offenders work their way down in the prison system (moving to lower security due to good behavior), you will find many inmates are afforded with the ability to interact with the general public in some ways and even work in local communities. This is not uncommon, and in fact, the use of prisoners for general labor has become somewhat common practice. If offenders were in fact a danger to the community, this would not even be a consideration. Working with individuals in the community can actually promote positive rehabilitation in reducing anti-social behavior. While this is becoming more prevalent, this still only accounts for a small fraction of the criminal justice system. However, much of the population in the criminal justice system does in fact qualify for these programs.

When all prisoners are ready for release, they generally are released to community custody and placed in a halfway house for reintegration. All prisoners who are not serving life sentences are eventually released, and this fact must be remembered. Simply locking a human being away in a cage for a certain amount of time does not protect the community. If anything, the emotions of being disconnected and unfairly treated can give the opposite result desired, actually reinforcing antisocial behavior and the desire to ‘get back’ at the community who put them away in the first place, where violence may become a means of release. This is of course a long term consequence, however, just locking an individual away does not prevent them from harming the community further in the future. Just being around other criminals for an extended period of time will encourage behavior reinforcement and naturally often have an opposite desired result as well.

The mass majority of cases in the criminal justice system today exist due to drug laws. Lets remember first, that in drug laws, drugs are often considered a vice. They can of course affect the community by rising addiction levels and potential violence over protection of those drugs. However, simply locking these individuals away, especially those who are addicted to those substances, again does not solve a problem. And to reiterate, the mass major of inmates within the prison system are placed there primarily due to drugs. These individuals don’t need to be housed in a box paid for by tax payers’ dollars – they need treatment and an opportunity to live an alternative life. What they don’t need is time spent locked away with other individuals where they might learn to hide an addiction better or commit crime to pay for their habit. The criminal justice system notoriously does a horrible job at curving the drug crime issues that plague this nation. And the mass majority of these individuals, as you might guess, are non-violent.

So with that being addressed somewhat, the mass majority of inmates are non-violent and really don’t need a box to help them change their ways. If anything, placing a human in a box won’t help them in their desire to change the actions which placed them in prison to begin with – it will likely only make the matter worse, hence the revolving door most individuals in the criminal justice system are caught in. Not for violence or even for being a danger to the community, but because the solution was the wrong one to begin with and does not help change these people’s lives for the better, or to help themselves and the community.

Constitutional Rights and Fair Trials Exist And Prevent Innocent People From Being Put In To The System

How many times have you seen on the news, another inmate being released after serving so many years of their lives, has been proven innocent according to evidence later reviewed. Unfortunately, this has become an all too common headline in the news. And it doesn’t seem many people are taking action to change the system and to help prevent this from becoming a trend in the future. What we need is more people who will stand up for constitutional rights and fair trials, to ensure that not as many individuals are placed into the criminal justice system. We need to ensure that we aren’t following the same trends of the past, taking years away from people’s lives that they will never get back, when they were innocent to begin with.

Constitutional rights are not protected, at least within the Federal court system. There are exceptions for almost every right guaranteed by the Constitution now days. While States must generally follow the Constitutional to a T, the Federal system has produced so much common law precedent which allows judges to not grant many Constitutional rights. And here is how this affects you…what if you were charged with a crime you didn’t do? It’s too late to try to argue for Constitutional rights being afforded to you once you have been targeted for investigation and subject to scrutiny of the criminal justice system. Once you are targeted, and with the fact that Constructional rights are being eroded away slowly, the hope to ensure that innocent people sent to prison is not going down in likelihood, but actually increasing the problem by multiple factors. More judges are being hired, the Justice Department is hiring a ton of new prosecutors, and laws are eliminating the Mens Rea requirement (where they must prove that you in fact had the intent to commit a crime). The problem of sending innocent people to jail to waste away for years is not getting better. It is getting worse. A lot worse.

To have a fair and impartial trial, you must first ensure that the principles are fair in what way the trial is conducted. The deck is stacked against the accused from the beginning. First, most judges are previous prosecutors who have been groomed to seek the harshest punishment and twist the facts to make individuals look the worst way possible. Laws have even taken away the authority of judges to make decisions based upon their judgment and have actually passed a lot of responsibility over to the prosecutors to make deals with defendants and have given them authority to skirt the Constitution. There is an incentive within the criminal justice system to not go to trial, to sign a plea deal – not necessarily get less time, but to avoid getting more time placed on by exercising your right to go to trial. When you choose to exercise your right in the Federal system, many prosecutors take that as a slap in the face. You can’t say there is not direct retaliation. My first offer with a plea deal included likely no prison time, however once I refused, the prosecutor charged me with several more additional charges which increased the total time I was required to serve to six and a half years. All because I choose to exercise a constitutional right to a trial.

Getting up on the stand, to provide your own statements is pretty much signing your own death warrant for your case. Most defence attorneys will highly recommend you do not testify, as prosecutors have so much power, they can twist even a single statement you might not say exactly correct and charge you with additional crimes, such as obstruction of justice and making false statements in a court of law, and many more. And yes, these charges will increase your time by a lot, and the jury does not find this attractive in giving you a good outcome. So the result is that most individuals never take the stand to testify to their own innocence.

Other rights are not preserved either. The speedy trial clause has exceptions, that almost all defendants fall in to. Exceptions are granted constantly that defendants can not face their accusers for whatever reason or know their true identity. Evidence is withheld and produced the day of trial or throughout trial as common practice. I experienced this day after day with new evidence magically appearing before the trial began for that day. There is a concept known as constructive evidence, where the FBI or another organization would testify that they believed something illegal was transported through a carrier in a box, however never recovered or produce for trial what they thought was in the box. And this is admitted as evidence, even though they are just allegations or a theory to what might have transpired. Time after time, by the time you are on the radar for an investigation, especially at the Federal level, evidence doesn’t have to meet a standard that would be considered reasonable, nor does it even have to be produced in certain cases. If these things aren’t incredibly alarming to you, consider that they are common practice used in more and more cases every day.

Prison Labor Is Not Slavery

In most prisons, and in several jails across the nation, inmates are required to do some sort of work. Now, I will be the first to say this isn’t entirely a bad idea, considering that food and housing is provided at the taxpayers’ expense, and because it gives inmates an opportunity to use their time productively. But this argument does begin to sound similar to those by plantation owners, who housed their slaves and fed them. With this in mind, without oversight, this form of labor has quickly become exploited. Inmates perform dangerous, often hazardous jobs. They work in less than comfortable environments, where they don’t always have access to proper cooling or heating. And to make matters worse, the pay is often pennies an hour.

Inmates who are injured or elderly are often harassed for not working by the staff and administration. Even during COVID outbreaks, with much of the population sick, inmates were required to work in very cold outside conditions with limited protection from the environment. There is not a concept of sick days or time off. You are required to work in the conditions which you are presented, often times in direct violation of standards such as OSHA. Protection equipment is scarce and the tools which you are provided are often damaged to the point of being unusable. One of the things most inmates take pride in is taking care of things which they are given, because generally speaking, good things are hard to come by.

There has been continuous debate on what constitutes a violation of human rights when it comes to forced labor in prison. Many cases have made it through the court system, where private prisons are now held responsible for paying a slightly high wage and providing better work conditions. However, the Federal and State government exempt themselves from this requirement. There are even quasi-for-profit organizations, such as Unicor, where business can profit off of prison labor, as well as numerous other institutions where labor is sold for higher rates (this means a profit) than inmates are paid. While there is generally always a margin in any line of labor work, the fact is that labor is generally sold at fair market while inmates are paid literally pennies for their labor. And to reiterate, this labor is forced and required. You often don’t get to pick your occupation nor the working conditions which you are forced to work. Bottom-line, prison labor has become a source of revenue for both the government as well as private industry. And there are heavy incentives for expanding these programs.

Consequences for failure to do your assigned work role or shift can be heavy. First, good time can be taken away, and extra time even added on to a sentence with additional charges. You can be forced to solitary confinement. Your pay can be further docked and even money taken away from your account. And these are only the official punishments for failure to comply. Retaliation is often common and staff/prisoners often look the other way out of fear themselves when it happens. I have seen inmates beaten at other facilities for refusing to work. Fortunately, the facility that I am at this very moment has not been so sever, but these conditions do exist still, which I would imagine might be a surprise to several members of the general population.

Rehabilitation Is The Primary Goal Of Prison

One of the biggest surprises that I realized once I was introduced to the criminal justice system, is that rehabilitation is not a primary objective or goal. While legislation is passed which supports such measures, and even sold to the general public as reasons why such a bill is passed, the BOP as well as many other correctional institutions are not primarily responsible for the rehabilitation of offenders, if at all. The primary objective of most of these government organizations that oversee the prisoner population is to segregate the inmate population from the general public, out of safety for the community. Going back to previous statements above, most inmates are non-violent and I believe a minority go on to really harm others in the community after released. Most individuals come back to prison typically for violations, such as failed drug tests or failure to report on time, often just minutes late on an appointment. I will have to leave these stories here for another day, but its sad how many people are sent back to prison for minor infractions, costing those individuals their lives and taxpayers a heavy financial burden.

During COVID-19, there have been few if any programs available for inmates to better themselves. Most facilities only offer GED testing, with very limited classes for those who really wish to learn. Anyone who already possess a GED, there is not much offered as far as improvement. Even during COVID-19 at my current facility, things like baseballs and basketballs are taken away as a COVID-19 measure (again, this is another story for another post but amazing some of the things implemented that seem to be more a punishment than a protection measure).

Most surprisingly, at one facility I was at in my many years of transport, book limits were heavily enforced. I could not have more than 3 books in my cell, including educational and religious materials. So if you possess a religious book, you are only allotted maybe one more non-fiction book and a fiction book. This made learning very difficult, and my books were often taken away just in spite, because I wanted to try to better myself and one of the staff members took offence that I might be ‘getting smarter than the guards’. Regardless, I am at a better facility now with an actual small library, but many institutions don’t even allow books to be passed around or handed out due to COVID-19 measures, leaving many inmates without any ability to self improvement.

For the programs that are regularly offered when the pandemic isn’t an issue, the options are still extremely limited or focused on work instead of learning. For example, at my current facility, there is a new program that ‘teaches’ welding via on-the-job training. Basically, you work in the environment other welders don’t desire to work, while carrying heavy loads and doing laborious jobs for no pay. But you do learn a skill that you can use none-the-less, even if this is very clearly exploitation.

Other programs that exist are often aimed at either drug offenders or older individuals who need financial guidance. Very few programs exist for those between 18-35, which surprising is the largest population among the criminal justice system. So why are there very limited programs for the largest segment of the prison population? Why is rehabilitation not a priority? Wouldn’t the prison system desire to teach skills which prevent people from returning? Or do they benefit from a population being kept behind bars? It’s interesting to see how few people are released early or given opportunities to move to better places.

Rehabilitation is a very large issue. If the very organization that is charged with maintaining the inmate population isn’t held responsible for keeping these individuals out of prisons in the first place (much less incentive for having larger populations), who then expects to see any real progress with rehabilitation in the first place. People aren’t coming out of prison, for the most part, becoming better people. I can personally tell you what I have learned the most since being here. I have learned to play cards. I have learned to play chess. I have watched TV. I have learned to sleep days away. And maybe the single most productive thing, I have read more than I ever have. But at the end of the day, how has any of this improved me or others as a person to the community. How is the community benefit from their tax dollars when inmates are not offered a chance to better themselves or learn skills that will help them stay on a good path in life? Limited people who have a skill set for self improvement already can benefit from an environment like this, but that is very rare and most people end up watching TV and doing their required work shifts quickly just to sleep and continue the cycle. So much for this system helping rehabilitate criminals.

Criminals Are Mentally Different Or Possess A Different Personality Than The General Population

What makes a criminal different than an average citizen? The best answer that have ever received came from a previous friend who just so happened to be a police officer. His answer was this, “They are the ones who get caught”. It seems most people inherently have good intentions and try to act accordingly. However, sometimes a bad action wins because of the alternatives available or perceived available/not available. I feel as though often many individuals who live out a life in crime do so because the alternative is not one where they feel it is in their best interest. That being said, sometimes that can be as a simple as something else seeming more attractive, such as a better lifestyle to where they have no path known to them to get there. Sometimes that is just because of necessity, such as putting food on the table for their family. But often, most individuals try to aim to live a life in which they make the best decisions for themselves and family, and if they fail to do so in a real beneficial way, it is often because of a harmful desire winning.

I am pretty sure almost everyone in the United States has broken a law before. Have you ever driven above the speed limit? Have you ever put a false name on social media? Have you ever taken something that didn’t belong to you, even as a child? Have you ever hit someone, even on accident? Have you ever said you might harm someone, even if you had no intention to follow through? There are so many laws for almost anything which could potentially harm someone else or themselves. Laws even exist with no objective other than for the sake of being a law. Some are changing, such as the ability for anyone to marry whoever they choose. Others exist just to be a catch-all for policing agencies to be able to charge individuals where there might not be a clear law being actually broken. And I would guess that most of us go through life breaking a dozen laws daily, mostly without ever realizing it.

Which is why I brought up Mens Rea (criminal intent) above – the need to prove that someone actually intended to harm someone else and commit a crime. Many people who are convicted of crimes today in the criminal justice system never intended to harm someone else. Not everyone of course, but there are several people just prosecuted because a tip comes across someone’s desk and they feel something must be done with it. People are in prison for forgiving debts which were owed to them. People are in prison for hiring individuals who were illegal aliens where the business owner didn’t even know that they were here illegally. People are in prison for filing a wrong tax form. People are in prison for being addicted to a substance. And of course, some people like me are in prison for teaching someone something, which someone else used in the wrong way. Many stories like mine exist, unfortunately. These are not individuals who woke up one morning and decided to live a life of crime. Most people I have come into contact with did not ever intend to live out a bad life with bad decisions. And even the people who did, there should be help for these individuals, not putting them in a box and forgetting about them. These are human beings who we can help, who might one day later help us.

So at the end of the day, are those in the criminal justice system different? I would not believe so. Even most police officers and guards, that I have brought up the subject to, even agree that people in here are no different than people out there. And that is sad, that such a sigma exists, that says people in here are so much worse than others. People in here have at least paid for their wrong doings with days and years being taken away from them. They struggle daily, they overcome fear and anxiety, and they face challenges just like everyone else in the general population. For these reasons and many more, I can not find a difference between people on the inside or on the outside.

Prison Rape Is A Common Occurance

I am sure you have heard the expression “Don’t drop the soap”. A few years ago, congress passed PREA, Prison Rape Elimination Act. It’s interesting how congress believes that by passing an act, they might solve a problem, especially among a group labelled as criminals – who by definition are those who don’t follow the laws they pass. But regardless, a lot of time and effort was placed upon this bill, with the belief that male prisons suffered a lot of prison rape. Today, we are constantly spoken to about PREA. It’s just another speech by someone who is forced to give it, knowing that these laws don’t change anything. Rapes will still go unreported. But the surprising thing is, that in prison, this is extremely rare. While I don’t discount that rape does happen anywhere, in prison as well as outside in the world, the rates at which they occur in men’s facilities are low. The real problem are where women are housed. Just last year, several associate wardens and even one warden of a women’s facility were charged with crimes for their activity in raping many female inmates. This is staff on inmate rape, not rape between inmates. And it almost always occurs more at the female facilities.

The PREA laws which went into effect only provided legal protection for those who would report the crime. But what happens if who you are supposed to report it to, happens to be the individual who is involved with the rape or at a high level than those investigating? Often, many of the more common situations where female inmate rape occurs, is at the higher levels of administration and prison management. They can get away with it because there is no oversight, and if you were to try and tell someone, guess who is responsible for your care and well-being? PREA didn’t solve an issue, it only made it a formal process of reporting and investigation.

In male facilities, respect is a very high priority. Most physical violence by inmates comes about due to failure to show respect for a fellow inmate. People provide you space as much as available, and don’t touch you. If these basic rules are broken, most decent inmates will get involved to ensure that your rights as another human being are protected. Collectively, rapes generally occur at higher security levels for male facilities. And again, it is rare. In travelling through 10 facilities and meeting thousands of people, I have only heard of two instances from other facilities that inmates knew something had happened. Almost all the other sexual activity was voluntary.

The real problem is staff on inmate rape. To charge your captors with your well-being and responsibility over you completely, and the ability to strip search you at any time for any reason, this gives individuals a lot of power, that some do take advantage of. I should mention that if you were to physically defend yourself against a correctional officer, you are often met with the same level of disciplinary action as the murder of another inmate. And yes, inmates have been charged for defending themselves against correctional officers trying to rape them. And what is worse, is that these charges usually stick and add years on to someone’s sentence, where the process could possibly repeat itself.

The solution for these exceptions where rape does occur, is not to pass another law, but one where responsibility isn’t all placed in one basket. But at the end of the day, rape in prison is a rare occurrence, where congress should focus on getting people to better environments in the first place.

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