Posts Tagged ‘jail’

So this guy’s convicted for his involvement in an armed robbery when he’s like 23. Sentenced to thirteen years, which the system expects him to sit out mostly inside a small cage in a secure building somewhere with lots of other people convicted of similar crimes. While he’s appealing the conviction, he’s bailed and gets to go back home, to wait and see if they’re going to come get him and put him in that cage until he’s 36.

By some bizarre quirk of admin, he slips through a crack. These cogs of the bureaucratic machine over here get the wrong idea about what those gears over there are doing, and vice versa. Nobody comes to take this guy to jail. Nobody tells him he’s off the hook, either, because he’s not, but a clerical error means it never becomes anybody’s job to take him to prison.

Thirteen years go by. This guy starts to relax a little, never completely, just a little. Starts to think maybe they’re not going to come for him. He gets married, has four children, learns a trade, starts a business, builds a house for himself and his family. He’s a guy in his mid-thirties now, living a decent, unremarkable, commendable life. Insofar as he was ever a renegade tearaway in his early twenties, he’s a reformed character. A model citizen.

Then a piece of paper or a spreadsheet somewhere comes along, tells a bemused clerk in an office that it’s time to release this guy from prison, where (so the system understands) he’s been quietly serving a thirteen-year sentence.

After some confusion, the local police department realise they’ve got a rather overdue errand to run. They turn up at this guy’s house, and take him to jail.

He was allowed to phone his mother-in-law first, so that his two-year-old daughter wouldn’t be left alone in the house.

Some people are suggesting that this is all pretty fucked up. That whatever administrative cock-ups might have been made in the past, nothing is served by following through on this rigmarole to the bitter end of the dotted line now, and punishing a man who’s worlds away from the person who, back in the 90s, may have let someone borrow his car who then committed a crime – let alone depriving a mother and four children of their husband and father.

I guess if you’re the sort of communist who refuses to venerate the blindly consistent following of arbitrary rules regardless of the individual circumstances, and places greater value on distracting and confusing concepts like humanity and compassion, I can see how you might think like that. But if you don’t want jobsworths robotically enforcing whatever’s written down in black and white, allowing lists of checkboxes to define the way the world is, then what do you think the whole criminal justice system is even for?

I guess the point of prisons, besides keeping criminals locked up where they can’t keep hurting the rest of us, is to serve as a deterrent. Leaving aside whether or not this works even slightly, the idea is that people will be persuaded not to commit crimes because they don’t want to be locked in a cage – but for those people who do nevertheless live their lives in a way that society has deemed unacceptable, presumably something similar is supposed to happen to them. Unless you run a private prison, you don’t want former convicts to commit more crimes and have to be locked in a cage again. They’re meant to be put off that experience, and steer clear of a life of crime in the future. They’re meant to be shaped into better people, who do productive and valuable things, like raise children, learn a trade, start a business, build a house. You know. Model citizens.

Is prison meant to turn Cornealious Anderson into a model citizen? Is it meant to instil in him a respect for authority, a fear of punishment by the system, which will keep him on the straight and narrow in future? Is the life he’s been building and living for the past decade insufficiently virtuous, and is putting him in prison while his children grow up going to improve it?

Of course, even if locking this guy in a cage almost until he’s 50 does no actual good to anybody, and only damages and destroys relationships and things that currently exist, and rectifies nothing that happened in the past – even then, we should probably lock this guy up. If we just let him get on with his productive, valuable life as a husband and father, it might set a precedent. Other criminals might end up going free, instead of serving their time – and we’ve seen what kind of nightmares ensue when we let that happen. Precedents are important.

Cornealious Anderson is currently sitting in jail. Here’s hoping this convicted criminal fails in his latest appeal, and can finally be brought to justice. Because some principles are just too important too abandon, even when they make literally everybody worse off.

(h/t This American Life)

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This is how great America is at the whole criminal justice thing.

There are a number of people who’ve been put in jail because it was believed they were guilty of a federal crime, but when it turned out that this was not in fact the case, there’s nobody whose job it is to tell anyone that these people shouldn’t be locked up.

If you want to challenge a conviction that’s landed you in prison, there are laws and protocols you have to follow to do that. A minor detail like not having committed any crime doesn’t get around this fact, and the Justice Department don’t consider it their job to let these prisoners know that it’s been officially acknowledged that they’re innocent.

These cases are largely unknown outside the courthouses here, but they have raised difficult questions about what, if anything, the government owes to innocent people locked in prisons.

“It’s been tough,” said Ripley Rand, the U.S. attorney in Greensboro, N.C. “We’ve spent a lot of time talking about issues of fundamental fairness, and what is justice.” [emphasis added]

They’ve spent a lot of time talking about this. I wonder what pointlessly insubstantial waffle they must have been saying, if we’re still debating whether the government owes anything to people it’s locked up in cages for absolutely no reason.

I once worked in admin at a psychiatric hospital for about a year, and noted with interest how much red tape and form-filling had to be done in order to continue justifying the detention of individuals under the Mental Health Act.

Most of the patients had regular recourse to a hearing by a Tribunal or a panel of independent managers, and have the details of their case scrutinised by outside experts and legal advisors. The paperwork giving the hospital the right to detain them was usually only valid for a fixed period, and regularly needed to be formally extended, with a number of qualified staff signing off on it. Occasionally, a deadline would approach while something important hadn’t been signed or dated or faxed through, and we’d have to scurry into action to get it sorted, otherwise we’d be illegally detaining someone against their will and they’d sue. If things were formalised even a day late, it was a big deal.

My point is, in my limited experience with psychiatric treatment in the UK, the authorities were constantly having to work to provide evidence that they were justified in imposing restrictions on other people’s liberty. If they didn’t, their rights to detain anyone would lapse in time, and things would tend generally toward a state of freedom. This seems like quite an important idea.

It doesn’t seem to be one the US prison system places much stock in.

Perhaps they’re worried about the expense of all that extra bureaucracy. In which case, Penn Jillette has a cost-cutting measure they might want to consider.

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I’m still on something of an annoying journalism kick.

That’s a kick against annoying journalism, I mean. It’s not annoying that I’m blogging about journalism more these days. At least, I’m not annoyed about that.

Stories like this one, however, do annoy me somewhat, because it’s about something I feel like I know just enough about to be able to comment on. Specifically, it’s about people taking drugs while in prison.

(Yeah, how gangsta does that make my life sound? Probably quite a lot less now that I’ve just attempted to use the word ‘gangsta’ so casually. Sigh. I am so white.)

The gist seems to be that a Conservative think-tank disapproves of drug addicted patients being given opiate substitutes like methadone while in prison. But they don’t seem to have a clear idea on what should be done instead.

One of the things I learned pretty soon in my time working in an addictions centre is that most heroin users really don’t want to be heroin users. Whatever you might think of the war on drugs, and the campaign to scare people out of taking them, one thing that’s true is that heroin can seriously fuck you up. And a lot of addicts know this, even as they start shoplifting or selling sex or breaking into cars to get money to buy more heroin.

Heroin’s really quite moreish, you see.

But methadone is pretty handy stuff, because for a lot of people a small regular dose of it will dramatically reduce the intense, uncontrollable craving that heroin leaves you with.

This is useful, because getting physically or psychologically dependent on heroin is very easy. And there are reasons why so few addicts choose to just voluntarily not have any more of it. These reasons include tremors, sweats, cravings, nausea, vomiting, hallucinations, fits, blackouts, and delirium tremens, among others.

None of which is much fun. This is why people who have started using heroin are often inclined to use more heroin. And this is why there exist structured treatment programmes to help these people.

So criticising the system which “maintains rather than halts” prisoners’ drug habits rather seems to be missing the point. Providing a substitute prescription means people can stop having to acquire heroin through their own means to deal with their addiction, and can start engaging in a more complete treatment programme, which includes things like counselling sessions and psychological advice on how to stay clean.

Most of this think-tank’s “Coming Clean” report (PDF link) seems to be focused on the problem of illegal drugs being smuggled into prisons, rather than the approach to substitute prescribing. This is obviously a significant issue, and I don’t feel equipped to tackle it in much depth, but I wonder if getting prisons completely drug-free isn’t essentially as doomed an ideal as the rest of the “war on drugs”.

In the bits that do focus on substitution, they seem mainly concerned that patients aren’t being mandated to detoxify from all drugs fast enough. But it’s not clear why reducing their doses of medication in a substantially reduced timeframe is always going to be a good thing.

There should certainly be emphasis on reduction with an eventual goal of abstinence, but the fact is that this might not always be clinically indicated, and bringing down someone’s dose of methadone with the aim of having them clean within two weeks could end up being counter-productive. If it’s too fast for them to handle the change, their cravings will flare up, and they’ll go back to taking heroin. (I hear that’s not hard to do, in prison.)

I didn’t have to look far to find an example of the Daily Mail being outraged at the “limitless free drugs” available to prison inmates. It’s not an especially raving or offensive article by their standards, but there’s still less of an understanding of substance misuse issues than you might naively hope for from serious journalism. Nobody’s “admitting defeat” here. The goal is still a safe reduction of harmful activities as much as it ever was.

“The new strategy has all the hallmarks of keeping addicts addicted,” they declare, without ever explaining what any of those hallmarks are, probably because it’s bollocks. A two-week detox doesn’t stop you being addicted to heroin, and often it’s simply not the most effective or practical way to achieve abstinence.

According to this same article, “two-thirds of all crime is drug-related”. A staggering proportion of the people who end up in jail are there because of, for instance, “acquisitive crimes”, necessitated entirely by the urgent need to obtain more drugs. I’m not going to get into the argument for legalising everything here, but surely the thing to offer heroin addicts that’s most helpful to everyone is to keep them out of a situation where the best option for them is to use some more heroin.

And sometimes simply detoxifying them safely and giving them a stern talking to about how drugs are bad isn’t the best way to do that. When I said that heroin was moreish, I was using understatement as a comical device. I hope that was clear. Heroin is highly addictive, and helping people to stop taking it any more is difficult. In the centre I work in, there are regular group meetings and one-to-one counselling sessions, and the team regularly liaise with other departments who organise things like social activities, gym memberships, childcare, and safe housing. This is all important if you want it to be worth people’s while staying clear of the stuff they’re addicted to.

This is quite long already, and I don’t quite have the energy to carry on ranting just now, about the popular dehumanising portrayal of all drug users as hardened criminal scum who made their own choices and should have to live with them. Suffice it to say for now that this view is deeply unfair. Maybe I’ll go into that another time.

Okay, I have just noticed one more thing to moan about here though:

Some inmates do try to give up drugs, but prison is the wrong place, from a physical, psychological and practical point of view, for addicts.

If they had somewhere more suitable to go, the prison population would be reduced by almost half.

Hmm. Imagine for a moment that the government actually introduced a scheme to take half of all current inmates out of the prison system, and gave them an inpatient detoxification in some clinical centre especially set up for their treatment.

Can you imagine the response of the Daily Mail and its readers to such outrageous taxpayer-funded coddling?

Anyway. It may not be a traditional unicorn chaser, but the Guardian have an article about prison drug treatment which I found a nice relief after all that.

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