Friday, June 10, 2011

Blindness to the consequences

I'm ending my work week with a large Amen to a column just published by Stephen Yair Liebb and Hector Oropeza on the Brown v. Plata case which offers a California prisoner perspective on the opinion and a response to the dissents. Liebb has served 30 years of a life sentence for murder and Oropeza has just been released after 20, also on a life sentence for murder (neither would have served more than 10 years before sentences for murder were politicized in the 1990s). I have met them both at San Quentin during seminars and discussion groups I've participated in at the prison, and been impressed by their insights about the prison system, violence, and justice.

A small but poignant part of the column addresses what I've also considered the opinion's chief accomplishment, the powerful reassertion of dignity as a value underlying the 8th Amendment (and thus the operation of prisons).

However, the U.S. is still a symbol of freedom across the world. How we treat the most despised of our own citizens is important if we are to have credibility and moral authority in advocating for human rights in other countries. The Court noted that the Constitution protects the “essence of human dignity in each person.”

Most to the column, however, is a precise and forceful refutation of the dissents by Justice Alito and Scalia. The former, you will recall, dispensed with reasoned argument and invoked the emotional (fear) based center of war on crime complex.

“His description of the consequences of the Supreme Court’s decision is an example of the hyperbole and hysteria used by Justices who are required to exercise sound reasoning in deciding cases...

That for over a decade California has subjected prisoners to standards that amount to cruel and unusual punishment while maintaining an extraordinarily high rate of incarceration reflects an erosion of fundamental values of American society.

To Scalia's argument that the case will benefit healthy (and dangerous) prisoners rather than those with genuine medical problems, the authors remind us of the horrendous truth of this case, that exposure to disease, ill-health, and degradation was widespread, occurring to hundreds of thousands of Californians incarcerated over more than a decade of unconstitutional conditions.

Justice Scalia also claims, without proof, that “Most of them will not be prisoners with medical conditions or severe mental illness; and many will undoubtedly be fine physical specimens who have developed intimidating muscles pumping iron in the prison gym.”

Justice Scalia ignores the reality that gyms have been used to house prisoners for many years, which is part of the problem brought on by overcrowding. Overcrowding and lockdowns compromise the immune systems of prisoners due to a lack of fresh air and exercise. The lack of sanitary conditions in these gyms exacerbates the spread of disease. Weights have not been available in California prisons for more than a decade.

1 comment:

Ree said...

Awesome response to Scalia.
Thank you for posting it.