How Cruel and Unusual Defines the US Prison System – Part Two: Horror Stories and Solutions


In my previous post, I presented challenges that prisons and prisoners face in the US. The only positive is the 52% recidivism rate. Any reduction in recidivism is positive. However, two important facts about the study’s findings should horrify us. First, that was the repeat offender rate in the first three years of release. Second, multiple countries have much lower recidivism. I will focus on one: Norway. Norway boasts a recidivism rate of just 30%, and has one prison in particular where that rate drops to 16%. One of the best stories on Norway’s prison system comes from Erwin James, a former inmate (in the UK) who writes for The Guardian:

“As a life prisoner, I spent the first eight years of the 20 I served in a cell with a bed, a chair, a table and a bucket for my toilet. … Yet the constant refrain from the popular press was that I, too, was living in a “holiday camp”. When in-cell toilets were installed, and a few years later we were given small televisions, the ‘luxury prison.'”

Those first eight years of his sentence were from the mid ‘80s to the early ‘90s, yet the conditions under which he had to survive sound medieval. Can I just say, again, “a bucket for my toilet.” Not to mention the blatant lack of comfort, the sanitary conditions as a whole must have bread all sorts of disease and harmful bacteria. I wonder how often sickness made the rounds in that prison. Before I focus on the success behind Norway’s recidivism rates, the unsanitary conditions and general health struggles James faced more than 20 years ago have improved little. This brings me to the next level of cruel and unusual punishment in the US prison system, the lack of medical care.SolitaryCONF

A WAMU radio story from earlier this year points out that the Commonwealth of Virginia “has 40 doctors to care for 30,000 prisoners.” And even with the poor health care currently offered in the Virginia prison system, the same story reports that “it costs about $25,000 a year to keep a single person in prison,” and because of the natural decline of health as one gets older, “the price tag more than doubles after age 60.” Current Virginia inmate Stephen Colosi ran the numbers on his prison alone:

“‘There’s 1,100 inmates in here right now that are over 60, and if you multiply that times 68,000, that’s $74 million. Now for $2,300 a year you can put an ankle bracelet on a man and monitor his whereabouts 24/7. So for $72 million savings, you could hire a lot of teachers, police officers and youth counselors for these kids,’ he says.”

In fact, Virginia has a geriatric provision that allows the early release of elderly prisoners not seen as a threat to society. However, despite the more than 1,000 inmates eligible, only 40 have received that early release since 2001.

This report on Virginia prisons offers more horrific medical stories everyone should hear.
First: “When it comes to inmates’ mental health, the state has 14 psychiatrists to care for those 30,000 inmates.” When at least one in six inmates has a mental health issue, that leaves approximately 5,000 inmates in need of extra care who are likely not to get enough if any.

“At the Indian Creek Correctional Center in Chesapeake, 47-year-old Steven Jowers recalls what happened to his friend Fly[:] ‘I watched him lose like 50 pounds in like three months, and he died like a month later of pancreatic cancer. … They never did anything. Three weeks later, a friend of mine, Gary Graves, went to medical and said, “I’m having chest pains,” and they gave him two Advil and told him to sign up for sick call. Well … in the morning … he was dead. He had [had] a heart attack.’”


“Jeanna Wright … complained to the prison nurse about intense abdominal pain and rectal bleeding for a full year before having a thorough exam. … ‘She was diagnosed with stage four abdominal cancer, and she died in April of 2012.’”

These are not isolated incidents. “Virginia gets about 2,000 complaints annually relating to health care.” In fact, “Ten years ago, the state’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union issued a report on prison medicine, complaining of deliberate neglect, unnecessary deaths, botched surgeries, and policies that put cost above the health and welfare of patients. Since then, ACLU attorney Hope Amezquita has seen no improvement. ‘It seems to have gotten worse!’” When we have laws in this country to protect animals from neglect, what does it say about us if we allow such blatant neglect of human beings? But with that neglect we also find blatant mistreatment:

“Harvey Yoder, a clergyman and family counselor who often visits the Harrisonburg Regional Jail, objects to the treatment of patients deemed suicidal. ‘A person is stripped of their clothing and given a paper gown to wear, and the cell itself has nothing in it, no mattress or anything. There’s a grate in the floor that has to be used for a commode. It’s just abominable.’ … Yoder says prisoners who pose a physical threat to themselves or others can also be put in a restraining chair, with their arms, legs and torsos strapped down for hours.”

The horror of those stories speaks for itself, but let me be clear, I am all for locking up criminals, especially violent criminals. We simply need to separate some people from society, but that does not mean we cannot help them, and Norway shows us a way. To begin with, as Erwin James explains, regardless of one’s crime, Norway has a maximum prison sentence of 21 years, but its low recidivism rates have to do mainly with what James reveals in the title of his article: “The Norwegian prison where inmates are treated like people.” The solution is that simple. As I concluded part one of this article, we need to stop treating people like animals. So what if we treated them like people? What a concept. All women, all men have worth, and when we treat them that way, they feel it.

James’s article focuses mostly on Bastoy, Norway’s island prison, which boasts a phenomenal recidivism rate of 16%. How do they do it? “On Bastoy prison island in Norway, the prisoners, some of whom are murderers and rapists, live in conditions that critics brand ‘cushy’ and ‘luxurious’. Yet it has by far the lowest reoffending rate in Europe.” Bastoy is more than an island; it is, essentially, a community where prisoners roam freely. The island houses prisoners in bungalows and provides facilities where they work real jobs and where they can actually shop for groceries. Working real jobs and learning actual profitable, transferrable skills better prepares them for reintegration. But even in Norway, Bastoy is unique.


Two years ago, Amelia Gentleman, also writing for The Guardian, visited Norway’s high security jail, Halden. When we think of high security or maximum security prisons in the US, no pleasant thoughts come to mind. Horror stories populate my mind, the ones above and countless others. But Gentleman calls Halden “the most humane prison in the world.” There “every cell has a flat-screen TV, an en-suite shower, and fluffy, white towels.” On a lighter note, whenever I stay in a hotel with scratchy towels, I feel like I lose a little of my humanity. Often, the details make the difference.

I could go on and on about this issue, provide endless horror stories from the US prison system and endless success stories from Norway, even fully describe the “cushy” life their prisoners enjoy, but I have done enough here, and many others have taken the time to discuss it further (please, take the time to read the articles by Erwin James and Amelia Gentleman). If I have not driven my point home at this point, then I likely will never do so for you. Though people much smarter than I am need to work out the specific logistics, I believe that the solution is simple. We cannot rehabilitate men and women by stripping them of what makes them human but by giving or restoring to them their humanity.

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