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Harsh Treatment of Prisoners

June 26, 1995

I read with dismay that the Supreme Court has yet again weakened the rights of inmates to sue to obtain due process before being placed in isolation units in prisons (June 20). Since diminishing any prisoners' rights will likely be widely applauded by most politicians, there is a need to explain why everyone should care about the way inmates are treated during their period of incarceration, aside from the obvious humanitarian concerns.

Those reasons can best be summed up in three words--Robert Walker Scully. He's the man released directly to the community after having served the final year of his imprisonment in Pelican Bay Prison's infamous "hole" or isolation unit. One federal judge has ruled that the "hole" at Pelican Bay "can have serious psychiatric consequences" on its captives. Essentially, Scully went from having no human contact and no direct line of vision to the outside world to complete and unfettered freedom in the blink of an eye.

Scully entered prison as an armed robber and was accused of killing a cop less than a week after his release. If restrictions against long-term isolation were strengthened by the Supreme Court, instead of diminished, perhaps that police officer would still be alive today.

More than 100,000 inmates are released from California's prisons each year. Releases directly from the "hole" are not uncommon.

Legislation to eliminate programs and privileges for prisoners ensure their further isolation from pro-social values and experiences. Regulations barring prisoners from earning writers' fees or even from having their works published in newspapers ensure that taxpayers will hear only what jailers wish us to hear from inside prison. And the entire section of the federal crime bill making it more difficult for inmates to seek redress in the courts will surely free those jailers to cut costs by further worsening the living conditions under which prisoners are confined. All this despite the fact that the majority of inmates housed in state and federal prisoners are nonviolent offenders.

In the end, these purportedly "crime fighting" measures--like the prison expansion that preceded them--will manage to create a system that is more costly, less humane and less effective in controlling crime than even the system under which we currently suffer.


Executive Director

Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice

San Francisco

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