Prison reformation needed for true rehabilitation


By Minju Park

A couple days ago, I caught up on the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black.” While watching Piper Chapman and her quirky gang struggle through the unexpected twists and turns of prison life captivated my emotions, it also brought up the question lurking in the background — if prison is really as corrupt and disgusting as the show makes it out to be, then why are there no changes being made?

In the show, the fictional Litchfield Prison is depicted as a poorly funded and understaffed business, trying to spend the least amount of money while barely maintaining human rights regulations.

This description isn’t too far from reality in terms of sanitation and general living conditions. Suffolk County’s Riverhead correctional center, the real prison that the show is filmed in, accommodates even worse conditions than are mentioned in the fictional scenes. Complaints about Riverhead included undrinkable water, shower water that causes rashes, revolting sewer stench and faulty plumbing that causes the waste flushed from one toilet to resurface in the adjacent one.

In terms of the treatment of prisoners, the show reveals sexual harassment and dehumanization of prisoners by the guards or other official personnel. This is also not a far cry from reality — about half of sexual abuse or harassment cases in prisons involve prison staff as perpetrators.

The show’s prison staff excessively punishes prisoners, particularly with the use of solitary confinement, as a commentary on the dehumanization that occurs in real life.

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    Saturday, The New York Times published a profile of Albert Woodfox, a real victim of unfair placement in solitary confinement. While Woodfox was serving a sentence for armed robbery in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, rumors spread that an officer had been murdered. Although no forensic evidence linked him to the murder, Woodfox was sent to solitary confinement for about 45 years. Woodfox was released Friday morning.

    Solitary confinement should not be a punishment to be handed out lightly for any offense—especially not a case in which evidence was lacking to prove the prisoner as guilty. Common effects of solitary confinement include extreme anxiety, mood swings, hallucinations and can continue to affect one’s mind after rejoining society.

    “I’ve seen grown men turn into babies — you know, they just lay in their bed in a fetal position and don’t talk,” Woodfox told The New York Times. “I’ve seen guys who can’t stop talking. I’ve seen guys that scream all day.”

    Woodfox’s horrific treatment is only one of many instances. Nearly 80,000 prisoners in the United States are placed in solitary confinement, more than any other country. These realities speak to the need for prison reform.

    Some may argue that prisoners deserve this kind of lifestyle while incarcerated, and that their horrendous crimes are reason enough for their poor living conditions.

    But, nearly 50 percent of U.S. prisoners committed minor drug offenses, mostly due to the sensationalized War on Drugs in the past decades. The second most popular offense is immigration-related. Often, people who commit minor offenses receive excessively long sentences, which has led to the U.S. incarcerating nearly 25 percent of the world’s prison population.

    In addition, keeping inmates in concrete boxes without proper living conditions is ineffective in reforming their actions or behaviors. Instead, about 68 percent of inmates are arrested again within three years of release, often due to lack of education on how to find legal employment with the mark of a criminal record on their profiles. It is important that prison is a time of creating change in tendencies rather than a thoughtless punishment.

    “Orange is the New Black” has taken a large step in raising awareness for prisoner treatment and living conditions. But, there is still much progress to be made to ensure that prisoners are treated humanely and not like animals without any rights.

    Minju is a freshman in LAS.

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