Monday, June 10, 2013

Federal vs. State Prison Conditions

Yesterday's afternoon saw a story by Andrew Cohen of The Atlantic about recent scandals of inmate abuse and neglect in four states.

First, on May 22, the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department released a report highlighting the unconstitutional conditions of a county prison in Florida. Then, on May 30th, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit alleging atrocious conditions at a state prison in Mississippi. One day later, the feds again sounded out on behalf of inmates, this time against profound abuse and neglect at a Pennsylvania prison. Finally, last week, a federal judge issued an order describing the unconstitutional "brutality" of the prison in Orleans Parish, Louisiana.

There were many common themes in the reports. In each instance, the mistreatment of mentally ill inmates was highlighted. Prison officials have failed to provide a constitutional level of care in virtually every respect, from providing medication and treatment to protecting the men from committing suicide. In the Louisiana court order, one prison expert is quoted by the judge as describing an "extraordinary and horrific" situation with the prison there. In the Florida investigation, federal investigators noted that local prison officials "have elected to ignore obvious and serious systemic deficiencies" in the jail's mental health services.

Cohen asks why federal authorities are not investigating similar abuses occurring in federal institutions. I think it may be easier for the feds to investigate and regulate state institutions than their own. And yet, lawsuits regarding abuse in federal institutions are constantly filed, such as here and here. This USA Today story, written from the perspective of white collar criminals, suggests that, while federal institutions are safer, some state institutions offer benefits such as visits. The differences in conditions may have much to do with the population in both institutions, which differs according to type of offense, as seen from the BJS pie charts above.

The bottom line is that it is very difficult to make generalizations on the differences between systems when there are so many institutions. The variation in conditions within each system may be greater than the difference between the systems. And, therefore, Cohen's point that the abuses in some of them closely resemble those in state institutions is well taken.

Props to Heather Kelly and to Ben Fleury-Steiner for the link.

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