Friday, April 24, 2015

Cellmate Compatibility: Why Not?

According to media reports, California state prisoners are killed at a rate that doubles the national average [update: I'm not sure this is true, having looked at the numbers more recently]. A sensible proposition has been made--and rejected: The Merced Sun-Star reports:

The department will not reinstate a policy dropped 15 years ago that required potential sensitive needs cellmates to fill out a compatibility form before they are housed together, Ralph Diaz, acting deputy director for adult institutions, told a Senate budget subcommittee.

Sex offenders, former gang members and other vulnerable inmates are placed in special sensitive needs housing for their protection.

However, the inspector general and an analysis by The Associated Press published in February found that a disproportionate number of homicide victims were sensitive needs inmates.

The compatibility forms help officials assess whether inmates can live peacefully together. They are required for inmates housed together in other segregated living units, and Sen. Loni Hancock said they should be required for sensitive needs inmates as well.

"We do look for inmates who we feel should not be celling with others," Diaz testified. However, he said using the forms for sensitive needs and general population inmates would be too cumbersome and the department's current process can appropriately address housing concerns.

There are two ways of viewing this debate. One is through the usual old-skool impasse between carceral discourse and rights discourse. The other, however, is cost-oriented. CDCR is refusing to reinstate this policy because it believes that it would needlessly complicate its operations; Senator Hancock thinks that the costs in lives and healthcare offset these considerations.

This debate is an example of a situation in which a prison is not really sui generis. In any other setting, in which people are thrown together--especially in total institutions--it's best if they spend time in close quarters with people with whom they can get along. This is not merely a matter of finding the roomie's company enjoyable; it's about preventing exploitation, abuse, and conflict.

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