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SCOTUS Justices Push Congress For Reform Of 'Inhumane' Prison System

“In many respects, I think it’s broken,” Kennedy said of the corrections system.
SCOTUS Justices Push Congress For Reform Of 'Inhumane' Prison System

Our prison system is so deeply inhumane that I wonder how anyone comes out of prison and stays out of trouble. Happily, just as we saw with same-sex marriage, support seems to be building for prison reform. (One of the big discussions in progressive circles is whether we can productively work with conservatives on this issue.) It certainly helps to have Supreme Court justices pushing things along. Via Think Progress:

The prisons are one of the most misunderstood institutions of government. Solitary confinement drives individuals insane. And mandatory minimum sentences are a bad idea. These were the assertions of U.S. Supreme Court Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer in testimony before a House Appropriations subcommittee Monday afternoon.

Asked by Rep. Steve Womack (R-AR) about United States “capacity to deal with people with our current prison and jail overcrowding,” each justice gave an impassioned response in turn, calling on Congress to make things better.

“In many respects, I think it’s broken,” Kennedy said of the corrections system. He lamented lawyer ignorance on this phase of the justice system:

I think, Mr. Chairman, that the corrections system is one of the most overlooked, misunderstood institutions we have in our entire government. In law school, I never heard about corrections. Lawyers are fascinated with the guilt/innocence adjudication process. Once the adjudication process is over, we have no interest in corrections. doctors know more about the corrections system and psychiatrists than we do. Nobody looks at it.

California, my home state, had 187,000 people in jail at a cost of over $30,000 a prisoner. compare the amount they gave to school children, it was about $3,500 a year. Now, this is 24-hour care and so this is apples and oranges in a way. And this idea of total incarceration just isn’t working. and it’s not humane.

Kennedy, traditionally considered the swing vote among the current set of justices, recalled a recent case before the U.S. Supreme Court in which the defendant had been in solitary confinement for 25 years, and “lost his mind.”

“Solitary confinement literally drives men mad,” he said. He pointed out that European countries group difficult prisoners in cells of three or four where they have human contact, which “seems to work much better.” He added that “we haven’t given nearly the study, nearly enough thought, nearly enough investigative resources to looking at our correction system.”


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Kennedy’s comments come just weeks after a federal review of U.S. solitary confinement policy also found that the United States holds more inmates in solitary confinement than any other developed nation. Confinement typically involves isolation in an often windowless cell with a steel door for 23 hours a day, with almost no human contact. The treatment has been found to have a psychological impact in as many as a few days, though, as Justice Kennedy pointed out, many are held for decades. In the wake of the new report, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) called upon the Federal Bureau of Prisons to alter its practices.

In his response, Breyer honed in on Womack’s use of the word “priorities” to suggest that prioritizing long prison sentences was not the best use of resources.

“Do you want to have mandatory minimums? I’ve said publicly many times that i think that’s a terrible idea,” Breyer said. “And I’ve given reasons, which I’ll spare you.”

“Is it worth your time on earth, or mine, to try to work out ways of prioritizing? I think it is,” Breyer said. “I think it is a big problem for the country. and so I can’t do anything more in the next minute or 30 seconds other than say i like the word prioritize. I hope you follow it up.

And i hope do you examine the variety of ways that there of trying to prioritize and then work out one that’s pretty good.”

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