The litany of horrifying accounts of abuse and neglect is not news to me. Neither is it unique to Nebraska. Far from it; most prisons in America are out of control hell holes, and the refusal by officials to acknowledge and fix this is a national disgrace. READ Prison Abuse – Why Massive Indifference is a Massive Mistake
A prison holding more than three times as many people as it was designed to house. Another prison repeatedly wracked by deadly riots. Prisoners suffering injury, disability, and death because they are denied basic medical care. These conditions exist not in the distant past or in some impoverished or totalitarian nation, but in the US state of Nebraska in 2017.
On Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union and our partners are filing suit to halt the human rights crisis in Nebraska’s prisons. The lawsuit is a horrifying account of a profoundly broken system. One prisoner died of a heart attack, ignored for weeks despite his obvious symptoms.
Another went blind after being denied adequate treatment for his diabetes. Prisoners with mental illness are warehoused in solitary confinement, exacerbating their suffering and increasing their risk of self-mutilation and suicide. And those with disabilities are denied the most basic accommodations, resulting in their exclusion from education, parole, and other prison programs.
Nebraska prisons are very dangerous places for both prisoners and staff. In the last two years alone, riots have left four prisoners dead and multiple staff members injured. Another prisoner was killed by his cellmate after the two were locked together in an isolation cell.
The primary cause of all these problems is the extreme overcrowding in Nebraska’s prisons. The system as a whole is at close to 160% of its capacity, with four prisons at close to 200% of capacity and one at a staggering 302%. The entire system has been severely overcrowded for more than a decade, and the problem has gotten steadily worse.
What do these numbers mean in concrete terms?
Every prison is designed to hold a certain number of prisoners – it has enough cells, enough medical facilities, enough toilets, enough exercise space – for that number. As that capacity is exceeded, critical systems are increasingly stressed, and at some point, they break down completely. There aren’t enough bunks, so prisoners have to sleep on the floor. Communicable diseases like tuberculosis emerge and spread. Toilets, sinks, showers break down from overuse. Tempers flare as more and more prisoners are crammed into a fixed space, and violence increases, both among prisoners and between prisoners and officers. The prison becomes a nightmare for everyone.
Nebraska is a textbook case of this deadly phenomenon.
It’s well established that severe overcrowding violates the US Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments. In 2011, the US supreme court heard a case involving California’s prisons. Although the California system is significantly larger, the level of crowding in California then was similar to that in Nebraska now.
The court found that severe overcrowding increased violence, promoted the spread of disease, and made it impossible to deliver minimally adequate medical and mental health care. “Needless suffering and death,” the court concluded, “have been the well-documented result.” The court ordered California to dramatically reduce the level of crowding in its prisons; we’re seeking a similar order in Nebraska.
But it’s not just US law that is violated when prisons are filled far beyond their capacity. The United States has ratified the United Nations Convention against Torture, which prohibits torture as well as cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. The Committee against Torture, which monitors compliance with the Convention, has recognized that prison overcrowding can amount to prohibited ill-treatment or even torture.
Fortunately, solutions are readily at hand. When the prison population reaches 140% of capacity, Nebraska law allows the governor to declare an emergency and release prisoners who are eligible for parole. States as diverse as New Jersey, Alaska, and Mississippi have dramatically cut their prison populations by reducing sentences for minor drug offenses and taking other commonsense steps. There’s no reason Nebraska can’t do the same – more than one-third of its prisoners are nonviolent offenders who could be safely managed in other settings.
Litigation isn’t the best way of reforming large, complex institutions like prisons. It’s often slow, cumbersome, and needlessly adversarial. It’s far better when government officials take seriously their responsibility to protect the health, safety, and human dignity of the prisoners in their custody. But when those officials turn a blind eye to dangerous and degrading conditions, it’s time for the courts to step in to protect the fundamental human rights of all.
This Story was sent to me by our friend, Susan Boshea.