Violence Behind Bars: The Hidden Abuse

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Illustration by DonkeyHotey via Flickr

Joshua Fields was sentenced to a decade in federal prison for a stream of burglaries, but the U.S. Bureau of Prisons flagged him as a sex offender because of a corrections official’s mischaracterization of a domestic violence police report.

His experience behind bars was awful. He experienced several brutal beatings, as well as “harassment, seclusion, threats, transfers, and other hardships.”

He was denied access to mental health and drug rehabilitation programs because prison officials stuck him in a “secure housing unit” — a euphemism for solitary confinement, itself a form of torture according to the United Nations — for his own physical safety.

That inspired U.S. District Court Judge Landya McCafferty, an Obama appointee and former public defender in New Hampshire, to strike two years from his sentence, despite calling him a danger to the community.

Fields deserves the sentencing reduction, no doubt.

But the framing of his predicament is all wrong.

No physical abuse should be part of a prison sentence, even for prisoners whose crimes are heinous. Just as human rights organization Just Detention International argues “rape isn’t part of the penalty” for committing crimes, repeated physical beatings behind bars can never be part of a sentencing court’s punishment.

Correctional officers know this even before the first day on the job.

Job listings for correctional officers to be employed by the BOP explain that an officer’s duties include the “supervision, care and correctional treatment of inmates,” as well as “maintenance of institution security contributing to the health and welfare of the inmates.”

They also state that officers must enforce “rules and regulations governing facility security, inmate accountability and inmate conduct,” which may require the use of physical force to “maintain control of inmates.”

One prisoner sustaining at least four serious beatings from fellow prisoners over eight years of incarceration, or a beating every two years, is not the definition of control.

And establishing control should be pretty simple, thanks to the state of the law.

For one, prison officials enjoy supremely wide latitude in determining what information gets in or out to prisoners in their custody. In 2018, two different federal prisons banned free people from sending prisoners any books; while the policy was reversed, it was due to public outcry, not the law.

Federal prisoners also don’t get real access to the internet, unless they are illegally using contraband cellphones which are cause for discipline. What they do get is TRU-LINKS, essentially a stripped-down version of email that is heavily monitored. (Even federal prison staff are not guaranteed full internet access at work.)

Correctional officials are even able to censor parts of newspapers — for example, those involving the crimes committed by the people held in their prisons — without violating the First Amendment.

In Turner v. Safley, a 1987 Supreme Court case, the majority held that curtailing correspondence between prisoners is permitted when it is “reasonably related to legitimate penological objectives.” And in 2006, the high court decided in Beard v. Banks that disciplined prisoners can be denied newspaper access altogether.

Thus, the BOP can institute policies that make it hard, if not essentially impossible, for prisoners to determine what other prisoners are in for, at least factually speaking. And if all else fails, correctional officers can use physical force to keep order.

Are correctional officers employed by BOP allowing beatings of prisoners because they lack enough incentive to keep all prisoners safe, without resorting to solitary confinement, also known as torture?

That seems to be a plausible explanation.

After all, they receive qualified immunity as a default, unless “no reasonable correctional officer could have concluded that it was constitutionally permissible” to keep a prisoner in certain horrible conditions.

So-called “prison justice” isn’t justice; it’s violence. Indulging in it demonstrates a prisoner’s lack of desire to reform or rehabilitate. The BOP claims its correctional officers are also supposed to encourage rehabilitation.

Prisoners harmed by abuse behind bars, regardless of whether they are mislabeled as sex offenders, deserve reparations of some kind. In Canada, our closest peer nation, even the most hated of prisoners get meaningful legal redress—in the form of sentence reductions—when prison officials abuse them.

That is one strong policy option. Ideally, it would be considered when correctional officers aid and abet violence by willfully failing to prevent it as well.

Rory Fleming

Rory Fleming

If correctional officers cannot get qualified immunity when letting a prisoner sleep naked in excrement — as the Supreme Court decided earlier this year — they should not be able to get it for maintaining conditions that allow any prisoners to be easily maimed or mauled, either.

Rory Fleming is an attorney and writer who has worked for various criminal justice organizations, including the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, Harvard Law School Fair Punishment Project, and the National Network for Safe Communities. He writes from Philadelphia.

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