Looking out: The family basement

Issue 

The family basement

"Prison guards beat a convicted thief and stepped on his penis during a search of the Wayne Correctional Institution last week, the inmate told his father." — Rhonda Cook, staff writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Prisons debase and brutalise society. When a society removes some of its members and incarcerates them, for a long or short period of time, that society has a responsibility — if not to those removed members, then to itself — to make those members or itself better.

Prisons would not debase and brutalise if they were staffed with intelligent, rational and emotionally mature human beings. I am not suggesting that all prisons' staff members are unintelligent, irrational and emotionally immature. I am saying unequivocally, though, that you are more apt to find ignorance, irrational and emotionally immature behaviour demonstrated within the ranks of prison staff.

It is my opinion that you cannot make a society safe or secure with unintelligent, irrational and emotionally immature behaviour. Nevertheless, it is that kind of behaviour that builds, administrates and operates most prisons. It is fear of precisely that kind of behaviour that causes societies to build prisons. The irony in that is chilling.

It takes a very intelligent human being to humanely and fairly treat another human being whose past behaviour has been demonstrably vile (in the criminal sense) with emotional detachment and dignity, especially if he wields power over that human being, as a corrections officer wields over a prisoner. Some officers quietly brag among themselves, "I'm going to make him wish he was dead!" The prisoner's humanity, in the eyes of that correctional officer, is hidden in a fog of the prisoner's crime(s).

In Australia, according to the Sun Herald, January 4, "Black death in custody No 1 for 1996. Statistic No 52 since 1991 ..." is a classic example. Had the deceased young man been under a "suicide watch", i.e. had he been the subject of intelligent and close professional supervision and scrutiny, he would no doubt be alive today.

Reg Day, the president of the Prison Officers Union at the Stuart Jail (in response to that death) said, "We might not like these people, might not like what they've done, but it's always a terrible shock when one of them dies. It is always a tragedy to lose a human life, even when that person may have committed a terrible crime."

Day may well be that one out of 10 corrections officers who are intelligent, rational and emotionally mature enough to sincerely mean what he said. However, the next nine of his colleagues could easily see that death as one less of "them" to have to deal with. And the outrageously disproportionate number of Aboriginal men in Australia's prisons and jails assures those nine colleagues that an endless supply of "them" will provide long-range job security.

If you doubt my words about prisons debasing and brutalising society, then consider the following information gleaned from the Rome newspaper Repubblica. After watching a television news account of an execution by hanging in the USA, a 12-year-old boy sat down to have dinner with his family in Parma. At the dinner table he asked his father if people suffered when they hanged. Later that evening the lifeless body of the boy was found, hanging from a rope he had attached to the pipes in the ceiling downstairs in the family basement.
[The writer is a prisoner on death row in the United States. He is happy to answer letters commenting on his columns. He can be written to at: Brandon Astor Jones, EF-122216, G2-51, GD&CC, PO Box 3877, Jackson, GA 30233, USA. Brandon's childhood autobiography is available in booklet form for $16, including postage. Every cent raised will go towards defending his life. Please make cheques payable to the Brandon Astor Jones Defence Account and post to 10 Palara Place, Dee Why NSW 2099. Donations to the Brandon Astor Jones Defence Account may be made at any Commonwealth Bank, account no 2127 1003 7638.]