Capital Offenses

By the

September 6, 2001

The college years of anyone’s life are not usually associated with a remarkable degree of law-abiding behavior. Nor should they necessarily be; if you think you might reach a point where you will look back and wish you had committed more misdemeanors, moving violations, felonies, etc., then you may as well do them now. Please just don’t hurt anyone.

But there really are a lot of good reasons to keep your behavior within bounds. In particular, you want to avoid D.C. jails. Hopefully you already planned on this; maybe a parent or another elder offered this advice, accompanied only by a knowing shake of the head and a long stare somewhere into the past.

Events of the past few months really don’t speak well for prisons here in D.C. Last May, groups of suspended high-school students sent to the D.C. jail for deterrence-style field trips were subjected to humiliating, invasive strip searches at the hands of guards. The jail did eventually take action, and so far several administrators have been suspended.

Life inside the prisons, not surprisingly, is even less pleasant. A random search of the D.C. jail for contraband and weapons in June turned up plenty. The guards found eight shivs, knives prisoners fashion from whatever metal they have at their disposal, down from the 30 found during the previous search. Less threatening stashes of prison moonshine and pharmaceuticals turned up as well. The moonshine may not sound so bad, but no one wants to encounter a shiv.

More recently, the D.C. correctional facility made an unforgivable slip-up. Stanley Heard, deaf, unable to talk and diagnosed with schizophrenia, was held in the D.C. jail’s psychiatric ward for over two years despite the fact that charges against him were dropped. The prison mistook his identity, and through a series of bureaucratic foul-ups, managed to completely lose track of him.

Bureaucratic backlogs like the one surrounding Heard’s fate are quite common in D.C. prisons. There isn’t enough space in prison for inmates, or for parolees in halfway houses. The lack of halfway house space is especially troubling, because inmates who would normally be granted parole are forced to remain in prison, despite having served sufficient time.

The current judicial system’s penchant for fighting crime by making those convicted spend more and more time in prisons, which often turn out to further criminalize them, needs to end. By hopefully handling inmates in a more humane and rehabilitative fashion, crime could be curbed while the U.S. prison population would become more manageable. Sadly, this step is most likely a long way off.

Any real reform of the D.C. correctional system would most likely first require that more facilities be built so that the system can gain room to breathe. Regardless of how one feels about sentencing, parole and other issues surrounding The United States’ huge prison population, the D.C. system cannot be expected to undergo fundamental reform until it can at least manage adequately to handle the prisoners who have already been sentenced there.

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