Cruel and Usual Punishment for Prisoners

Ideas and Issues

Pearl River      Just when you might think things can’t get any worse, it turns out you don’t know half of it.  At least, that’s how I felt visiting with Professor Nick Zaller on Wade’s World.  Zaller is a well-regarded and oft-cited researcher and professor of public health at the University of Arkansas Medical Sciences (UAMS) complex.  He specializes in the intersection of public health, infectious diseases, including HIV and the impact of the opioid crisis, and the criminal justice system.  At this intersection, there isn’t a stop sign, but a skull-and-crossbones!

I had read a blurb in the Arkansas papers some months ago when he was calling for the governor of Arkansas, Asa Hutchinson, to follow through on the speedy release of over 1200 prisoners due to the coronavirus epidemic.  He was gently gigging the governor.  The outside of the sandwich was praise for the release, but the inside was disappointment that at that time only 25% of those prisoners had actually been released.  Now with more than six-months of the pandemic under our belts and all over our bodies, I reached out to see what he saw as the state of affairs on this mess.

It wasn’t pretty.  Because the data is sketchy, Zaller was not sure that now, months and months later, that any more than the first 25% had been released.  Meanwhile, he cited the fact that nationally 100,000 prisoners have contracted Covid-19 and, as disturbingly, 25,000 prison staff members.  Prison confinement, he noted, is obviously the opposite of social distancing, but even with those physical constraints, the slowness of providing PPE to prisoners and staff and changing behaviors in line with basic public health precautions advocated now, have exacerbated the issues.

The real fix in Zaller’s view required expenditures, including in the very infrastructure of the prison system, where in Arkansas, typical of so many Southern states, legislators don’t want to spend the money, even as the costs of captivity increase.  Meanwhile the prisons try to be self-sufficient even while providing prison labor for free.  The end result, as Zaller noted, was that Lincoln County south of Little Rock, where the giant Cummins prison is located, was one of the top ten virus hot spots nationally, and the worst in the state, not only inside the walls, but outside as the guards went back in the community.  The horror of the Arkansas system was once again a national scandal and featured in a New Yorker article which made the case that a prison sentence in Arkansas was now a death sentence no matter the crime.  Sadly, the pandemic has proven that incarceration in Arkansas and elsewhere is simply cruel and usual punishment, regardless of the classic prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment.”

It was impossible not to ask Professor Zaller how it felt as a public health expert to find oneself simultaneously in the pandemic on both the public’s list of heroes for many and the right wing’s enemy list for others.  Once that door was opened, the soapbox was large enough for both of us, as Zaller called for the simple, common sense, classically American practice to value and protect the community when threatened, not just to fly the pirate flag of “my way or the highway.”

At 100,000 watts, I hope everyone was listening both in front and behind the bars.