Cruel and Unusual: How We Punish The Innocent


It seems that very few people have actually given a great deal of thought to the horrors and even I daresay the injustices of our prison system. Never mind their lack of effectiveness and often their tendency to make the matter of crime worse. People are imprisoned for victimless crimes and sometimes crimes they didn’t commit. Often their crime was little more than a simple mistake or a series of even simpler mistakes that signed their life away for no other reason than that they became numerous resulting in the harshest of sentences handed down from an exasperated and often overwhelmed court system. Too frequently a college-age kid will enter the prison system and graduate a career criminal when his or her crime was as harmless as smoking pot or simply being out on foot drunk after being forced to leave a bar at a certain time (generally between 2-3 AM). One may also be charged for serious offenses of the criminal nature for no other reason than that they violated a moral code, perhaps as a consenting adult offering an erotic experience to another consenting adult in exchange for monetary compensation. These harmless individuals are locked away with murderers, rapists, and members of criminal gangs and other organized crime groups. These groups operate either inside or outside prison walls and in most cases both. They will learn the tricks of the trade, they will be socially influenced by their more experienced fellow inmates, and in most cases, they will be branded for life making honest employment impossible. Who was harmed in the process of the crimes they committed? No one but the perpetrators themselves have suffered any real harm, and not even at their own hands but at the hands of a ruthless and merciless state.

Two questions are begged in the case of prosecuting individuals for victimless crimes:

1. Is it Justified?
2. What good does it do?


The answer to either question would seem to suggest that this is both an unjust and inefficient way for government to serve its citizens. Indeed, by overcrowding our prisons with the innocent and limiting their ability to deal with the guilty among us, they do us a great disservice, but there’s more!

According to the guidelines of due process found in the constitution all individuals are to be considered innocent until they are proven through a trial by an impartial jury to be guilty. Despite this many of America’s jails are filled with people with trials pending, meaning that they have been proven guilty of nothing. This same document protects us from cruel and unusual punishment, yet what could more cruel, not to mention unusual than punishing and falsely imprisoning the innocent?

These individuals will face a humiliating entry process, deplorable living conditions, forced cohabitation with dangerous individuals who have been proven guilty, and may even possibly lose their jobs due to missed time and their reputations will suffer despite a “Not Guilty” verdict. Worst of all, however, they will not be able to receive a fair trial. It is much more difficult to arrange meetings with legal counsel, to conduct proper research (especially when denied the use of the internet in today’s digital world) and to be exposed to the evidence presented against them while enjoying a strictly controlled life behind bars.

Despite this, the innocent are forcefully detained by armed men, forced into cages with murderers and rapists to share in their punishments and to become their victims, and of course held for ransom, also known as “bail”. If you or I did this to another human being we would be considered criminals and charged with kidnapping, but when the government does it is called the “prison system”.

As we discussed earlier we are protected by the constitution, even if convicted of a crime, from cruel and unusual punishment. The system is cruel at best and in the punishments, they employ sometimes quite unusual. People in prisons, despite people’s belief that they sit around and watch TV and it’s a grand old time, are often deprived of many basic human needs, and treated as less than animals.

I once talked to a young man who worked at one of the state prisons here in PA. His job was to supervise the inmates who worked in the facility’s kitchen. Most of the boxes containing the kitchen’s food supplies, he explained, always reads: “Not for human consumption.

Prisoners are generally kept in their cells or kept busy with work details. There is usually only an hour of rec time offered, and if prisoners are lucky this may be enjoyed outside in a yard where they may catch a glimpse of the sky and maybe even a little bit of the outside world. Showering and basic bathroom facilities along with the prison itself are often anything but hygienic and sanitary. Most prisoners report living in a world of many offensive odors. Phone time is severely limited and is only available if families living in poverty are able to afford the burden of accepting collect calls. Visitation times are short and usually enjoyed from behind a Plexiglas window. If visitors are allowed in the room with their loved ones behind bars their interactions are limited, especially in the realm of physical affection. They may enjoy one or even two short hugs but beyond that, there are no physical interactions. Even the holding of hands between a loving husband and wife may draw harsh rebuke and even a visit cut short from a stern corrections officer.

Already we can see then that prisoners are deprived of four primal needs: the need for basic hygiene and health, the need for basic nutrition and nourishment, the need for stimulation, and finally the need for love. Read that last one very carefully. Let it sink in. Inmates are deprived by the government, of love! Love, the most basic human of needs. What could be more cruel and unusual than that?

All this and we wonder why so many who leave these prison halls are so quick to return more hardened and more bitter than ever before. All this, and in too many cases it’s being done to those convicted of no crime, proven of no wrongdoing, and under the guidelines of the constitution are therefore innocent.

What justice is there in so cruelly, and in so unusually punishing the innocent of this nation?

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