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The Problems in Our Prisons

In December, Joseph Bernstein wrote about his weekend at prison-riot camp, where he was introduced to new technologies and tactics to suppress uprisings in prisons, whose populations have exploded over the past four decades. At least one prison in Florida and all the state prisons in Colorado impounded the December issue, flagging Bernstein’s article as “dangerously inflammatory” because it “reveals methods used for crowd control and extraction.” Some prisons, however, did deliver the issue to inmates. Here, two incarcerated readers share their reactions.

Thank you for Joseph Bernstein’s vivid and thoughtful essay. I appreciated the honest look at some of the training practices employed in the correctional community. However, I found it hard to believe the presumption that riot-suppression training is responsible for reducing prison riots despite the increased prisoner population. To the contrary, I am more inclined to think that rioting has decreased exactly because of the increase in population.

I have been a guest of the Michigan Department of Corrections for less than seven years and am by no means an expert in rioting, but my more senior comrades are often quick to point out that the prisoner population has gone “soft.” As Bernstein hinted, prisons are filled with many nonviolent offenders lately, people who previously would have had no business behind bars. Thirty years ago, prisons were reserved for hardened career criminals, who, compared with today’s inmates, were much more inclined to turn to organized violence as a problem-solving technique. Modern inmates are not only less prone to violence, but also more likely to employ peaceful means of expressing grievances, or to simply avoid making problems, so they can get home sooner.

If correctional officers can take credit for reduced violence, it’s because of their training to avoid the use of force whenever possible and to treat their wards with the respect and dignity any human being deserves. Beyond their training in physical control, they also are experienced in addressing complaints through diplomatic communication and rational problem-solving, so problems can be resolved long before they turn into riots.

Contrary to what some of Bernstein’s readers may infer, the vast majority of prisoners have no interest in rioting for the sake of violence: it is always considered a last resort, when unbearable problems cannot be resolved through other means. Given the opportunity to be heard as legitimate voices, prisoners can resolve many problems with staff simply by talking.

Finally, Bernstein is indeed correct that prison conditions, on average, have improved in the past few decades. Some cells are bigger, food can be described as nutritious by some standards, and the practice of turning video cameras on officers has significantly reduced abuses of power. We always remember, though, that conditions may deteriorate again: those larger cells are now housing twice as many inmates as was intended, food portions get smaller seemingly daily because of budget constraints, and staff corruption is never completely eliminated. For these reasons, we on the inside are constantly thankful for any public attention drawn to the issues we face every day.

Kenneth Gourlay
No. 641321
Cooper Street Correctional Facility
Jackson, Mich.

I took issue with this pro-corrections propaganda. Joseph Bernstein came across (to my admittedly jaded eye) as a wannabe cop, enamored with the pomp and comradeship of paramilitary organizations. He sheds crocodile tears while lamenting the fact that elite security squads might stifle the voices of mistreated prison inmates.

Bernstein highlights John Kingston, the Correctional Emergency Response Team commander from Pennsylvania who admits he does not like inmates and who, while ostensibly drilling his trainees on the importance of not harming inmates, encourages them during mock cell extractions by shouting “Drive him through the wall!”

That corrections officers suffer indignities while performing their duties is unquestionably true. However, the fallacy purported by Bernstein—that they suffer verbal and physical aggression and do nothing in response—is a non sequitur. Does anybody really believe that? Before you answer, consider this quote from the director of security for the West Virginia Division of Corrections: “What we do is behind walls.” All that innuendo lacks is a sly nod and a knowing wink. Spare me.

If Bernstein really would like an answer to the question “where and how are prisoners being mistreated today?,” he might want to consider interviewing prison inmates rather than prison officials.

Thomas Tinghino
No. 954070
Suwannee Correctional Institution Annex
Live Oak, Fla.

Neighborly Tolerance

In December, Ken Stern wondered, “Do Democrats Make Better Neighbors?” The question arose from a pledge recited by his own neighbors in Mount Pleasant, a prosperous Washington, D.C., enclave: “Gay or straight, woman or man, all are welcome—except for Republicans.”

Like Ken Stern, I live in Mount Pleasant, and I had an immediate reaction to his article. The Hobart Street pledge is a near-perfect expression of liberal intolerance. Note that the “diversity” liberals cherish is in the superficial: skin color, gender, sexual orientation—things that tell you nothing about a person’s values, morals, philosophy, talents, etc. Liberals love to see themselves as open-minded paragons of tolerance but in reality are utterly closed off from viewpoints outside their comfort zone.

Dominic Santini
Washington, D.C.

In order to give up your seat on a train or bus, you have to be taking a train or bus. In order to give food or money to someone in need, you have to encounter a person in need. In order to water someone’s plants, that person needs to have plants, and he probably has a yard.

I suspect some of these political issues reflect urban/suburban/rural differences, and possibly also gender/income/age differences.

abmodality
TheAtlantic.com comment

I think it’s safe to say that all of us, regardless of our political affiliation, tend to overestimate our moral virtues (and underestimate those of the opposing tribe).

cacambo
TheAtlantic.com comment

The best neighbors are the ones you can know for years without knowing what their political leanings are.

Horde56
TheAtlantic.com comment

Ken Stern replies:

I agree with my Mount Pleasant neighbor Dominic Santini that the Hobart Street pledge is a tidy example of rising political intolerance in our society. But I won’t sign up for his suggestion that this is a peculiarly liberal problem. Social-science research has consistently shown that “open-mindedness” is a strong liberal trait (there are plenty of positive conservative traits, but open-mindedness is not one of them), and I see little in actual practice that makes me think liberals are less tolerant than conservatives.

Let’s just agree that our neighborhoods could all use a little more tolerance and compassion, from both ends of the political spectrum.

Capturing War

In “The War No Image Could Capture” (December), Deborah Cohen argued that while most other conflicts are represented by a single, iconic photograph, the vast horror of the First World War proved all but impossible to capture on film.

I have spent two years refuting most of what Deborah Cohen argues by working on an IMAX film about the Battle of the Somme. I find most of Ms. Cohen’s essay ill-informed and poorly researched.

World War I was a massive war that enveloped so many nations as to make a single iconic photo ridiculous to even suggest. I do not even think any American Civil War image has risen to iconic status, but if one has, what is its real importance? Does the American flag–raising on Iwo Jima (done more than once for the cameras) represent World War II to, say, Russians? French? Germans? Or does only the American viewpoint matter as to what becomes iconic and what does not?

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