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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?

So many photos of World War I have the quality of iconic status, I would not know where to start: German prisoners carrying French wounded down a road through a wasteland; Vietnamese soldiers in straw hats fighting in France; or perhaps Japanese children playing beside German officers who were taken to Japan and marched down a dirt road for, one can only assume, their own humiliation. Why one iconic image when there are so many?

While the British photographers were controlled and few, the French and Germans took thousands of amateur 2‑D and 3‑D photos. Had Cohen looked through the catalogue of rejected negatives from the “official” photographers, she would have seen that they spared no punches when capturing despair and death. These photos were never shown at home, but they were taken. Considering that the American government spent years pretending dead Americans in Iraq shouldn’t be photographed, it is hardly surprising that most government censors felt the same in 1916.

Most important, the bungle that was the Battle of the Somme started prematurely thanks to a photographer. At 7:20 a.m., a massive mine at Hawthorn Ridge was blown up under the German lines and captured on film. For nearly 100 years, historians have been puzzled as to why the mine exploded several minutes before it should have, never realizing that it was so the cinematographer and photographers could capture the detonation while not being exposed to enemy fire after the “official” start of battle. This moment, shown over and over in films and in books, has become one of the most iconic images of WWI, representing a battle that was the world’s costliest and certainly one of the best covered.

Jonathan Kitzen
Venice, Calif.

DEBORAH COHEN REPLIES:

I agree with Jonathan Kitzen, of course, that there are many affecting and graphic pictures of the First World War. One of the books I was reviewing, The Great War: A Photographic Narrative, includes 380 of the nearly half million photographs held by the Imperial War Museums, among the largest archives of World War I photos in the world. I also recognize that any individual may decide, as Kitzen has done, that some photographs possess “the quality of iconic status.”

But I was addressing a different question. Why is it that none of these photos has achieved that emblematic status, as has been the case with photos from other wars in the 20th century? Just as important, I asked why it is that the most enduring images of the First World War—especially in the English-speaking world—come from literature (particularly poetry), not photography.

The First World War is the last great conflict in which words still spoke louder than pictures.

Are We Living Longer?

A reader clarifies a point in Joe Pinsker’s November infographic, “Die Another Day.”

Showing that life expectancy at birth has increased from about 40 in 1880 to about 79 in 2012 is misleading. Most people assume those figures prove that we oldsters are living much longer today.

The truth is far different. The life expectancy of a 70-year-old today is just three or four years longer than it was in 1900. Living to old age is not new: four of our first six presidents lived into their 80s, and one reached 90. The primary reasons for the huge increase in overall longevity are the elimination of many, often fatal, childhood diseases, and better maternity care, which has resulted in far fewer deaths at birth. In 1900, many children were born at home with poor care. A young child’s death has a dramatic effect on the overall averages. Recent medical improvements do, of course, play a role—they are the reasons for the slight increase in the longevity of 70-year-olds.

What about the proliferation of retirement communities and nursing homes—isn’t that proof that we are living much longer? Actually, that is far more the result of recent societal changes than of increased longevity. Years ago, oldsters were cared for in their homes, by their children. Family structure was far less mobile then; many people spent their entire lives in the house where they were born. The young, out of necessity, cared for the old, in their homes.

Dan Landis
Broomall, Pa.

CENSORING LITERATURE


In a November dispatch, Jonathan Rauch wrote “The Case for Hate Speech,” arguing, “If a society is open to robust critical debate, you can look at a tape of its moral and intellectual development over time and know which way it is running: usually toward … a wider circle of dignity and toleration.” Having absorbed this message, one reader was especially attuned to a missing word elsewhere in the November issue.

“The Case for Hate Speech,” by Jonathan Rauch, and “The Passion of Flannery O’Connor,” by James Parker, resonated in my mind for days.

A few weeks ago, I posted on Facebook the last two pages or so of O’Connor’s “Revelation,” my favorite of all her stories. But before I posted my excerpt, and after some painfully labored self-debate, I edited out her use of the N-word. Mr. Parker did the same while quoting from “Revelation,” writing, “Mrs. Turpin has a vision: a cavalcade moving toward the crack of heaven, a ‘vast horde of souls’ led by ‘white trash, clean for the first time in their lives.’ ” But while we both sanitized O’Connor’s writing by removing the N-word from our quotations, neither he nor I removed the slur white trash.

I never winced at all when I posted that term, but I wondered whether Ms. O’Connor, if she were writing today, would still use the N-word or any number of slurs that reverberate in what has been identified as our “hate speech” vernacular, be they offensive terms for blacks or for Hispanics or American Indians or the physically and mentally challenged or gays or coal miners or cotton millers or any other minority who suffers from and is subject to discriminatory animus.

At that point, I reread the Rauch article. Without question, the answer to hate speech is not silence, but more speech, lively and robust debate to debunk biases and prejudices that cannot withstand the raw pressure of reason.

Society has in many instances progressed. However, in progressing, society sometimes seeks to muzzle completely the old brigade’s “mistaken” views, a rewriting, if not of history itself, then of language and ideas embedded in antiquated ages. In schools, books—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for instance—are removed from reading lists because this or that word is deemed offensive by concerned citizens.

As O’Connor writes, “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.” Richard Pryor did this, using the N-word during most of his career. Late in life, he had an epiphany and vowed never to use the word again. But that was a decision he as an artist made himself; it was not a mandate imposed on him by the speech police. No one forced political correctness on him. When artists cannot speak and create freely, society is more likely to become stagnant.

Being at heart a geriatric hippie, I close with a lyric from Kristofferson, taken from “Jesus Was a Capricorn”: “Some folks hate the Whites who hate the Blacks who hate the Klan / Most of us hate anything that we don’t understand.”

John R. Dennis
Summerville, Ga.

James Parker replies:

I am grateful to John Dennis for his close reading of my column, and for the points he raises. I did indeed excise the word nigger from the quotation that I used, because it’s an eyesore and a distraction, and this is the 21st century. I probably shouldn’t have done it, the discreet censorship of posterity being possibly the last thing Flannery O’Connor would have wanted.

ADVICE AND CONSENT

In “The Little Town That Might” (January/February), James Fallows spent some time in Eastport, Maine, the “easternmost point in the United States.”

I would like to correct a geographical inaccuracy: the easternmost point in the U.S. is not in Maine at all; it is in Alaska. The 180th meridian of longitude divides east from west and runs through the Aleutian Islands. So, in Alaska, one could stand facing north with one’s left foot on the easternmost point in the U.S. and one’s right foot on the westernmost. The dateline, however, zigzags, to keep political subdivisions in the same time zone. Thus, although Maine is not the easternmost place in the U.S., it sees the sun before Alaska on any given day.

John Godfrey
Beverly, Mass.

CORRECTION


Due to an editing error, Liza Mundy’s “The Daddy Track” (January/February) incorrectly stated that New Jersey and Rhode Island offer 12 and 13 weeks of paid leave, respectively, to new mothers and fathers. In fact, New Jersey offers six weeks of paid leave and Rhode Island offers four.

To contribute to The Conversation, please e-mail letters@theatlantic.com. Include your full name, city, and state.

The Big Question: Readers Respond to the December Issue

What was the worst year in history?

380 a.d.: the Roman Empire officially changed its stance on religious tolerance.

— @MikeSkogmo

1348: the Black Death reached Europe and eventually killed about a third of the Continent’s population.

— @thetomzone

1492: the beginning of European imperialism and the near-total destruction and enslavement of entire cultures and peoples

— @CAC1291

1619: slaves brought to America

— @LauraLundahl

1652: Jan van Riebeeck arrived in South Africa.

— @ndulinde_native

1857 and 1896: Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson cemented racism against blacks into law.

— @zachap2

1871: German unification destabilized Europe and led to catastrophe.

— @JohnJenkins36

1915: Armenian genocide began, and became the model for all subsequent genocides, including the Holocaust, Rwanda, Darfur, etc.

— @daddykool

1930: by then, the entire world was involved in the Great Depression, which lasted at least until World War II started.

— @OnlineCollegeDB

1933: Hitler became chancellor and everything changed.

— @SuburbanSpirit

1939 is a good candidate: the start of World War II and the defeat of the Spanish Republic.

— @jjccash

1945: Hiroshima and Nagasaki showed the devastation humans are capable of.

— @Tingwall

1959: The Day the Music Died

— @BryanBumgardner

1968: deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, first year of Tet Offensive, election of Nixon, Democratic National Convention riots

— @gabeperez26

1977: height of the disco era *shudders*

— @HollysHere

Has to be 1995. Hootie and the Blowfish had a No. 1 album. Those were dark days.

— @DanielPWWood

2001, the worst year in U.S. history: we lost our Constitution.

— @DrakePertuit

2010: Haiti earthquake left more than 200,000 dead and 2 million homeless.

— @HARDILAZIZ

2013, when #selfie was word of the year and eclipsed baseball as America’s favorite pastime

— @kathryniskate

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