The Cost of Confinement

A glimpse inside America’s broken criminal justice system

Imagine waking up on a squeaky cot, in a twelve by seven foot cell. The smell of black mold and overflowing sewage fills the room. You’re thirsty, but your stomach and throat have been acting up and other inmates have reported it as well. Is it the water, the mold, or the sewage leaking from your toilet? You don’t know. But, you do know one thing — there is no escaping from it.

If you Google ‘the cost of confinement,’ you will get results that pertain to prison budgets, graphs, and political views. However, the cost of confinement is not simply limited to economics but also to human morality, ethics, and psychology. Through researching confinement, I have questioned not only how did the criminal justice system become so corrupt, but also why we are still using confinement as a form of punishment.

In these eight articles, I have been able to visualize and empathize with inmates’ stories and discover more about prison life. These authors discuss the effects of confinement economically, psychologically, and ethically. Through reading the nine articles, all from The New Yorker, I have gained a much better understanding of the past and present situations with America’s criminal justice system.


Atul Gawande. The New Yorker. 03. 30. 2009

In Atul Gawande’s article Hellhole, Gawande begins his article discussing a study done by Harry Harlow, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Harlow was interested in how isolation affects people. In his studies, he uses baby rhesus monkeys to test the effect of confinement in the 1950’s. Harlow bred monkeys and isolated them from birth. He noticed they were showing disturbed behavior. The monkeys would stare blankly into space, circle their cages, and mutilate themselves. In another study with monkeys, researchers discovered that one of six monkeys isolated for three months refused to eat after release and died five days later. These couple months of isolation diminished all the learned social skills the monkeys attained over their lifespan. This discovery was later seen in people, specifically prisoners in solitary confinement. Gawande discusses the roots and effects of confinement socially and psychologically, and alternative strategies that America can use in order to fix the increasing rate of incarceration.

Using research to add legitimacy to his point, Gawande discusses multiple studies that have been done involving the effects of confinement. For example, scientists have investigated the effects of solitary confinement on the brain from a psychological perspective. In the 1960’s, EEG studies showed slowing of brain waves in prisoners after a week or more of solitary confinement. According to Gawande, the research showed that without social interaction, the human brain is just as impaired as a brain that has had a traumatic injury to it.

“Everyone’s identity is socially created: it’s through your relationships that you understand yourself as a mother or a father, a teacher or an accountant, a hero or a villain. But, after years of isolation, many prisoners change in another way that Haney observed. They begin to see themselves primarily as combatants in the world, people whose identity is rooted in thwarting prison control.”

Without social interaction, most inmates could not find a purpose to live anymore. However, according to Gawande, researchers found that self-preservation and resistance were often used as the prisoner’s main source of sanity and purpose. However, this isn’t what society wants from prisoners in supermax prisons because the more the prisoner resists, the more punishment he or she may receive. It’s assumed that “prisoners who can’t handle the isolation are the ones that need to be in it for public safety.” So what can we do? Well, the primary argument for long term isolation in prisons is that it provides the prisoner with discipline — which in turn helps the safety of the public. Therefore, Gawande asks the question:

If prolonged isolation is — as research and experience have confirmed for decades — so objectively horrifying, so intrinsically cruel, how did we end up with a prison system that may subject more of our own citizens to it than any other country in history has?”

Of course, all countries have crime and violence. However, not all government’s approach the culprits punishment the same way. For example, the approach in Britain is to give the most dangerous prisoners more control and reduce their isolation by offering them work, education, and special programming opportunities. In turn, this benefits the prisoner because he or she will receive social interaction, mental health treatments, earn more exercise and phone calls. According to Gawande, it’s calculated that in all of England, there are fewer prisoners in solitary confinement than in solely the state of Maine.

Gawande’s references to past research and modern day strategies used by other countries to lower the rate of mass incarceration is important because the rate of incarceration is increasing in America and confinement is not benefitting society — its torturous and inhumane to its people. John McCain was referenced in Gawande’s article because he was a prisoner of war. John McCain stated:

“It’s an awful thing, solitary,” John McCain wrote of his five and a half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam — more than two years of it spent in isolation in a fifteen-by-fifteen-foot cell, unable to communicate with other P.O.W.s except by tap code, secreted notes, or by speaking into an enamel cup pressed against the wall. “It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.”

They found that social isolation is considered just as torturous than physical torture or abuse. Solitary robs a person of their personality, identity, and happiness. The research and statement’s Gawande uses to support his point provide empathy from the reader’s. His technique makes reader’s want to consider: Is this humane?

…“The Caging of America”

Adam Gopnik. The New Yorker. 01.30.2012

Adam Gopnik, in his article The Caging of America, discusses the cause of the high rate of incarceration in America. Prison has become a destination for people living in poor areas of America just as college is a destination for the elite or prestigious people. According to Gopnik, more than half of all black men without high school diplomas go to prison at some point in their lifetime. The rate of incarceration has tripled in America since 1980. So Gopnik asks, how did this happen? Why are there so many inmates? Gopnik traces the problem of incarceration all the way to the Bill of Rights:

The trouble with the Bill of Rights, he argues, is that it emphasizes process and procedure rather than principles. The Declaration of the Rights of Man says, Be just! The Bill of Rights says, Be fair! Instead of announcing general principles — no one should be accused of something that wasn’t a crime when he did it; cruel punishments are always wrong; the goal of justice is, above all, that justice be done — it talks procedurally.

Gopnik argues that the more professional and structuralized a system is, the more protected we become from its effects on people. Gopnik comes up with an alternative justice system: going into court and letting common sense, compassion, and empathy make the decision. A professor at Harvard Law school, William Stuntz, proposes that “the criminal law should once again be more like the common law, with judges and juries not merely finding fact but making law on the basis of universal principles of fairness, circumstance, and seriousness, and crafting penalties to the exigencies of the crime.” Nonetheless, the results of criminal law cases in court should be determined by ethics and fairness — not just determined from a procedural perspective.

Gopnik admits that the crime rates have definitely declined since solitary has been introduced. According to Gopnik, after solitary had been introduced to American prisons, the crime rate started to fall by forty per cent across the country. In New York City, it fell by eighty percent. It didn’t fall purely because people were being locked up but it fell because of strategies used by the government to help reduce crime. For example, the N.Y.P.D. put lots of police officers in areas of New York that were identified as dangerous places. In conclusion, solitary has helped the crime rate fall but whether or not its ethical is considered debatable to Gopnik.

…“The Meaning of Life Without Parole”

Clint Smith. The New Yorker. 02.08.2016

Massachusetts State prison

Clint Smith began his day by walking through the doors of the Massachusetts State prison. He teaches an English class there to sixteen inmates. As inmates, they are offered many activities to participate in — sports leagues, chess clubs, writing classes, ministries, and vocational courses. Smith teaches the writing class. The author and teacher discusses his student’s shared stories from years ago. He discusses the ethics behind putting a person away for life without parole for a crime they committed years ago. In Smith’s article, a quote stood out to me:

“It is easy to singularly define people by the worst thing that they have ever done, but it becomes more difficult to imagine what we would want the world to do if it were us.”

One of Smith’s students, an inmate by the name of Neal (changed for anonymity), did not want to be defined by one regretful decision he had made twenty years ago. He shared his story with the class. His father physically abused him, his brother, and his mother when he was a teenager. His mother tried to escape it by using crack cocaine but then eventually diminished. His school and family didn’t support him so he got involved with gangs and drug dealing — the people that would look out for him when no one else would. In the following years, Neal killed someone and was sentenced to life without parole. Twenty years have passed by, Neal is still serving his sentence. His crime haunts him every day — he speaks and writes of the victim’s family and cannot imagine what the victim’s family must be going through. Today, Neal participates in cognitive thinking programs, drug rehab, and PTSD treatment — trying to make a life for himself.

Smith discusses why men who have committed nonviolent drug crimes are still serving a sentence they received when they were just an adolescent. So, are people the same person they were twenty years ago? Smith references research that was completed years ago which found that the brain, more specifically the prefrontal cortex, only finishes developing when one reaches their mid-twenties. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that controls decision making and impulse control — an important role in crime and behavior. According to Smith, ten percent of incarcerated people are fifty-five and older. So, Smith discusses the question, is keeping these people locked up for crimes they committed years ago really helping society and public safety?

Neal had been surrounded by violence is whole life. Smith states that “poverty clouds judgement and restricts choices.” Neal did not know what else to do so he did what he thought was right for the people he knew cared about him. It’s our human nature to surround ourselves with people that we care about and that we think care about us. If there are no people to do that, what do we have left? Neal didn’t have anything. The importance of Smith’s article lies in Neal’s story: one decision, one mistake, should not determine our fate.

…“A Hundred Hungry Men at Guantanamo”

Amy Davidson. The New Yorker. 04.30.2013

On April 30th, 2013, Amy Davidson covers the hunger strike in Guantanamo in her article A Hundred Hungry Men at Guantanamo:

The Navy sent reinforcements to the prison there on Monday — forty medics, added to the cohort guarding a hundred and sixty-six prisoners, watching them in their cells, and, increasingly, pulling them into rooms where they are strapped to chairs and have rubber tubes stuck into their noses and snaked down to their stomachs, then pumping in a can’s worth of a liquid nutritional supplement.

Most of these prisoners at Guantanamo are not even considered a threat to the US Government anymore. There are more than a hundred men participating in the hunger strike at Guantanamo because they want justice. One released prisoner stated that “At Guantanamo, it seems, the less you have done, the more trapped you are.” Prisoner’s that have experienced this cruelty, who have been cleared for release, have not yet been released. These so called “prisoners” would rather die than to live another day in the prison. Wouldn’t you rather die than spend another day with a tube jammed up your nose into your stomach?

As Charlie Savage of the Times reported, the President of the American Medical Association has written to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel about “allegations of ongoing forced feeding of detainees in U.S. custody, possibly with participation by physicians,” which “violates core ethical values of the medical profession. Every competent patient has the right to refuse medical intervention, including life-sustaining interventions.”

Humans have the right to refuse healthcare services. Forcing even life sustaining services on someone just to torture and abuse them is inhumane. According to Davidson, back in 2007, elected president Obama would avoid closing down Guantanamo. Nobody talked about it and politicians avoided the subject because it wasn’t a public topic. Davidson has written multiple articles on this topic in order to get it the public attention it deserves. The American government, and the criminal justice system, is filled with secrets and cover-ups. There’s only so much information the People really do know.

…“Before the Law”

Jennifer Gonnerman. The New Yorker. 10.06.2014

Kalief Browder

Jennifer Gonnerman tells Kalief Browder’s story in her article Before the Law. Sixteen year old Browder and his friend were walking down the street when flashing police lights drove up behind them. Apparently, a man accused them of robbing him that night (later changing his story to the robbery occurring two weeks before). The officers took the two boys to the forty-eighth precinct and were fingerprinted and locked in a holding cell. Later, the two boys were transported to Central Booking at the Bronx County Criminal Court where he was charged with robbery, grand larceny, and assault. The judge released his friend but not Browder due to his previous record. Due to Browder being on probation for taking a delivery truck out for a spin and crashed it into a parked car, the judge set bail at three thousand dollars and held him until it was paid. In Browder’s family, their economic situation was not great so there was no possibility that they could make Kalief’s bail so he was taken to Riker’s Island, “a four-hundred-acre island in the East River between Queens and the Bronx” (Gonnerman).

Male adolescents are confined in the Robert N. Davoren Center — known as R.N.D.C. When Browder arrived, the jail held some six hundred boys, aged sixteen to eighteen. Conditions there are notoriously grim. In August of this year, a report by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York described R.N.D.C. as a place with a “deep-seated culture of violence,” where attacks by officers and among inmates are rampant. The report featured a list of inmate injuries: “broken jaws, broken orbital bones, broken noses, long bone fractures, and lacerations requiring stitches.”

Browder tried to hold back his fear, but it was hard not to cave into it. Brendan O’Meara was the appointed lawyer to Browder because their family couldn’t afford an attorney. O’ Meara assumed this was an easy case because Browder was obviously innocent. But, O’Meara didn’t realize that Browder entered one of the most corrupt legal systems in the country — the Bronx criminal courts.

Last year, the Times, in an extended exposé, described them as “crippled” and among the most backlogged in the country. One reason is budgetary. There are not nearly enough judges and court staff to handle the workload; in 2010, Browder’s case was one of five thousand six hundred and ninety-five felonies that the Bronx District Attorney’s office prosecuted.

Browder’s story is not a happy one. Being the youngest of seven siblings, most of them being adopted, Browder had a difficult time. He was the last brought into the family and at that point, his mom had already helped foster or adopt a total of thirty-four kids. Kalief’s mother had the nickname peanut for Kalief because he was the smallest. They grew up in a two story brick house near the Bronx Zoo. He had a life just like any other person did — loving Pokemon, free Wednesdays at the Zoo, and mimicking his brother. When he was ten, his father moved out but still continued to help support the family financially.

In high school, Browder was known as the fun guy — the guy everyone wanted to be around. He had average grades and the teacher’s saw great potential in him. Unlike Browder’s high school, Browder knew immediately he wouldn’t be able to make many friends in the R.N.D.C. The dorm had about fifty teen age boys sleeping in one open room with each one containing a plastic bucket to store their personal items in. The prison was ruled by gang leaders and friends, they controlled television and phone access. If you didn’t follow their instructions, Browder said, that they would fight him with five or six other guys. There was suspicion that the guards supported these gang members. Browder had already witnessed so much since he had been arrested. It had been seventy-four days since his arrest and he “missed his seventeenth birthday, the end of his sophomore year, and half the summer.”

On July 28, 2010, Browder was taken to the Bronx County Hall of Justice to see a judge.

A grand jury had voted to indict Browder. The criminal complaint alleged that he and his friend had robbed a Mexican immigrant named Roberto Bautista — pursuing him, pushing him against a fence, and taking his backpack. Bautista told the police that his backpack contained a credit card, a debit card, a digital camera, an iPod Touch, and seven hundred dollars. Browder was also accused of punching Bautista in the face.

When asked how Browder pleaded, he answered not guilty. Browder told his lawyer that he would never plead guilty. Therefore, Browder awaited his trial. However, New York State’s version of other states speedy trial laws is different and it is known as the “ready rule.”

According to Gonnerman, “This rule stipulates that all felony cases (except homicides) must be ready for trial within six months of arraignment, or else the charges can be dismissed.”

Nonetheless, when the defense attorney and the prosecutor share that they are ready for the trial the court clerk searches for a free judge and transfers the case. Then, jury selection begins. The case was supposed to start on December 10th, but the people were not ready and were requesting one week. Then the court date was pushed to March 9th because the people were not ready again.

Courts in the Bronx are so occupied that when there is a request to push the case back, the next court date doesn’t happen for typically six weeks or more. What is his lawyer doing about this? O’ Meara is paid by New York City about seventy five dollars an hour for one felony case and sixty for a misdemeanor.

Browder was offered a deal — if he plead guilty, he would only serve three years in prison. Browder refused. Apparently, trials rarely take place in the Bronx. In 2011, only a hundred and sixty five felony cases went to trial. Defendants plead guilty in three thousand nine hundred and ninety-one cases. Browder still waited for his day in court.

Browder then spent two weeks in solitary confinement at Riker’s. He got into a fight with an inmate so he was transferred to what’s called the Bing — a newer jail that has about four hundred cells that are each twelve feet by seven. Browder said:

“Summer is the worst time of year to be stuck in the Bing, since the cells lack air-conditioning. In the hope of feeling a breeze, Browder would sleep with the window open, only to be awakened at 5 a.m., when the cell filled with the roar of planes taking off from LaGuardia, one of whose runways is less than three hundred feet from Rikers. He would spend all day smelling his own sweat and counting the hours until his next shower. He thought about the places he would have been visiting if he were not spending the summer in jail: Mapes Pool, Coney Island, Six Flags. One day, when he called home to talk to his mother — he was allowed one six-minute call a day while in solitary — he could make out the familiar jingle of an ice-cream truck in the background.”

At another instance, Browder spent ten months in the Bing. Violence was still prevalent in solitary. Browder reported that an officer escorted him to the shower and “put his forearm on my face, and my face on the floor, and he just started punching me in the leg.” Other inmates reported similar incidents according to the U.S. Attorney’s report. He got out of the Bing in 2011 but on his six-hundred-and-thirty-fourth day in prison he returned to solitary after he attempted to commit suicide. This wasn’t the only time Browder tried to commit suicide — another instance he shattered his plastic bucket and picked up a sharp piece of it and started slicing his wrist.

In June of 2012, he was offered another deal — if he plead guilty he would only get two and a half years in prison. Browder refused again. At the end of 2012, Browder was in jail for nine hundred and sixty-one days. He had been in front of eight different judges, maintaining good behavior each time. O’ Meara was surprised:

“I can’t imagine most people sitting in there for three years and not becoming very upset with their attorney,” he says. “He just never complained to me.” Privately, though, Browder was angry.

However, on March 13, 2013, Judge Patricia M. DiMango (Judge Judy) took over Browder’s case. Apparently, the man who had accused Browder had gone back to Mexico so she said “without the complainant, we are unable to meet our burden of proof at trial.” His fight for innocence was over.

By now, he had missed his junior year of high school, his senior year, graduation, the prom. He was no longer a teen-ager; four days earlier, he had turned twenty.

But he was going home. When he got on the bus, he had felt overwhelmed with so many people. After all, he had spent seventeen months in solitary confinement. Browder wasn’t the same. He now like to be alone in his bedroom with the door closed. He wasn’t interested in video games, movies, or playing basketball. He found himself pacing sometimes just as he did in solitary. Seeing his old friends only brought envy because of their accomplishments. Gonnerman reports that:

Before he went to jail, he used to like sitting on his front steps with his friends, and when a group of attractive girls walked by he’d call out, “Hi. What are you doing? Where’s the party at? Can I go with you?” Now, if he managed to get a girl’s number, the first real conversation would always go the same way: she would ask him if he was in school or working, and he would feel his anxiety rise. Once he revealed that he was still living at home, without a job or a diploma, “they look at me like I ain’t worth nothing. Like I ain’t shit. It hurts to have people look at you like that.” He could explain that he’d been wrongfully arrested, but the truth felt too complicated, too raw and personal. “If I tell them the story, then I gotta hear a hundred questions,” he said. “It gets emotional for me. And those emotions I don’t feel comfortable with.”

Browder’s relatives had enough and called Paul V. Prestia, an attorney, who filed a suit against the city, the N.Y.P.D., the Bronx District Attorney, and the Department of Correction. The city wouldn’t admit to fault or wrongdoing in the case. But, their decision to rob three years of Browder’s life caused him to attempt suicide once again when he returned home. He was sent to St. Barnabas hospital, a psychiatric ward. Gonnerman continued to meet with him when he was in the psych ward and continued the meetings when he was released. When he was released, he had landed a job, earned better grades — finally getting back to himself. But it still didn’t feel like progress because he experienced flashbacks all the time:

But, even now, he thinks about Rikers every day. He says that his flashbacks to that time are becoming more frequent. Almost anything can trigger them. It might be the sight of a police cruiser or something more innocuous. When his mother cooks rice and chili, he says, he can’t help remembering the rice and chili he was fed on Rikers, and suddenly, in his mind, he is back in the Bing, recalling how hungry he was all the time, especially at night, when he’d have to wait twelve hours for his next meal.

Gonnerman reports that Browder says “before I went to jail, I didn’t know about a lot of stuff, and, now that I’m aware, I’m paranoid. I feel like I was robbed of my happiness.” He was robbed of not just three years of his life but those three years and on. The importance of this article is that Gonnerman uses Browder’s story as a metaphor: by using solitary confinement as part of our justice system, America is robbing its own People.

…“Kalief Browder 1993–2015”

Jennifer Gonnerman. The New Yorker. 06.07.2015

Kalief Browder (1993–2015)

Jennifer Gonnerman writes a follow-up article on Before the Law, calling it Kalief Browder (1993–2015). At age sixteen, Kalief Browder was arrested for stealing a backpack. He spent three years awaiting trial on Riker’s island. Two of them were spent in solitary confinement. His case is considered “a symbol of a broken criminal-justice system” and here’s why:

After he was released from prison, Browder enrolled at the Bronx Community College and two years later, at age 22, he took his own life.

In the two years he spent in solitary confinement, specifically in February 2012, he ripped his bed sheet into strips and tried to hang himself from the prison cell light — multiple times. Six months after he left Rikers in 2013 he tried to attempt suicide again and failed, but then put into a psychiatric ward, St. Barnabas. He stopped going to classes. Gonnerman visited him on January 9th of 2015 and he had thrown out his brand new television because he claimed it was watching him. When he got out of St. Barnabas, Browder re enrolled in school and earned good grades.

Gonnerman then obtained surveillance footage of an officer assaulting Browder and a large group of inmates kicking at him. Browder gave permission for Gonnerman to publish these brutal videos on The New Yorker.

“His relatives recounted stories he’d told them about being starved and beaten by guards on Rikers. They spoke about his paranoia, about how he often suspected that the cops or some other authority figures were after him. His mother explained that the night before he told her, “Ma, I can’t take it anymore. ‘Kalief, you’ve got a lot of people in your corner,” she told him.”

A couple months later, Prestia, his lawyer saw that Browder was posting odd posts on Facebook so she sent him a text asking him if everything was alright. He insisted everything was fine. But that Saturday, Prestia got a call from Browder’s mother reporting that Browder had committed suicide. Gonnerman reports:

“As his father explained, he’d apparently decided that these torn strips of sheet were not strong enough. That afternoon, at about 12:15 P.M., he went into another bedroom, pulled out the air conditioner, and pushed himself out through the hole in the wall, feet first, with a cord wrapped around his neck*. His mother was the only other person home at the time. After she heard a loud thumping noise, she went upstairs to investigate, but couldn’t figure out what had happened. It wasn’t until she went outside to the backyard and looked up that she realized that her youngest child had hanged himself.”

A life taken because of injustice. Browder had been okay — going to his classes and getting good grades. But, the flashbacks and post-traumatic stress haunted him. Years spent in solitary confinement for a crime he did not commit. As mentioned before, the case became a symbol for the broken criminal justice system that existed then — and somewhat now. Browder’s case has had a tremendous impact on justice and sentencing reforms starting with Obama’s solitary confinement ban on juveniles in federal prison, the start of the “Stop Solitary for Kids” campaign, and Kalief’s Law. However, it makes me ask the question, does there always have to be a martyr for America to change?

… “Why It’s Nearly Impossible For Prisoners to Sue Prisons”

Rachel Poser. The New Yorker. 05.30.2016

Rachel Poser reports that on June 21, 2007, two correctional officers, James Madigan and Michael Ross, in Baltimore assaulted an inmate by the name of Shaidon Blake, who was identified as a gang leader who had been convicted of a second-degree murder. The guards were directed to escort Blake to solitary after the supervising officer complained they were starting trouble. Walking Blake to solitary confinement, Madigan and Ross quickly pressed him up to the concrete wall and Madigan began punching Blake in the face while Ross held Blake’s cuffed hands. The face punches worsened Blake’s pre existing head injury so now he is suffering from migraines and permanent nerve damage to his face. Two years later, Blake filed a lawsuit against Madigan, Ross, the two supervising officers on duty, and the state government. Madigan was ultimately found liable so he had to pay Blake fifty thousand dollars; however, the judge dismissed the case against the supervising officers and the government.

Most cases like Blake’s are determinant upon the Prison Litigation Reform Act (P.L.R.A.).

The P.L.R.A. was proposed to “quickly identify the viable prisoner claims and weed out the meritless chaff.” The P.L.R.A allows for the prisoners who think that their rights have been violated to file a grievance form to their prison’s administration. If the grievance is declined, the prisoner is allowed to appeal the decision with their state’s correctional facility as high as it allows. After these steps have been taken, the prisoner can then file suit in a court. The problem is, the P.L.R.A. makes it impossible for prisoners to file cases against the government and prisons because it is so easy for a prisoner to make a mistake. Margo Schlanger, a civil rights law professor, has:

“come across cases in which inmates have had their grievances rejected for writing in red ink, for writing on the back of a form, and for attaching medical records to their submissions. If inmates miss a filing deadline (the shortest, in Michigan, is two business days) or trip over some other procedural hurdle, they have lost their right to relief through both the grievance process and the federal courts. “The preservation of prisoners’ civil rights now depends on their ability to dot ‘i’s and cross ‘t’s.”

If an inmate makes even the smallest mistake in submitting the paperwork for the lawsuit, courts can wave their submission at the click of a button. Criminal courts have decided that neither mental illness nor illiteracy excuses an inmate from the PLRA. So if one has a mental illness or cannot read, they are not eligible under the PLRA. Poser references a case from the 2000’s, when a fifteen-year-old inmate filed a lawsuit that alleged he had been raped and beaten by other inmates and guards had egged the culprits on. The case was dismissed in 2005 because the fifteen-year-old hadn’t filed a grievance in time; however, his mother had contacted prison officials and the governor’s office to stop the abuse of her son.

Poser’s article presents the topic of justice and equal opportunity in prison. Regardless of missing the deadline for the lawsuit, the fifteen-year-old should have received his day in court. There is corruption in America’s criminal justice system and according to Poser, the PLRA plays a huge role in it. With the PLRA’s policies, courts are literally giving inmate’s and prison guard’s permission to disrespect and abuse each other.

Why It’s Nearly Impossible for Prisoners to Sue Prisons — The New Yorker
 On June 21, 2007, two guards at a jail in Baltimore assaulted an inmate named Shaidon Blake, a gang leader who had been…

…“The Real Lesson of the Stanford Experiment”

Maria Konnikova. The New Yorker. 06.12.2015.

Image from the new movie “The Stanford Prison Experiment”

“On the morning of August 17, 1971, nine young men in the Palo Alto area received visits from local police officers. While their neighbors looked on, the men were arrested for violating Penal Codes 211 and 459 (armed robbery and burglary), searched, handcuffed, and led into the rear of a waiting police car. The cars took them to a Palo Alto police station, where the men were booked, fingerprinted, moved to a holding cell, and blindfolded. Finally, they were transported to the Stanford County Prison — also known as the Stanford University psychology department.”

The coin flipped and the roles were divided. People who voted heads were the guards and people who voted tails were to be assigned the prisoners. The new movie, “Almost Famous” just came out, starring Billy Crudup and lead investigator Zimbardo. Maria Konnikova covers the movie from a psychological and literary perspective in her article, The Real Lesson of the Stanford Experiment.

Konnikova and other researchers are currently investigating the study that happened more than forty years ago in order to understand the current events — police brutality and the behavior of prison guards. Konnikova references Zimbardo describing the study:

“as ‘an attempt to understand just what it means psychologically to be a prisoner or a prison guard.’ But he also emphasized that the students in the study had been “the cream of the crop of this generation,” and said that the guards were given no specific instructions, and left free to make “up their own rules for maintaining law, order, and respect.” In explaining the results, he said that the “majority” of participants found themselves “no longer able to clearly differentiate between role-playing and self,” and that, in the six days the study took to unfold, “the experience of imprisonment undid, although temporarily, a lifetime of learning; human values were suspended, self-concepts were challenged, and the ugliest, most base, pathological side of human nature surfaced.”

The people participating in the study started to have issues differentiating between the acting and their self. Since they were given no instructions, and left free to make up their own rules, they began thinking of themselves as that role — acting as a guard, prisoner, or supervisor. In studies similar to this, psychologists found that the prisoner groups would form collective identities between each other while the guards would maintain distant relationships with one another. Zimbardo concluded that “our behavior conforms to our preconceived expectations.” The guards and prisoner’s behavior conformed to the perceived behavior that a guard and prisoner would regularly exemplify.

Konnikova ends her article, “the lesson of Stanford isn’t that any random human being is capable of descending into sadism and tyranny. It’s that certain institutions and environments demand those behaviors — and, perhaps, can change them.” The importance of Konnikova’s article is that if the community could change those preconceived behaviors, there could be less brutality and violence. The violence and brutality being committed in modern times are a result of the preconceived expectations our community has for each other.

…“The Disgusting Jail on ‘Orange is the New Black’”

Ruth Margalit. The New Yorker. 06.06.2014.

Riverhead Correctional Facility — Set of “Orange is the New Black”

Ruth Margalit goes into detail about the brutal prison conditions that inmates have to experience and how the show we all know, “Orange is the New Black” depicts it. At the Riverhead correctional facility in Suffolk County, New York, “Orange is the New Black” films scenes for their second season. The show brought lots of media attention to the brutal prison conditions and a campaign began called the Humanity is the New Black — it is the latest push by prison-reform advocates. Inmates in the Riverhead facility are living with overflowing sewage, black mold, rust, and rodents. Dozens of inmates have handwritten grievances stating that the water is undrinkable and the stench rises up from the sewers. “Ping-Pong bathrooms” is a term that the inmates describe when the next cell backs into a person’s and they wake up with feces and urine in their toilet. Margalit took inmates’ statements on the quality of the prison:

“A third inmate states, “I have been drinking the water here and came to realize it’s the problems I having with throat, stomach and lung.” Another complains of “rashes and hard skin on my back and feet from the water in the shower.” His complaint ends with a request: “I wish to seek help from medical please as soon as possible.”’

The chief of staff of the Suffolk County sheriff’s office, Michael Sharkey, told Margalit that he wouldn’t address complaints because of the current lawsuit but he said that the New York State Commission of Correction has standards and they meet them.

Jason Porter, a thirty-year-old former inmate described in a video testimonial that for thirty hours’ sewage floated on the jail’s floors. He said, “At Riverhead, it’s almost inevitable: you’re going to get something.” The portrayal of the Orange Is The New Black characters are spot on — Porter says that “they get that people in jails are human beings that deserve to be treated like human beings.” Margalit states that her frustration with the show is that it’s “the reality that puts the fiction to shame.” The quality of the prison is so horrible and inhumane that the show doesn’t accurately depict it. However, the recent media coverage on “Orange is the New Black” brought about more campaigns that are advocating for prison reform. It started a new campaign called Humanity is the New Black — advocating for inmates’ rights and working to provide a better quality of life for prisoners.


Throughout all of these articles, the author’s approach topics such as: prison, solitary confinement, justice, equality, race, economics, and psychology. Through reading these articles on The New Yorker, I found that most of the author’s approach these topics by empathizing with the audience or people in their stories. Gonnerman, Poser, Gawande, Gopnik, Smith, Davidson, Konnikova, and Margalit, use imagery in their articles in order to allow the reader’s to experience what the people in the article’s are feeling and seeing as well. This imagery and empathy they use in their writing has helped not only me but other’s gain a broader perspective of the quality of life of a prisoner.

These eight articles have not only helped people gain a better understanding of the effects of confinement but also has helped start a variety of campaigns that advocate for prison reform. For example, Humanity is the New Black is currently advocating for Riverhead Correctional Facility prisoner’s rights and as a result of this, politicians are working to improve the conditions there. Another example is Kalief Browder’s story. Browder was an inspiration for Obama’s ban for solitary confinement on juveniles in federal prisons — children under twenty-one are currently not allowed to be in solitary confinement. In reference to Guantanamo Bay, President Obama called for its closure in February of 2016. America is hearing the cries of its People and acting upon them.

However, solitary confinement still exists and the cost of it is growing — not only for the inmates’ well being but for tax payer’s as well. Prison life is getting better but the topic is still extremely prevalent and media, such as “Orange is the New Black,” and research help the issue gain public awareness. I’d like to end on a note that I didn’t think about before: What if it were us? What if we were the ones on the other side of the bars and our rights were robbed from us?

And who would we have standing in our corner willing to fight for us? The answer is people and author’s like Gonnerman, Poser, Gawande, Gopnik, Smith, Davidson, Konnikova, and Margalit .