There’s a scene from the film Hunger (2008) where the PIRA’s H-bloc detainees (one man’s terrorist being another man’s war prisoner) are negotiated the ability to wear civilian clothes rather than prison uniforms.
The result is the infamous “dirty protest” — where the IRA hunger strikers refused not only to wear the uniform, but smeared their own filth on the walls in order to protest their conditions by the British.
The climax of the film is midway through, where the IRA prisoners throw their “civilian” clothes out and destroy their rooms. In response, the British corrections officers don riot gear… and scrub them down one by one with push brooms:
The beating of the shields before the “scrubbing” has a dehumanizing quality to it — quite a reminder that it does not take much for one human being to treat another like nothing at all.
Following this is a fantastic 24 minute dialogue between Bobby Sands (played by Michael Fassbender) and his priest (played by Rory Mullen) where Sands explains his rationale for the 1981 hunger strike. A mild digression to be sure — but what is core to our conversation here is that the treatment of prisoners really does speak to something of the values of a civilization.
To wit, today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch offers a glimpse into what has to be some of the most draconian rules I have ever seen imposed by one set of human beings upon another:
Among the changes taking effect this month, inmates at many prisons will change into state-issued underwear for visits with outsiders; vending machine purchases by visitors will be restricted; and incoming mail will be photocopied for delivery to inmates and the original mail shredded.
. . .
After the visit, the clothing is removed and there is another strip search before the inmate changes back into his or her regular prison garb. Female inmates will not be required to change undergarments but will have to wear the jumpsuits during visits.
. . .
Under the new mail policy effective April 17, general mail will be limited to six “items” no larger than 8½ inches by 11 inches, with the envelope counting as one item.
The mail will be opened and photocopied by prison staff members. Inmates will be given only photocopies of the original letter, newspaper clipping or photo. The original material will be shredded.
The six items — including the envelope — will be copied onto three sheets of copy paper, one item on each side. Any correspondence that does not meet the new guidelines will be returned to the sender.
The excuse given is that seven inmates have died either through heroin or fentanyl overdoses since 2015 — a lament I’m sure, given that strip searches and jumpsuits seem to be the alternative. After all, the state pays per inmate… and private firms need to see that return on their investment.
Here’s an interesting thought: more people are incarcerated in America today per capita than were incarcerated in Soviet Russia under the gulag system.
Danzig Baldaev has written a number of rather graphic books on the conditions of the Soviet gulag system in a series of books that are frankly not for the light of heart.
It strikes me that a series of strip searches, the inability to send mail, the censoring of mail by corrections officers, the restrictions on what may be passed to or said (even to the point of restricting contact) between prisoners and loved ones is a bit… harsh.
…and if the counterargument to this is that the prisoners themselves behave like animals, perhaps we should be questioning the conditions of their cages.
At some point, we need to start considering whether the treatment of prisoners is beginning to approach unsustainable degrees of restriction. When the cost of incarceration is approximating the cost of education, and when the restrictions begin to approach the Orwellian and reflects this against the long tradition of corrections in the Commonwealth (most of which is not altogether stellar), one really has to reconsider whether or not policies such as these are the best Virginia can do.