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Thursday, June 07, 2007

Paris Hilton, Communicable Diseases, and Prison Conditions

Prisoncell Well, not to tread on the heels of Gawker and Above the Law (and Sentencing Law & Policy!), but I find myself inexplicably fascinated with the ever-evolving story of Paris Hilton's  imprisonment.  For those of you not avidly following the tale, Paris Hilton was recently arrested, convicted, and sent to a Los Angeles county jail for violating her probation on a prior DUI.  To the amazement of celebrity-watchers everywhere, Paris did not opt for the "pay-to-stay" option, but checked in to the regular jail (although she was placed in the special "celebrity" section isolated from the majority of the other inmates).

Today, however, we find out that Paris has been released from her jail sentence due to "medical issues," and allowed to serve out the rest of her sentence at home.  Speculation has been rife as to what kind of medical issues allowed her quick exit, but several sources have mentioned a severe rash as cause.   Now this dovetails quite interestingly with a fact mentioned in a few of the news articles concerning the celebutante's jail term--that the inmates residing in the gen. pop. quarters have been repeatedly infected with a drug-resistant staph infection.

So, let's think about this for a moment.  On the one hand, we have severely overcrowded California jails and prisons (so much so that a federal judge has been threatening to take over the system) infected with a drug-resistant infectious disease.  On the other hand, we have a wealthy young socialite already given preferential treatment by the authorities who is quickly released due to some minor health problems, potentially a rash (not a staph infection, the prison officials claim).  On a third hand (or the other foot?), we have the hysteria over the drug-resistant TB traveler, who has gotten immense criticism for potentially exposing fellow passengers to his disease.  Why the  vastly different responses to similar problems?

The obvious answer is money--Paris has it, regular inmates don't, and that makes all the difference.  But how does that explain our  reaction to the flying Typhoid Mary?   In my mind, it has much more to do with the way we categorize both the sick and criminal offenders:  as untouchables.  The TB flyer has much more in common with Paris Hilton than with the average inmate, in terms of money, power, opportunity, etc.  Yet we furiously shun him and criticize his (potentially dangerous) actions with the same vigor and rage that we exhibit towards convicted felons.  Both are loathsome to us, unable to be rehabilitated, best off quarantined away from us, permanently. 

Which leads me to my real point.  Our criminal system today has no second chances for anyone who's been convicted of a felony;  once you have this stain on your record, you are essentially isolated from the larger community.  We allow no opportunities for restorative justice to our convicted offenders, who are primarily poor and often minority.  By having such a rigid, "no returns" policy, we cut off a substantive segment of our society, barring them from participation in the polity. In that sense, having a felony conviction is very much like having an incurable, communicable disease.  Either way, we want no part of you.

Posted by Laura Appleman on June 7, 2007 at 09:20 PM in Criminal Law | Permalink

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» Infectious Disease from Medical Humanities Blog
Amidst all the hysteria over Andrew Speaker, the trial attorney who traveled on translatlantic flights while infected with XDR (extremely drug resistant) TB comes a voice of sanity from Stuart Rennie:Despite his apparent low infectiousness (having test... [Read More]

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FYI:

Back in August of 2005, "A federal judge, saying he was acting urgently to stop the needless deaths of inmates because of medical malfeasance, ordered Thursday that a receiver take control of California's prison health care system and correct what he called deplorable conditions. Experts said the order by U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson of San Francisco was unprecedented in its scope given that the prison system provides health care to roughly 164,000 inmates at an annual cost of $1.1 billion."

And from Medical News TODAY (May 12, 2007): "Robert Sillen, the federal-court appointed Receiver of the state's prison medical system today submitted a Plan of Action to U.S. District Court Judge Thelton E. Henderson that lays out a comprehensive vision for the constitutional prison medical care system that will be created under the Receivership. The Plan of Action is the first of its kind released by the Receiver. It is a health care document, not a fact-finding report. It delineates long-term goals for the prison medical care system as well as specific projects that will be undertaken in the next two years." See: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/medicalnews.php?newsid=70635

Provocative, insightful post!



Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jun 7, 2007 9:59:41 PM

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