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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Cracking Open the Little Boxes in Which We Stash Away Our Unwanted

My colleagues in our Civil Rights Clinic recently won a partial victory in federal court on behalf of Troy Anderson, an inmate in the Colorado State Penitentiary, which is our state supermaximum-security prison (as distinguished from the federal supermax further down the valley).

No credit is due to me for this victory, but I did visit Troy a few times at the earliest stages of the clinic's representation of him, and came to like him immensely. So it is especially gratifying to see his Eighth Amendment rights vindicated in this context - the "context" being the indefinite confinement of far too many people like Troy in tiny boxes for no reason, little reason, or seemingly contradictory reasons.

I am hardly the first person to note that what occurs behind the high walls of our prison system is a vast ecosystem of suffering that goes almost entirely unnoticed by mainstream society, apart from the occasional suggestion that perhaps this is not the most effective way to make ourselves collectively safer.

 We may shudder and/or make inappropriate jokes, but the moral desert that accompanies criminal transgression - and the need to have some way of punishing such acts - allows us to believe that, however horrible prison is assumed to be, on some level maybe that's just how it has to be. Hence our fixation on the wrongfully-convicted, although they certainly deserve whatever efforts are made on their behalf.

My problem is that I remain entirely unconvinced that the way we deal with our rightfully-convicted is anything other than an awful, centuries-long experiment that has from its very inception failed on its own stated terms, and whose time must come. Yet victories like Troy's remain more the exception than the rule. All the more reason to celebrate the ones who make them happen, or labor each day for countless smaller wins.

I have, no doubt, now exposed the irredeemably soft-hearted liberalism hidden beneath my pragmatic exterior. But what better note on which to end my month on this blog? Thanks for your attention to my thoughts. If they have held any interest for you, feel free to follow me on Twitter.

Posted by Raja Raghunath on August 30, 2012 at 08:35 AM | Permalink


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Abbe Smith published a piece last year or the year before poking at Innocence Projects, essentially for using too much of the oxygen available in the room of criminal justice reform. Focusing on the innocent, she says, obscures our obligations to the guilty. She also argues that Innocence Projects are problematic vehicles for experiential learning because they teach, she argues, that it is the innocent who need and deserve representation.

Posted by: Matt Fraidin | Sep 2, 2012 10:48:08 PM

Important parting post! Thanks.

I doubt, however, that this is about "soft-hearted liberalism," as Liberal philosophers and writers are often invoked in support of retributivist arguments that undergird our system of punishment and prisons. While I think it may be possible to glean an alternative to these retributivist arguments from within the history of Liberalism, I suspect it is far easier to look outside Liberalism proper if one is concerned enough to make a concerted effort to imagine and articulate compelling alternatives to the status quo.

And while I may have missed it, your spot-on links appear to have left out Lisa Guenther's recent piece for The New York Times blog, The Stone, "The Living Death of Solitary Confinement:" http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/26/the-living-death-of-solitary-confinement/?hp

She also had an excellent blog post on solitary confinement at Angola Prison at New APPS: http://www.newappsblog.com/2012/04/40-years-of-solitary-confinement-resisting-social-death-at-angola-prison-louisiana.html

Finally, there's a nice online piece by Daniel Brook from (the now defunct) Legal Affairs (Jan/Feb 2003): http://www.legalaffairs.org/issues/January-February-2003/review_brook_janfeb2003.msp

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Aug 30, 2012 9:23:45 AM

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