Gates of Injustice: The Crisis in America's Prisons

Gates of Injustice: The Crisis in America's Prisons

by Alan Elsner

Paperback

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Overview

Gates of Injustice is an extraordinarily compelling expose of the American prison system now completely updated in this new paperback editon: how more than 2,000,000 Americans came to be incarcerated; what it's really like on the inside; what it's like for the families left on the outside; and how an enormous "prison-industrial complex" has grown to support and promote imprisonment in place of virtually every other alternative. Reuters journalist Alan Elsner shows how prisons really work, how race-based gangs are able to control institutions and prey on weaker inmates, and how an epidemic of abuse and brutality has exploded across American prisons. Readers will discover the plight of 300,000 mentally ill people in prisons, virtually abandoned with little medical treatment. They'll also meet the fastest growing segment of the prison population: women. Readers go inside "supermax" prisons that cut inmates off from all human contact, and uncover the official corruption and brutality that riddles jail systems in major cities like Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, and New York. Finally, they'll learn prisons accelerate the spread of infectious diseases throughout the broader society--just one of the many ways the prison epidemic touches everyone, even if they've never met anyone who's gone to jail.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780131881792
Publisher: FT Press
Publication date: 01/20/2006
Series: Prentice Hall Paperback Ser.
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Alan Elsner has written extensively about conditions in jails and prisons, visiting institutions in a dozen states to meet with inmates, lawyers, corrections officers, medical staff, religious volunteers, family members, and law enforcement. He has 25 years’ experience in journalism, covering stories ranging from the September 11, 2001 attacks on America and the Arab-Israeli conflict to the 2000 presidential election and the end of the Cold War. Elsner is currently National Correspondent for Reuters news agency. For more information, visit www.AlanElsner.com.

Read an Excerpt

Preface to the Second EditionPreface to the Second Edition

ust as the first edition of this book was published in 2004, shocking video emerged of U.S. military personal abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. The images produced a wave of revulsion among Americans. The scandal also placed increased attention on the U.S. prison system, especially after it became clear that two of those mostly deeply involved in the Abu Ghraib abuses had been employed as correctional officers here at home. Suddenly, some Americans began to question conditions in the U.S. prison system. They asked themselves whether we should not be at least as concerned about the mistreatment of U.S. prisoners as we were about the abuse and torture of Iraqis.

Unfortunately, that wave of attention and concern did not sustain itself for very long. Soon enough, it was back to business as usual. The story receded from the headlines while the steady, relentless growth of our giant prison system continued unchecked.

That is not to say there have not been some positive developments in the past two years. An independent bipartisan Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons was established and began holding public hearings. I testified at the first of them. The Commission's eventual report could focus much-needed attention on the issue of prison abuse. Drug courts are spreading around the nation, diverting more and more non-violent offenders away from prison and toward treatment. There are also signs that the federal government is finally taking the scourge of prison rape seriously. Meanwhile, a group of congressional members of both parties began a new effort to pass a bill that would dismantle some of the barriers that prevent released prisoners from being reabsorbed into society.

On the negative side, the costs of incarceration are exploding, despite the efforts of states and counties to explore alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders. Lawmakers continue to invent new mandatory sentences, which as usual will fall disproportionately on young African Americans and Hispanics. A good example is the so-called "Gangbusters Act" passed by the House of Representatives in April 2005. The act condemns juveniles to 10- or 20-year prison sentences or even the death penalty for a long list of so-called 'gang crimes.' Judges no longer have the ability to weigh the individual circumstances of the crime before passing sentence. A gang is defined as any group of three or more people who commit two crimes. The congressional budget office estimated that this bill alone would increase the prison population at a cost of $62 million for the first four years, growing exponentially after that.

Gates of Injustice points out two fundamental problems. Our prison system is too big and it remains too abusive. What can we do about this? As members of a proud democracy, we have the right and the responsibility to make sure that our elected representatives hear our voices about subjects that matter to us. But first, we need to educate ourselves. I hope once again that this book will play a part in that process.

Alan Elsner, Washington, D.C. July 2005

Preface to the First Edition

his book is a guide to a land that most readers will never visit—the world of U.S. prisons and jails. Like any travel book, it profiles the people that live in this land, outlines their customs, history, geography, and language and lists the many dangers that lurk. It also provides key facts about the local currency, food, and health care.

Readers may ask, Why would anyone want to visit this forbidding land, even in a book? After all, we're never going there. Why should we want to know what really goes on in America's prisons? Why should we care about the massive growth of the U.S. penal system over the past quarter century? Why should we worry about the racial inequalities? Why do we need to be told about the abuses? Why should we bother about the plight of the hundreds of thousands of mentally ill people kept behind bars, about the thousands of men subjected to rape, about women abused and harassed, about those left in solitary confinement for months and years on end with virtually no human contact? What has all this got to do with us?

I offer three answers. First, this book is not in fact about some remote foreign country that has nothing to do with us. It is about the United States, the global superpower. For those of us who live here, if we believe that we are all, in a deep sense, one nation and one family, then how can we ignore the plight of so many of our brothers and sisters, our cousins, our neighbors, our fellow citizens?

President George W. Bush acknowledged this in his State of the Union Address on January 20, 2004. Asking Congress for $300 million to help prisoners who had served their sentences reintegrate into society, the President said, "America is the land of the second chance and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life."

Bush's words showed that prisons and the plight of prisoners are climbing higher on the nation's agenda. Unfortunately, as this book shows, America too often is not the land of the second chance for those behind bars, and when the gates open, there is no path ahead.

Second, try as we might, we Americans cannot separate ourselves from the world of jails and prisons. Ten million people cycle through our jails every year. The abuses they endure, the diseases they contract, the traumas they suffer inevitably come back to haunt the rest of society. There is no Iron Curtain separating them from us. They are us.

Third, as members of an old and proud democracy, respect for human rights is a central and vital part of who we are. We champion human rights all around the world. It's one of the most important American values. Yet, increasingly, other people do not take us seriously. We are seen as self-righteous and hypocritical. We criticize others but not ourselves.

Each spring, the State Department issues a report on the state of human rights in every nation on the globe. Secretary of State Colin Powell wrote these words in the introduction to the report issued in March 2003 (U.S. Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2002. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. Washington. March 31, 2003):

We gain little by ignoring human rights abuses or flinching from reporting them. _ But in truth, no country is exempt from scrutiny, and all countries benefit from constant striving to identify their weaknesses and improve their performance in this less-than-perfect world.

The report covered 196 countries, but it left out one—the United States of America.

This book holds up a mirror for us to examine one aspect of our nation. It does not always make for comfortable viewing. The face staring back at us is not the perfect, unblemished image we would all wish to see. But it is better to confront the truth without flinching than to behave like Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray, who concealed his ugliness behind a false veneer of physical perfection. We must acknowledge our imperfections.

As the Scripture teaches us, "You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free" (Gospel of St. John, 8:32).

Alan Elsner, Washington, D.C. January 2004

© Copyright Pearson Education. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Preface to the Second Edition xi

Preface to the First Edition xiii

Acknowledgments xvii

Chapter 1: The Second Toughest Sheriff in America 1

Chapter 2: Becoming a Prison Nation 11

Chapter 3: Entering the Gates 31

Chapter 4: The Vulnerable 63

Chapter 5: The Sanity of the System 81

Chapter 6: An Unhealthy Situation 103

Chapter 7: Women Behind Bars 131

Chapter 8: Supermax 153

Chapter 9: Short-Term Problems 181

Chapter 10: Money, Money, Money 201

Chapter 11: After Prison 219

Chapter 12: Some Modest Suggestions 231

Endnotes 243

Index 265

Preface

Preface to the Second Edition

ust as the first edition of this book was published in 2004, shocking video emerged of U.S. military personal abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. The images produced a wave of revulsion among Americans. The scandal also placed increased attention on the U.S. prison system, especially after it became clear that two of those mostly deeply involved in the Abu Ghraib abuses had been employed as correctional officers here at home. Suddenly, some Americans began to question conditions in the U.S. prison system. They asked themselves whether we should not be at least as concerned about the mistreatment of U.S. prisoners as we were about the abuse and torture of Iraqis.

Unfortunately, that wave of attention and concern did not sustain itself for very long. Soon enough, it was back to business as usual. The story receded from the headlines while the steady, relentless growth of our giant prison system continued unchecked.

That is not to say there have not been some positive developments in the past two years. An independent bipartisan Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons was established and began holding public hearings. I testified at the first of them. The Commission's eventual report could focus much-needed attention on the issue of prison abuse. Drug courts are spreading around the nation, diverting more and more non-violent offenders away from prison and toward treatment. There are also signs that the federal government is finally taking the scourge of prison rape seriously. Meanwhile, a group of congressional members of both parties began a new effort to pass a bill that would dismantle some of the barriers that prevent released prisoners from being reabsorbed into society.

On the negative side, the costs of incarceration are exploding, despite the efforts of states and counties to explore alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders. Lawmakers continue to invent new mandatory sentences, which as usual will fall disproportionately on young African Americans and Hispanics. A good example is the so-called "Gangbusters Act" passed by the House of Representatives in April 2005. The act condemns juveniles to 10- or 20-year prison sentences or even the death penalty for a long list of so-called 'gang crimes.' Judges no longer have the ability to weigh the individual circumstances of the crime before passing sentence. A gang is defined as any group of three or more people who commit two crimes. The congressional budget office estimated that this bill alone would increase the prison population at a cost of $62 million for the first four years, growing exponentially after that.

Gates of Injustice points out two fundamental problems. Our prison system is too big and it remains too abusive. What can we do about this? As members of a proud democracy, we have the right and the responsibility to make sure that our elected representatives hear our voices about subjects that matter to us. But first, we need to educate ourselves. I hope once again that this book will play a part in that process.

Alan Elsner, Washington, D.C. July 2005

Preface to the First Edition

his book is a guide to a land that most readers will never visit—the world of U.S. prisons and jails. Like any travel book, it profiles the people that live in this land, outlines their customs, history, geography, and language and lists the many dangers that lurk. It also provides key facts about the local currency, food, and health care.

Readers may ask, Why would anyone want to visit this forbidding land, even in a book? After all, we're never going there. Why should we want to know what really goes on in America's prisons? Why should we care about the massive growth of the U.S. penal system over the past quarter century? Why should we worry about the racial inequalities? Why do we need to be told about the abuses? Why should we bother about the plight of the hundreds of thousands of mentally ill people kept behind bars, about the thousands of men subjected to rape, about women abused and harassed, about those left in solitary confinement for months and years on end with virtually no human contact? What has all this got to do with us?

I offer three answers. First, this book is not in fact about some remote foreign country that has nothing to do with us. It is about the United States, the global superpower. For those of us who live here, if we believe that we are all, in a deep sense, one nation and one family, then how can we ignore the plight of so many of our brothers and sisters, our cousins, our neighbors, our fellow citizens?

President George W. Bush acknowledged this in his State of the Union Address on January 20, 2004. Asking Congress for $300 million to help prisoners who had served their sentences reintegrate into society, the President said, "America is the land of the second chance and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead to a better life."

Bush's words showed that prisons and the plight of prisoners are climbing higher on the nation's agenda. Unfortunately, as this book shows, America too often is not the land of the second chance for those behind bars, and when the gates open, there is no path ahead.

Second, try as we might, we Americans cannot separate ourselves from the world of jails and prisons. Ten million people cycle through our jails every year. The abuses they endure, the diseases they contract, the traumas they suffer inevitably come back to haunt the rest of society. There is no Iron Curtain separating them from us. They are us.

Third, as members of an old and proud democracy, respect for human rights is a central and vital part of who we are. We champion human rights all around the world. It's one of the most important American values. Yet, increasingly, other people do not take us seriously. We are seen as self-righteous and hypocritical. We criticize others but not ourselves.

Each spring, the State Department issues a report on the state of human rights in every nation on the globe. Secretary of State Colin Powell wrote these words in the introduction to the report issued in March 2003 (U.S. Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2002. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. Washington. March 31, 2003):

We gain little by ignoring human rights abuses or flinching from reporting them. _ But in truth, no country is exempt from scrutiny, and all countries benefit from constant striving to identify their weaknesses and improve their performance in this less-than-perfect world.

The report covered 196 countries, but it left out one—the United States of America.

This book holds up a mirror for us to examine one aspect of our nation. It does not always make for comfortable viewing. The face staring back at us is not the perfect, unblemished image we would all wish to see. But it is better to confront the truth without flinching than to behave like Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray, who concealed his ugliness behind a false veneer of physical perfection. We must acknowledge our imperfections.

As the Scripture teaches us, "You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free" (Gospel of St. John, 8:32).

Alan Elsner, Washington, D.C. January 2004

© Copyright Pearson Education. All rights reserved.

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Gates of Injustice: The Crisis in America's Prisons 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
BookAddictFL More than 1 year ago
Powerful. Well-written, meticulously researched, unbiased, insightful. Elsner shows us a broken system that affects us all.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a very fine work on a serious subject which impacts us all. The author judiciously combines hard facts and statistics with 'human stories' to present a compelling argument as to why the 'crisis in America's prisons' needs to be heeded by everyone. The real strength of the book is that it doesn't matter what end of the political spectrum you come from or what your views on punishment vs. rehabilitation are. In the final analysis, basic rational self-interest dictates that the central problems identified in this book - massively rising costs, the creation of a permanent criminal underclass who are 'recycled' back into society, catastrophic mistreatment of the mentally ill and the spread of infectious diseases - need to be addressed by society as a whole because none of us are insulated from their effects. Of course it hardly needs to be said that many of the stories, particularly those about the mal-treatment of highly vulnerable inmates - the physically weak, the mentally ill and the young - are heartbreaking and I don't want to downplay this aspect of the book as it's one of its great strengths. However for the many who chose to paint their world view on a black and white 'good guys vs. bad guys' canvas (and, I'd suggest that it's this way of thinking, at least in part, that has contributed to the current problems), this book should be equally persuasive. In the words of the Reagan-appointed Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is quoted in the final chapter of the book: '...Our resources are misspent, our punishments too severe, our sentences too long'. I'd like to finish this review with a question inspired by this book: at a time when America has invested so much in spreading it's message of civilization and democracy abroad, how is this aided by many of its own States still requiring that incarcerated pregnant women deliver their offspring in shackles ?
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you only read one book about the U.S. prison system, this should be the one. It covers the entire spectrum. Some of the stories should make our hair stand on end. All Americans need to know what is going on in our prisons and jails and this book tells it like it is.