Columns, Opinion

American Protest: The inhumane treatment of inmates reflects poorly on the criminal justice system

As the weather warms, we are all thankful this polar vortex is on the way out. It brought temperatures deep into the negatives in the Midwest, and spending more than five minutes outside was a pretty miserable experience.

The inmates at the Metropolitan Detention Center are definitely happy to see this weather improve: they were stuck inside the Brooklyn waterfront federal jail with limited power and heat for at least the past week.

While a spokesperson for the jail denied the loss of power affected the heat and water, the lead federal defender in Brooklyn, Deirdre von Dornum, said he received many calls from inmates reporting little heating or hot water and dark cells.

According to an article in The New York Times, a federal defender had heard from an inmate that a corrections officer recorded the temperature of the housing unit as 34 degrees. That is a temperature no person should live in.

There have been protestors outside of the jail for a few days demanding the inmates be moved, as living in these conditions is dangerous and grossly unjust. Some politicians have taken action, too. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city’s emergency management agency would send supplies, including blankets, hand warmers and generators.

Inmates banged on their windows and waved lights inside their pitch-black cells to try and get the attention of the public to show how awful their living conditions were.

New York City Councilmember Justin Brannan, who was at the protests, said, “All we hear are the inmates banging on the windows to get our attention.”

Some people might argue that criminals are less deserving of our attention, but these people are still humans. American jails are not meant to be dangerous — they are meant to be rehabilitative. Criminals should be punished, but not like this.

Furthermore, the jail hosts a variety of inmates. Some are there for drug trafficking and others are just there awaiting trial. Not everyone in there is a violent rapist or murderer, and to make that assumption is a sign of ignorance.

While people lose many rights in jail or prison, that does not and should not include heat, food or safety. These are basic human rights, especially in a democratic society.

Our country needs to work on making jails and prisons more focused on rehabilitation rather than punishment. Once people enter the criminal justice system, it is hard for them to find jobs. We should want these people to be able to reenter society and become contributing members rather than reverting back to the ways that put them in the system in the first place.

Beyond that, we need to stop incarcerating so many people, especially the disproportionate incarceration of black people, for offenses that can be dealt with differently. Drug offenses can be dealt with in terms of rehabilitation and providing them with opportunities to live that go beyond selling or doing drugs.

In order to make criminal justice reform work, we need to start with improving the jails our prisoners are already in — and instances such as this one at the Brooklyn jail are unacceptable. It shows these people that we think of them as lesser than human.

We have a lot of work to do in this country to fix the criminal justice system, but let’s start small: no prisoners should ever be stuck in unlivable conditions.

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