What defines a prisoner? The Oxford dictionary defines it as “A person legally held in prison as a punishment for crimes they have committed or while awaiting trial.” Notice, that it uses the word “person.” This is because despite societal efforts to dehumanize prisoners, they are still people and are still “endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights.” Even though this is clearly stated in the preamble of our Constitution, many people choose to ignore the fact that the rights of over 2 million American prisoners are being viciously violated every day due to the conditions of American Prisons. There cannot be enough emphasis on the fact that Prisoners are still people and are still entitled to basic human rights stated in the constitution, such as the eighth amendment.
The eighth amendment, put in its simplest terms, is the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments. But this amendment has also come to prohibit “unsanitary, dangerous or overly restrictive conditions” of prisons and it secures a prisoner’s right to proper medical attention while incarcerated.
This amendment holds more importance than one would assume at first glance. I mean, It is, in a way, stating the most important fundamental right: the right to be treated as human. This would quite obviously include being treated in a humane manner. The specific part of the eighth amendment that covers prisoners rights is widely glanced over by citizens of America simply because of the fact that prisoners are just that, prisoners. But even if they have landed themselves in prison, even if they have committed the most vile, disgusting crime, regardless of what they have done, they are still human and are still entitled to the rights they were given at birth.
One of the biggest issues with our prison system is solitary confinement. Solitary Confinement is when a prisoner is sent to an unusually small cell that they will stay in for roughly 23 hours a day where they are completely void of any human contact. Solitary confinement is a growing concern because the effects associated with it. In minimum and medium security prisons, inmates are typically held in solitary for a few days. But, in maximum security prisons, the average time an inmate will spend in solitary is five years. And there are hundreds, if not thousands, of cases of prisoners that were held in solitary for decades at a time.
The psychological effects of solitary confinement can be long lasting and extremely damaging. Terry Kupers, a well-known psychologist, says that solitary confinement “destroys people as human beings.” This is because humans are social creatures and a lack of basic activity and interaction can cause anxiety, depression, paranoia, hallucinations, and even psychosis. When these things are mixed together is causes terrible, life-threatening effects. Being locked in solitary raises an inmate’s likelihood of committing suicide by 33%. Prisons are suppose to be a place where inmates learn how to behave and integrate themselves back into society, not a place where they are left in a tiny 6’ by 10’ cell alone for years to rot and that places them in a mental mindset that separates them from the rest of society even more.
It is argued that prisoners that are sent to solitary confinement are sent there because of misbehavior and therefore deserve to be locked in a cell by themselves. But the reality of the matter is that the vast majority of people locked in solitary are in there because they have a mental illness that guards and prison officials do not want to deal with. The issue is much greater than simple misbehavior.
On the subject of mental illness, one of the rights of prisoners covered under the eighth amendment states, “Inmates who need mental health care are entitled to receive that treatment in a manner that is appropriate under the circumstances.” This is because depriving them of proper medical care would be, in fact, unconstitutional. But if this is the case, why is it that many prisoners are being taken off of their medication? I interviewed Dustin Fletcher, an inmate of the Beto unit, a men’s maximum security prison in Texas. Dustin has a very severe case of bipolar disorder and was placed on anti-psychotics by a psychiatrist. When Dustin was transferred from a county jail to prison, they forced him off of his medication. This action completely violates Dustin’s eighth amendment right to proper medical care.
You are probably thinking that the prison must have had a good reason for taking Dustin off of his medicine, and you would be correct. The reason that Dustin’s right to adequate mental health care was violated was simply because the prison gets too hot. You are probably thinking that a little heat is no big deal, but the problem is that this prison, along with over a hundred more in Texas and many others throughout America, refuses to install air conditioners. The prisons in Texas have reported getting to temperatures over 115 degrees almost regularly in summer months, with one report by a guard saying that it had gotten to 149 degrees with a humidity of 65% in the Hutchens Unit Prison in Texas one summer. In July of 2012 alone, there were 10 Texan prison deaths due to the boiling hot temperatures, and there have been too many heat related injuries that both guards and prisoners have succumb to over the years, all because Texas prisons refuse to install some simple units of air conditioners. Texas may be known for its harsh treatment of prisoners, but putting any human in these conditions is one hundred percent cruel.
This heat can have detrimental effects on the body, especially if a prisoner is on medications such as antipsychotics. Anti-psychotics make the body more susceptible to heat, and since many prisons are housing places for the mentally ill, prisons need to be extremely cautious. The vast majority of prison heat deaths were caused by medications making the inmates more sensitive to heat. When the prisons reached temperatures in the hundred range, it caused the inmates to go into hyperthermia, which happens when the body reaches a temperature above 105 degrees. Despite the view that “prisoners are getting what they deserve,” no one deserves to be treated in a manner so cruel and that so blatantly disregards the rights of human beings. And even if citizens believe that prisoners deserve the cruelty they are being given, our government in not suppose to run on the elementary school view of the “two wrongs make a right” fallacy.
It is becoming inherently more clear as time goes on that the prison system is broken. These conditions need to be fixed, and that will only happen if the nation becomes aware of the harsh realities of this system. Thomas Jefferson once said, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. If we are to guard against ignorance and remain free, it is the responsibility of every American to be informed.” Thomas Jefferson knew, more than two hundred years ago, that it is our responsibility to be informed about our nation and what our constitution has laid out for us. We all need to be educated on the laws and regulations bestowed upon our country in order to remain in the free state we are currently in. But, is it possible for us to be truly free if our rights are being violated and our laws ignored? The answer is simple, no. The laws were put in place to accommodate our rights and to keep the United States in order and every American citizen needs to make sure that these laws are abided by, not only by the citizens but by the government itself. If rights are being violated then the government is not doing its job in keeping America free and equal. If this is the case, we need to make these problems known and to make sure that it is taken care of. We have to fight for those who are being ignored and mistreated, and maybe then America can be one step closer to the unity and freedom we say we already have.