In America, people in prisons and jails are regularly tortured, raped, and beaten by their fellow inmates. This is something that we all condone, or at least know about and accept–it’s the source of a never-ending supply of drama as well as corny jokes in film and television (don’t drop the soap!). I think in the back of many Americans’ minds, people who are in jail are Bad People Who Did Bad Things, and therefore kind of deserve whatever they get, so it’s okay to trivialize or to laugh at.
So when the L.A. Times headline today was “Rampant Abuse Seen at O.C. Jail,” it kind of shocked me. It made me wonder how badly the abuses must have been to get noticed, catch the public eye, and be worthy of a headline story. And they were bad, by non-jail standards: if the allegations are true, a man was raped, pissed on, beaten, then killed by his fellow inmates while a guard literally watched the TV show “Cops” within view of the fighting and used his phone to text a friend over twenty times, later cooking the books to make it appear as though he’d walked his rounds through the prison when in actuality the inmates were running it themselves. Oh, and the guy in jail? A guy suspected of kiddie porn that some officers misled the prisoners into believing was a literal child molester. He wasn’t even really a molester, yet the cops allowed him to be violated and killed while in plain sight of the guard room. He apparently screamed for help, and they just let him be brutalized to death.
This scared and angered me a lot, partially because it hit close to home. Two weeks ago, some friends of mine were forced to spend the night in an O.C. jail. Luckily, they made friends with their fellow inmates, so they didn’t get into any scrapes. But they did see some less-than-comforting brutality in the form of police beating a man with his own sandal. And that’s pretty light by the standards we’ve come to expect. I’ve heard reports of far worse in jails, including race-based gang wars in which poor guys spending the night in the drunk tank could be stabbed simply, say, for being Asian at the wrong time in a particular gang’s vendetta period. And in prisons, we all know of people spending years in coerced sex, or at the very least coerced into violent race-based behavior they themselves would never condone on the outside, simply because to be without allies in prison is to risk one’s life.
If every prisoner who gets tortured or killed in prison was a Jeffrey Dahmer or a sociopathic child molester, I would perhaps see the justice in this kind of brutality, morally if not procedurally or constitutionally. But the truth is, our societal acceptance of prison brutality hurts the weakest and least violent offenders in prison, not the strongest–and in the O.C. case, as so often happens, it extended to someone who had not even been tried or convicted of anything yet. We as a society need to own up to the justice system we claim to live under. We need to realize that prisoners should only be inflicted with the punishments they are assigned by judges and juries, and not be subjected to the whims of muscular gang-banging murderers and rapists simply because they live in the same building, sometimes only for a day or three. Otherwise we turn our prisons and jails into dens of violence and murder, places where the caprice of chance might land us if we’re not careful.