Monday, 2 March 2009

Basic human dignity

I gathered a bit more information about Berry L Jack. He is a 47 years old Native American who suffers from diabetes and is bi-polar. Mr Jack was charged with one count of theft and several counts of forgery. All counts of forgery were dismissed by the prosecution and he was convicted on the one count of theft. I don't know what sentence he received or if he's still in prison.

Mr Jack claims he doesn't have any family, and says he had only a cat as a companion when he lived in Valdez.

What happened to him when he entered the prison system, not as a convicted criminal, but simply to await trial?

He was placed in a cell with an extremely violent individual who turned him into his plaything for three days. When the assault was reported he received some immediate treatment for his injuries and was tested for sexually transmitted diseases.

Specialist therapy was recommended to help him deal with the mental effects of the assault. That was not forthcoming. He tried to get help, wrote to the state governor, you know how it went. So he sued a couple of people in the hopes of being awarded a fat compensation.

His papers disappeared, court documents sent to him were returned stating that no forwarding address was given. The case was dismissed because of his lack of response.

We have only his word for most of this sorry saga. But I believe the last piece of the puzzle is quite telling. How can a person residing in a state prison simply leave without giving a forwarding address? If the facility can't keep track of the inmates, what hope is there of keeping more dangerous individuals secure behind bars?

No, Mr Jack had not escaped or moved to Florida without telling anybody. He appeared in court in August, two months after his case against Sarah Palin was dismissed. They managed to find him for that. How come they couldn't find him to deliver his mail?

I'm not writing this to keep the spotlight on Mr Berry as an individual or as some kind of freak show. I'm using his story to illustrate what can happen to vulnerable people who find themselves in the custody of an insensitive institution. People are sent to prison to pay for their crimes, not to be stripped of their human dignity.

I can see that some people might argue that a number of prisoners don't deserve to have their dignity preserved due to the nature of their crimes. The way I see it, if all prisoners are treated with the same basic respect as human beings, their sentences will take care of the punishment. We don't need prisons to dispense punishment with varying degrees of brutality to fit the nature of the prisoners' crimes. If we condone that we become dehumanised ourselves.

Some people in prison right now are very vulnerable individuals. The lonely, the mentally ill, the ethnic minorities are all at the mercy of dangerous prisoners and of the system, if the system is itself uncaring. It was very easy place Mr Jack in danger, to ignore him when he asked for help, it was easy to lose him when he tried to assert his civil rights.

Looking at the way the prisons in Alaska are managed, where neither inmates nor staff have their safety or health safeguarded, there must be many more Berry Jacks being tossed to one side, becoming impossible to access because their mail is not delivered to them and having their basic needs and rights ignored.

The sad thing is, when they leave prison, they may continue to be tossed to one side by society.

Link to previous related post.


Dianne said...

This is very good. Very telling and common of the prison system. Many, many individuals in prisons are mentally incapacitated and basically, are sent there because the state run hospitals were closed years ago. There's no help for them. Then, when they are released, they become homeless, can't take care of themselves, they're obviously still ill, they re-offend and go back again. It's a terrible cycle and shame on our leaders and we as a country and as human beings to allow this to happen. Where's the compassion?

Anonymous said...

I went to the Alaska court records website and looked Mr. Jacks up. Here is his sentencing information:

08/01/2008 Sentencing Info: Judge Smith Jail days: 1460, susp days: 1095 Prob type: Formal Probation, start: 08/01/2008, days: 1095, End: 07/31/2011 Charge #2: AS11.46.130(A)(1): THEFT-2ND DEGREE

He was sentenced to FOUR YEARS,
yes, FOUR YEARS of jail days plus probation for one charge of 2nd degree theft. As you mentioned, the other charges were dismissed.

The case started on 8/17/07. The conviction was on 10/22/08---over A YEAR LATER. That is quite awhile. It looks like he was released on bond at some point, but forfeited the bond and was re-arrested.

I wonder if the judge considered the jail rape and injuries during the sentencing. I'm an attorney, but now aware of Alaska criminal system practices, but four years sounds like a long sentence for theft.

This would be great case for a law school class or clinic to look at for compliance with the law. I am not aware if there are regulations regarding putting nonviolent and violent prisoners in the same cell. At the very least, the jail should meet certain health and safety standards.

Good post!!----L.

Helen said...

I am completely outraged that this person was raped for three days and NO ONE DID ANYTHING!

This should be front page news. 4 years for 2nd degree theft? I'm no lawyer, but this doesn't sound kosher now does it?

The fear, the suffering, the pain, the isolation, the humiliation, the callous disregard, the torture really...this is just plain torture.