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.