It’s not just that Americans want a system that metes out punishment, it’s that — despite our Eighth Amendment — we are accepting of the cruelest punishment. And while it’s not legal, it exists and it’s pervasive. In theory, our prisons are holding cells for the worst offenders and centers for rehabilitation for the others. Inmates can work, learn, and prepare themselves for a more productive life in society. In reality, they are hellscapes of rape, abuse, and violence from gangs and guards.
At the for-profit East Mississippi Correctional Facility, for example, prisoners lacked functioning toilets and were forced to “defecate into Styrofoam trays or plastic trash bags” without any way of “ridding their cells of the waste other than tossing it onto the housing unit through the slots in their doors.” Mentally ill prisoners were left to their own devices, with terrible consequences. “Prisoners engage in gross acts of self-mutilation, including electrocution, swallowing shards of glass and razors, and tearing into their flesh with sharp objects.”
These kinds of stories aren’t hard to find. Nor is evidence of our epidemic of prison sexual assault. “Roughly 200,000 men, women, and children reported being sexually abused in detention facilities in 2011, the most recent year for which the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) has anonymously self-reported data from inmates,” writes Carla Murphy for Colorlines. Because of shame from the assault and fear of their assailants, the actual number is almost certainly higher, as many victims don’t report their abuse to the authorities, in part because guards are often as responsible for rape as other inmates.
Americans know this. They know that prisons are horrible. They know that going to jail vastly increases your odds of being raped, attacked, or worse. And yet, this does nothing to shift the overwhelming punitiveness of American public opinion. Indeed, prison rape is a punch line, summed up in don’t drop the soap or watch out, you might become a punk. Americans don’t recoil from assaults in our jails and prisons; they welcome them as deserts for people who commit crimes.
Our prisons, then, are sites for retribution. As Robert A. Ferguson, professor of law and literature at Columbia University, notes in his book Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment, Americans routinely transition from a rational view of criminals (“because your act and your mental state at the time were blameworthy, you deserve punishment”) to a moralized one (“you have a hardened, abandoned and malignant heart” and “you are evil and rotten to the core”), to a scornful one, where the criminal is “scum” and deserves “whatever cruel indignity I choose to inflict on you.” You see this most vividly in the reactions to police shootings of black Americans. It’s not enough for the shooting to be justified, as a grand jury decided in the case of Ferguson’s Officer Darren Wilson. No, the victim must be demonized, hence the chorus of critics against Michael Brown: He was a thug who deserved his fate.
Dick Cheney’s America