Louise Thayer looks at a prison ‘experiment’ with devastating consequences.
I decided to become a keeper of rats last week. My significant other raises Boas, and I like snakes well enough to have (in the past!) whacked a few mice over the head for. Normally I don’t look in the rat tank if he has any feeder critters left over; I choose to see the well-cared-for serpents instead. However, when I found him carrying in his pocket a tiny grayish, twitching nostril-ed, four white sock-ed “Fluffy” named Fry (on account of his current snack)—I had to have him.
One rat quickly became two after a FaceBook conversation with my rat-fascinated advisor, Kath. Her simple comment that now he only needed a friend to make his life complete stopped me in my tracks. I’d been going on my childhood-based intel that two male rats could never be kept together. Not true she said, if given the appropriate conditions.
I heard a report on NPR this week (as I prepared supper for 40+ excited and kenneled bird dogs). It was about the little-known practice of double cell-ing within federal prisons. In other words, “solitary” confinement for two.
This has allegedly become a necessary practice due to serious overcrowding of the average prison population, and I’m in no way condemning the people who choose to work in such environments; it sounds as though there’s serious frustration amongst prison staff, but that their hands are tied when it comes to effecting positive change for living conditions within these cramped and often dilapidated facilities.
The fact is, conditions within facilities of mass incarceration continue to rapidly decline as more and more people are arrested for non-violent crimes. Don’t even get me started on the practice of prison privatization or the vast disparity between the white vs. non-white population in those establishments.
The journalist in the radio segment described the square footage of such euphemistically named ‘disciplinary segregation’ cells as being no more than an average King-sized mattress with cement and steel walls keep you on said mattress (which is actually a concrete floor), except now also picture the space filled with bunk beds, a toilet, sink and two fully grown men.
Such was the case for David Sesson and Bernard Simmons. Joseph Shapiro is a NPR News Investigations correspondent and wrote this lengthier version of the radio segment. He tells of how both men were placed together in ‘solitary,’ in spite of the fact that Sesson (who outweighed Simmons by 100 lbs) had previously threatened to kill the next “cellie” he was stuck with and had, in fact, 11 hours earlier attempted to kill his previous bunk mate with an electrical cord.
They were together for less than six hours before Sesson strangled Simmons to death.
As I listened to this, I looked around the kennel house where 30 dog runs are situated under a protective roof. The optimal breeze is generally from the south and the sun cruises from east to west, giving ideally placed shade for the Texas heat. Dog boxes are in each run and they face either east or west so that the north wind never blows on the dogs if they want to curl up in their dens and sleep. The runs themselves are engineered to cause the dogs to have enough room to charge up and down, playing with their next door neighbor…they’re purposely not square so as to discourage neurotic circling behavior.
There’s also a septic system and chlorinated water for washing out the runs to perfectly angled drains. The surface of the runs is perfect for the older dogs paw pads to stay plump and in perfect shape. Puppies, who need a different, sand surface, are never in there except to run through at will like rabble-rousing, liberated maniacs so as get used to the cacophony that can be feeding or exercise time for the adult dogs. This gives them the consideration of plenty of time to explore that particular part of their environment before they are ever thrust into it unprepared.
Not so for human inmates. We give far more thought here to the exercise and conditioning and development programs of our competitive hunting dogs than does the average prison give to the needs of grown adults to be able to perform the most basic of human functions. To move. To have a sense that the world is larger than the four walls and a roof that surround you.
If we were to simply leave these dogs in these runs, it wouldn’t matter how perfectly we maintained them or how well they were made, the dogs would slowly go insane. I’ve witnessed elsewhere the destructive behaviors that can result from confinement and boredom. Property damage is nothing however, compared to the issue that is pent-up frustration turned to aggressive behavior.
We only have intact dogs here, (meaning they have not been spayed or neutered), and if you want to witness something incredibly adrenaline charging, you should see what happens when two males attack one another. I’ve only had it happen in front of me once thankfully. Equipment failure was to blame (a snap came detached from a harness of one exercising male as—circumstantially—another ran by him). I can’t say what triggered them to snap at each other that day, but I can say that it was primal and had the potential to be lethal without human intervention.
The answer is twofold with plenty of complexities to be worked out but we must, as a society, attempt to work towards the reduction of the prison population and then simultaneously work to improve the conditions within the system.
If this sounds naive, I don’t care. It’s fact. The case of Simmons and Sessions just highlights the extremity of the issues we face, but if we don’t approach reform from a humanitarian angle then we are doomed to fail. More and more commonly we’ll be hearing about these kinds of entirely avoidable incidents.
If we fail to recognize the most fundamental needs of inmates, then we are no better than someone who chains up a dog for its whole life because it once bit a person. Where’s the rehabilitation? Where’s any attempt to responsibly problem solve. If we vilify “criminals” as only that, we will never seek, for them, education and reintegration. We reduce human beings to rats in overcrowded cages.
As it turned out, Theo the snake wasn’t hungry, and so Franklin Chow came back to live with Fry. They’re littermates and so far have only got into one vocal contest over a Cheerio, but you can guarantee that if they start to have an issue with their living situation, I’ll do my utmost to rectify it. Animal husbandry is one thing I know about, and yet I feel almost totally powerless in the face of such complete systemic failure when it comes to our own species.
Maybe we need to take a look at good animal-keeping practices when we think of locking up people in unnatural environments. The work of Temple Grandin springs to mind. As we advance into an age of population explosion, we cannot with any morality sustain current practices. Humanity needs to find a balance, and punitive measures should be a last resort when it comes to our offenders. Just as you wouldn’t beat a dog for a first infraction, neither would you (hopefully) wish death for a human being, with a family, who is no longer able to see their loved one. It’s simply not good enough.