Prison cell from inside

It’s not the missiles they taunt us with or their “supreme leader’s” disregard for the lives of his own family members. The most stunning reminder of North Korea’s disregard for humanity was their launch of Otto Warmbier’s comatose body — a North Korean court had sentenced the Ohio man to 15 years of hard labor for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster — out of their realm of responsibility, back home once they no longer wanted to house him. Warmbier reached the United States where he died 6 days later. 

Now Warmbier’s name leads the title of a new bill introduced late last month in in Congress — one co-sponsored by Wisconsin Rep. Gwen Moore — that would sanction North Korea economically for its nuclear weapons and grotesque violations of law and human rights. Warmbier’s parents have pushed to list North Korea as state sponsor of terror, given the evidence of their son’s condition when he arrived at a Cincinnati airport blind, deaf and seizing. 

"We don’t treat anyone like that in the United States," most people think, "If someone did, there would be a consequence."

But prisoners in this country have been so dehumanized that you can kill them without consequence, the same way North Korea did to Otto Warmbier. If what North Korean officials did to Otto Warmbier is an act of terrorism, then the American prison industrial complex sponsors terrorism, too.

When Terrance Jenkins died at Pontiac Correctional Center Prison in 2015, balls of paper were found in his throat. A long investigation by Illinois State Police provided no explanation for the odd placement in an asphyxiation victim’s airway — mostly because investigators never asked. “There was no interest in holding the guards accountable,” said the attorney representing the inmate’s family in a wrongful death suit.

Along with three other inmate deaths, another prisoner was dehydrated to death in Wisconsin in the Milwaukee County Jail. Despite the fact that a grand jury recommended charges against seven jail staffers in May, no one’s been arrested.

In Florida, two corrections officers stood outside a shower as inmate Darren Rainey was exposed for an hour to 180-degree water and screamed to be let out, only to be laughed at and taunted with questions like “Is it hot enough for you?” Nurses at the scene described watching his skin fall off his body when they touched him. He was in effect, boiled to death. Florida has decided not to prosecute, in essence, because prosecutors don’t see it as a crime. 

In 2015, Keaton Farris was dehydrated to death in a Washington state jail where he was being held for bouncing a $355 check. No one was held responsible for what must have been “willful neglect” in that situation either.

It seems easy to dismiss this abuse as the punishment that lawbreakers deserve. Surprisingly, even liberal news outlets tried to justify what happened to Warmbier as the result of white privilege gone wild. 

Most upstanding citizens believe people can avoid the abuse in American prisons if they simply don’t commit a crime. But that isn’t necessarily true; this abuse affects everyone. 

It should surprise no one that prisoners take the lessons they learn on the inside to the outside; just knowing about how another inmate has been abused or killed can have criminogenic effects and keep our recidivism rates where they are. Hovering around 66%, those recidivism rates are too high to justify current correctional practices.

A study released last year by In the Public Interest found that people released from private prisons were more likely to reoffend and attributed this increased recidivism to the outrageous violence that pervades private facilities. 

That means that even people who don’t deserve retribution — people like you — suffer effects of our flawed criminal justice system. Generosity has become a tradition of American justice — just deserts are shared with those who don’t deserve. 

Months ago, President Trump helped secure Warmbier’s release because he didn’t want an American subject to conditions that we are morally opposed to as a country. “Otto was tortured beyond belief by North Korea” he tweeted at the end of September. 

Yet Trump seems prepared to keep as many people locked up in similar conditions in our country, despite the fact that such a plan will ultimately risk many of his constituents’ safety and security. 

We should view North Korea and its treatment of people — and people includes prisoners —  through a lens of condemnation and agree that something needs to be done about their barbarism. 

But moral superiority can’t apply here. We need to turn the lens towards ourselves too, and realize that we shouldn’t run our various correctional systems the same way, and do better in how we treat our own.

Chandra Bozelko, Prison Diaries

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