Sunday, January 27, 2008

Rehabilitation’s just a (dance) step away

It has now become yet another terrifying experiment in seeing just how far a state can go in treating prisoners as subhuman. In her latest Boston Review essay, our colleague Colin Dayan describes how the Supreme Court of one of the world’s oldest and largest democracies, in a case called Beard v. Banks (2006), upheld prison regulations providing that certain prisoners could be

isolated 23 hours a day in their cells, denied radio and television broadcasts, and prevented from earning a GED (General Education Diploma) or taking special education classes. They ate alone and could not make telephone calls except in emergencies or when related to legal representation. Unable to speak or socialize directly with other inmates, they stared at the unpainted, concrete, and windowless walls onto which nothing could be posted. Except for the occasional touch of an officer’s hand as they were handcuffed and chained to leave their cells, they had no contact with other human beings. Although prisoners could “graduate” out of [this special unit], the duration of their stay—beyond the minimum requirement of ninety days—was at the discretion of prison administrators, and most did not graduate. In this already severely restricted environment, the new [] policy categorically prohibited access to magazines, newspapers, or books, except paperbacks from the prison library—called “leisure books” in “[the unit’s] Rules and Regulations”—and books of a legal or religious nature.

Prison officials offered two reasons for this sweeping restriction of prisoners’ First Amendment rights. Newspapers, they said, could be wound up, turned into projectiles, used as night sticks, and deployed to make fires and hide contraband. Moreover, these officials argued, the deprivation of personal photographs and secular periodicals serves the goal of rehabilitation. Prisoners like to read about current events and look at photographs of their loved ones. Take these things away, the theory went, and recalcitrant prisoners, those “who have few other privileges to lose,” would behave.

Meanwhile, across an ocean, in a former dictatorship where “[p]risoners sleep on hard pallets more than a dozen to a cell and are held to a strict schedule of work and other activities from dawn to light-out[,]” inmates are learning that “they can be productive, that they aren’t useless scum of society”. In the prison where rehabilitation through dance began, gangs have been broken up, “weekly outbreaks of violence have subsided, inmates’ health has improved and recidivism rates are down dramatically”. This country? The Philippines, where the dance craze has spread to other prisons, thanks, in part, to this YouTube video, in which 1500 prisoners groove together.

Back in the United States, as Dayan's essay reminds us, on one day in 2006 some members of the Supreme Court expressed extreme dismay over Salim Hamdan’s being denied the right to be present at his trial before a military commission. That was just one day after members of the Court -- including some who'd expressed concern in Hamdan -- handed down the retrograde judgment upholding the denial of anything that might show certain prisoners that they are still present as human beings in society.

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