The American prison system: justice or exploitation?

In Washington, Pennsylvania, a county jail captain was charged this week with stealing more than $2,000 from inmates. Charges like this are nothing new — especially in Pennsylvania.

According to Prison Legal News, at least 14 Pennsylvania prison and jail guards were arrested between 2012 and 2014. Some were arrested for acts of corruption, and others for sexually assaulting inmates.

In Chester County Prison, former guard Erik Messner smuggled in contraband for profit. At Rockview State Penitentiary, a guard was sentenced to less than two years in prison for forcing an inmate to perform sex acts on him. In Bedford County Prison, former guard Ryan Clapper put an inmate’s shackles in the freezer before putting them on her because she complained about her shackles being too cold the previous time — and he bragged about it afterward.

When people discuss prison reform, they usually talk about large, institutional changes to the system that would make it more effective. But there are smaller steps that we can take — to begin with, holding prison guards accountable for actions that clearly violate inmates’ basic human rights.

In Pennsylvania, prison guard Harry Nicoletti was charged with 117 counts of prisoner abuse involving 31 alleged victims, but managed to escape prison time altogether. Another Pennsylvania prison guard, Tory D. Kelly, was charged alongside Nicoletti for prisoner abuse and for allegedly assaulting another prison guard who testified against him. His crimes went practically unpunished — he received 12 years’ probation, but no prison time.

Nicoletti’s defense attorneys depicted him as a hard-working family man, and called into question the validity of the inmates’ accounts by accusing them of lying and exaggerating.

During the trial, a prisoners testified against Nicoletti. One said he would “perform sex acts on [prisoners], beat them, spit on them, flush their heads in toilets and contaminate their food.”

The discrepancy between Nicoletti’s account and the inmates’ is apparent. In this case, the judge ruled in favor of Nicoletti, disregarding an overwhelmingly large number of prisoner abuse incidents. In fact, the judge told Nicoletti, “I’m sparing you from the danger that you imposed on the individuals you were in charge of.”

Semantically speaking, the judge himself admits that Nicoletti caused a dangerous environment for inmates and was responsible for these crimes. But Nicoletti’s conviction on 27 counts was met with a mere five months of probation.

Christopher Zoukis, author and active prison education advocate, seeks to explain why he didn’t receive prison time.

“The lenient sentences may reflect the jury’s acquittals on more serious charges and the defense’s strategy of portraying victimized prisoners as being liars and untrustworthy,” he said in a 2013 article.

And he might be right. So many decisions that judges make are highly political, and will greatly impact their career. When cases involving prison guard abuse reach court, judges will frequently rule in favor of guards due stereotypes used against inmates who are often depicted as deceptive and unreliable in court.

Unfortunately, this pattern spans across the nation.

At a state prison in Texas, nurse Domenic Hidalgo demanded sexual favors from inmates in return for essential prescription medications. Sexual relations between inmates and guards are a crime punishable by up to two years of prison in Texas — but Hidalgo avoided jail altogether.

Alysia Santo, writing for the Marshall Project, explained why his sentencing was so lenient.

“Proving sex abuse in prisons is difficult. An inmate’s word may hold little credibility, and prosecutors often refuse to prosecute,” she wrote in Newsweek. “The most common punishment for corrections staffers caught sexually abusing inmates is the loss of their jobs.”

Many states, such as Arizona, California, Delaware and Nevada, have laws that make sex between inmates and guards legal if the corrections officer says it was consensual. Other states like Vermont have no laws prohibiting sexual relations between inmates and corrections officers.

Sex between inmates and guards is outright illegal under Pennsylvania law. And the prevalence of abuse by officers and other officials combined with the lacking enforcement of justice is dangerous. With corrections officers abusing and bribing their inmates and some even going so far as threatening anyone from reporting their malicious acts, it is no wonder that reform within our prison systems is virtually nonexistent.

How can we, as a society, expect prisoners to aspire to make positive contributions when the officials who are supposed to guide them are the ones abusing them? How can our justice system possibly claim to serve fairly and justly when it has failed to hold prison guards and officials accountable?

Ultimately, we must realize that our prisoners are also humans. They feel pain. They feel vulnerable. They feel slighted. Many of their rights are disregarded and many of their horrific experiences in jail are rejected by a severe lack of accountability for corruption within their prisons.

For prison reform to actually work, we must reform those who work in them first. Only then can we expect our society to be safer and more secure.

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