One of the more remarkable pieces I read during the flood of information which poured out after the earthquake in Haiti was a piece talking about prisoners held in the National Penitentiary. What I found astounding was not that there were 4,000 people imprisoned there, but that 60-80% of them were in what is known as pretrial detention.
Pretrial detention, for the uninitiated, is a situation in which people are held in jail, prison, or a special facility pending legal proceedings. There are a number of reasons why people can end up in this situation, and it’s something which is not widely highlighted or discussed outside of communities pushing for penal reform. One important thing to stress is that pretrial detention is a global problem and it has some very far reaching implications which matter very, very much.
Depending on where a prisoner is, one common reason to wind up in pretrial detention can be the inability to make bail. Sometimes people just can’t afford bail. In other cases a bail bondsperson won’t pay the bail because people have no assets or are simply too risky to lend the money to. People such as undocumented immigrants may also have trouble getting in touch with family members who could put up assets against a bail bond. This is clearly a class issue: People with money make bail. People without money who lack access to liquidity do not make bail.
Judges can also decline to release someone on bail and demand that the person be kept in pretrial detention for reasons ranging from “safety” to concerns about the person being a flight risk. Curiously, it is certain types of accused who are targeted with such tactics and find themselves held in detention awaiting trial; these standards, in other words, are not applied evenly. Even in the United States, where people supposedly have access to a speedy trial, it can take a year or more for legal proceedings to get rolling. During which time someone is treated like a convicted criminal. Outside the United States? People can be held indefinitely pending legal proceedings. This despite international law which clearly dictates that people have a right to reasonably fast trial proceedings or release on bail awaiting trial.
Pretrial detention is used to silence political prisoners. It is used to deny people access to their rights. It is used to keep undocumented immigrants cowed and terrified. It is used, literally, to dispose of people who are inconvenient. It is, quite simply, inhumane, and it is a very serious social justice issue because it touches upon a lot of facets of social justice work. The people most likely to be held in pretrial detention are people who are often already vulnerable, such as people who are politically outspoken, people who do not speak the language, people who do not understand the system, people who are poor, people who are drug users, people who are disabled.
People are held in jail by governments which have no intention of trying them. In India alone, 70% of the prison population includes people who are being held in pretrial detention. There are all kinds of excuses for the holdups on the trial itself; witnesses cannot be located, the courts are backed up, the accused lacks legal representation, evidence is missing. Meanwhile, the accused is treated like a prisoner. Lives with people who have been convicted, although those convictions are not always terribly reliable, depending on the strength of the legal system.
The practice of pretrial detention is not just problematic for the people being detained without necessarily having committed a crime. It also contributes in a major way to prison overcrowding. When over 50% of the prison population consists of people awaiting legal proceedings, that means that you are, by very nature, going to have a large prison population. A population which will become crowded and pressured. This leads to violence, it leads to disease, it leads to situations in which people are abused, not just by other prisoners, but also by guards.
Prison reform is an issue which is very important to me and it’s something which I have worked on in other venues, and would like to start concentrating more on here at this ain’t livin’. It’s something which is often neglected, because of attitudes about prisons and the people who end up there, and advocates for prison reform may be condemned for daring to agitate for better conditions for prisoners.
I care about prison reform both because I do not think that people who are innocent should be imprisoned and because I think that prisoners are entitled to human rights. Whatever the crime someone may have committed, it is not an excuse for the abuses which occur in the prison system. It is not an excuse for systematic rape and violence. It is not an excuse for depriving people of nutrition or force feeding them. It is not an excuse for horrific practices such as extended periods in solitary confinement. Or torture. It is not an excuse for refusing to allow people to access healthcare, an education, their families. If you care about human beings, period, you should care about what happens to prisoners.
In fact, as prison reform programs have demonstrated, providing prisoners with better conditions is not just a humane thing to do. It also decreases rates of recidivism and can lower the overall administrative costs associated with the justice system. For example, by setting up diversionary courts which allow people with drug addiction to get treatment rather than prison, we could reduce prison overcrowding, provide people with treatment if they want it, and decrease the chances that people who go through such programs will end up right back at square one after fulfilling the terms of their agreement with the court. That’s a good thing.
Prison reform is not the only thing we need. We also need reform of the criminal justice system in general to address the very real and very large injustices which continue to plague it.