Law in Contemporary Society

I recall that during one class this past semester, Eben admonished all those aspiring to become prosecutors to spend a day in a prison in order to understand what they would be sentencing people to. Although I didn't spend the day, his words were on my mind when I visited Sing Sing the other week for a 6-hour tour of the facilities as part of my summer experience with the NYS Attorney General's Office. I thought that I would describe the experience in more detail here.

Brief Background: Sing Sing is a male-only maximum security prison located in Ossining, NY (30 miles north of the city), overlooking the Hudson River (fun fact: the term "up the river" referred to sending NYC criminals up the Hudson to Sing Sing). The prison houses nearly 1800 inmates. The original cell block, built in 1825, burnt down in the mid 90s. The current prison was constructed in the middle of the 20th century. "Old Sparky," the prison's old electric chair on which 614 inmates -- including Julius and Ethel Rosenberg -- were executed between 1891 and 1963, is currently on tour around the U.S.; the old Death House is now a vocational school building.

The temperature that day was in the high 80s (those in NY would know that temperatures reached 103 earlier that week). I mention this fact because the prison was not air-conditioned with the exception of the medical ward and the disciplinary hearing rooms. It was sweltering. We visited three cell blocks, the school building, library, mess hall, commissary, medical ward, recreation yard, auditorium (for a rather famous inmate theater program), and chapel. It really is quite surreal how prison is its own world -- even more surreal considering its location in the middle of a suburb.

First we toured the school building, which also houses the law library and regular library. It eerily resembled my elementary school, except with bars on all the windows. We were told by the corrections officer leading us that it is possible to enter Sing Sing without a high school degree and leave with a bachelors or masters degree. Photos of graduating classes of inmates lined the walls as a testament to this. The law library, filled with shelves and shelves of federal reporters, statute books, rules of procedure, and other collections, was quite impressive. Adjoining it was a computer lab for typing up complaints.

We saw three cell blocks: one for short-term inmates (younger, many recently transferred from Rikers, there for 2-3 years), one for long-term inmates, and one for model prisoners (which has a 2-year waiting list to get in). Cells contained a surprising amount of personal items (I had envisioned more barren cells, but many were quite colorful), including some guitars. I could not help but recall college dorm rooms (though dorms rooms are 3x larger and do not also contain a tiny sink and toilet). There is no real privacy, though more than one prisoner hung a towel across the door in an attempt to get some.

In the honors cell block, inmates were allowed to wander freely. There was a big-screen TV in the middle of the common area around which the cells were lined that many inmates were watching as we passed through. Inmates there are also allowed a kitchen to cook, and we were surprised to learn they were allowed kitchen knives. We subsequently learned that 5 weeks earlier, an inmate had been stabbed to death by another in the honors block.

Final Random Facts: Prisoners placed under "keeplock" for misbehavior are kept in their cells 23 hours a day. More serious misbehavior results in being sent to the Special Housing Unit ("SHU"), which is isolation. Inmates can earn 16 cents an hour on prison jobs. They are allowed to visit the commissary once every two weeks where they can buy items like cigarettes, spices, meat, and snacks/candy.

Overall, prison was in some ways better than what I had expected and in other ways scarier. (And of course, I recognize I got the "visitor's tour" which is the much cleaner, PG version. Make no mistake: prison is a terrible place to be.) Still, I was impressed by some of the facilities within the prison and the array of programs that were offered to the inmates. The life of an inmate also seemed less regimented than I thought it would be. It seems to me that other prisoners -- and particularly the prospect of getting shanked -- are the greatest and scariest risk in prison, based on the number of cases I've seen involving inmate assaults and the number of stories our tour guide told. Corrections Officers are so outnumbered that it is impossible to monitor every place at every time.

More revisions later (wrote this in one stream)...

-- GraceChan - 20 Jul 2010

Thank you for sharing your visit to SingSing? and for giving a fair assessment of the prison facilities as well as sharing anecdotes you heard of prison life. Does the fact that prisoners are still allowed to use kitchen knives testify to respect for the humanity and individual of prisoners and their rights, or just careless acceptance for a couple deaths every once in a while?

I think Eben's admonishment that all prosecutors take a tour of prisons so they know the consequences of the charges they bring against people actually mean is a fair one, and one that should be taken up by prosecutors in bureaus that are routinely allowed to make harsh offers for relatively minor crimes simply due to flexibly interpreted penal codes. Someone who smashes a lover's head against a wall five times is offered a conditional discharge and a batterer's program (an hour once a week for 24 weeks) because no weapons were used, while in the Bronx a kid was sentenced to six years for robbing a pizza delievery man of his pizza because he used "a deadly weapon" - a knife.

As long as people have widely given powers, some will abuse them. You can see it in the interns who allow witnesses to wait over an hour in reception because they happened to arrive right before lunch time. In Eben's admonishment is the awareness that prosecutors have a good amount of leeway in what they can charge against someone and the sort of sentence they can offer. The very fact that laws are written so loosely that prosecutors can give sentences are too harsh (see above) is the fault of citizens who clamor for vaguely written laws with extremely harsh sentences. So, send us all on a prison tour! Thus, we can ask ourselves if the pain of losing a wallet or an ipod or a pizza is really worth putting through someone else through months or years of such conditions.


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r2 - 23 Jul 2010 - 20:47:17 - CeciliaWang
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