Blog of Rights

Cast Your Ballot for the Worst Prison Innovation of 2011: With Solutions Like These, Who Needs Problems?

By David Shapiro, ACLU National Prison Project at 12:07pm

As 2011 comes to end, we’re taking a look back at the year in criminal justice. Over the next few days, we’ll run a series of blog posts on the developments, good and bad, that have shaped our justice system – from overincarceration and sentencing policy to the treatment of prisoners and capital punishment. Read the series here.

As we bid adieu to another year, we can’t help but reflect that, when it comes to prisons and jails, this year witnessed some terrible ideas. Below are our contenders for the worst prison idea of 2011. Go to our Facebook page, then click on "Poll" to vote, and come back in January to find out which idea snagged the dubious prize: Worst Prison Innovation of 2011.

The Contenders

1. No Lunch: Texas has abolished lunch on weekends. On Saturdays and Sundays, inmates in 36 Texas prisons will receive one meal between 5:00 a.m. and 7:00 a.m., and a second meal between 4:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. – and no meal in between.

This sort of idea fires up “tough on crime” politicians, especially when state budgets are tight, but cutting back on food, as ACLU National Prison Project director David Fathi told the New York Times is nothing less than short-sighted. In fact, eliminating lunch could leave inmate blood sugar levels low and tempers high – never a good idea in the fraught environment of a prison. Cutting out lunch is also out of step with the practice of other states and standards set by the American Correctional Association.

2. Gouging Families: A new law in Arizona allows the Department of Corrections to charge family members and other visitors who want to see prisoners a $25 fee. Visiting loved ones is hard enough without the new charge because, as the New York Times reports, family members “in many cases already shoulder the expense of traveling long distances to the remote areas where many prisons are located.” New fees just make it harder.

Aside from prisoners’ families, public safety will be the victim of the new law. Empirical evidence shows that prisoners who stay in touch with their families are less likely to commit crimes after being released. In fact, just last month, a new study by the Minnesota Department of Corrections reported that “[o]ffenders who were visited in prison were significantly less likely to recidivate.” We should encourage contact between prisoners and their families, not make it more difficult by extracting fees.

3. Robo-guards: South Korea is launching a test of robotic correctional officers. As the Los Angeles Times reports, these robo-guards (or should we say guard-bots?) are designed to act as “‘friendly robots’ that will not just guard prisoners but keep an eye on their well-being to boot.” And they may be used for matters that require something of a human touch – like detecting suicidal behavior. In fact, according to Time Magazine, the robots supposedly are “in touch with prisoners’ emotions, sensing aggressive or suicidal shifts.”

Robotic correctional officers have yet to hit the U.S., but American correctional facilities have rolled out their fair share of misguided new devices in recent years. Several jails have turned to “video visitation,” which prevents incarcerated individuals from even laying eyes on their family members – except through a video camera. And as we reported in 2010, the Los Angeles County Jail has “installed an Assault Intervention Device – an invisible microwave-beam weapon originally developed by the military – as a way to subdue inmates by focusing a microwave beam on them to make them feel ‘intolerable heat.’” Let’s hope the next step isn’t turning suicide monitoring over to droids.

So which is the worst prison idea of 2011 – no lunch, gouging families, or robo-guards? You decide – go to our Facebook page, then click on "Poll" to cast your vote, and come back for the results in January!

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