Posted on Wed, Apr. 20, 2005

Hearings begin on jail violence

Associated Press

TAMPA - Alarmed by the growing violence and abuse accompanying America's prison population boom, a private panel Tuesday opened a series of national hearings to explore why the corrections system is broken and how it can be fixed.

The Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons heard testimony, sometimes graphic, from former prisoners and jailers, detailing horrors taking place behind bars. Federal statistics show that more than 2.2 million men and women are currently incarcerated, four times the number in 1980.

That growth prompted the panel to declare that all Americans are hurt by rapes, systemic degradation, attacks on guards and beatings of inmates.

"When a prison environment becomes dangerous or abusive, everyone in society suffers," said Nicholas de B. Katzenbach, a
commission co-chairman and a U.S. attorney general under Lyndon Johnson.

John Gibbons, former chief justice of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the commission's other chairman, said the testimony would "paint a picture of life in prison that doesn't fit with the core values of our democratic society and, therefore, should trouble all Americans."

The 21-member commission - composed of prison and justice administrators, former prisoners, psychologists and civil rights leaders - hopes to deliver recommendations for reforms at the federal, state and local levels.

One commissioner stated the issue touched Americans when details emerged of soldiers' abuse of Iraqi prisoners - but that concern hasn't translated to the homefront.

"Nobody wants to hear about it," said Ray Krone, who spent a decade in prison after being wrongly convicted of murder. "Nobody is interested."

Testifying before the commission was Ron McAndrew, superintendent of Florida State Prison in Starke from 1996-98. He said that upon his arrival, identifying potentially dangerous guards was a priority.

"It's easy to pick out the Goon Squad when you're the warden," McAndrew said.

But his efforts to weed them out were unsuccessful, and a year after McAndrew was transferred out, guards were accused of fatally beating a death row inmate. Two trials in the county, where the prison is the biggest employer, ended in verdicts of not guilty.

The first witness was a former Texas prison inmate who told the panel of the repeated rapes inflicted by a guard.

Garrett Cunningham said he kept quiet about the attacks, fearing retaliation. When he finally told authorities, he said he was ignored, and he dared not endanger himself by admitting weakness to the other inmates.

"My hope is that this commission will hear the pleas for protection from the abused and violated in America's prisons and expose the widespread nature of violence," Cunningham said.

The guard, who has since resigned, recently settled a civil suit brought by another inmate and soon will be tried in criminal court.

Also testifying was a Rhode Island police detective wrongly convicted of murder. Jeffrey Scott Hornoff, held for six years, said he endured guards' humiliations and listened as other inmates were beaten.

A woman strip-searched after being arrested in Miami during the 2003 free-trade protests spoke to the panel a day after she and two others won a settlement in a class-action lawsuit against Miami-Dade County.

"The type of strip search that I and thousands of women experience was about humiliation and control, not about safety," Judy Haney said. "Just as rape is about violence and not about sex."

Witnesses also testified to the difficulty of determining the prevalence of abuse, either by inmates or guards. They complained of spotty record keeping, limited access, punishment delivered to those who talk to outsiders and the jailers' culture of silence.

"People forget the walls are designed to keep people out as well as in," said Barbara Owen, a Fresno State University professor whose expertise is women's prisons.

According to statistics provided by the commission, there were more than 34,000 reports of inmates assaulting inmates in the 12-month period of 1999-2000. That represented a 32 percent increase from the same period five years earlier.

In that same span of 1999-2000, nearly 18,000 prison employees were assaulted - a jump of 27 percent from 1994-95.

The commission noted there are no national statistics for guards' use of excessive force.

Organizing the commission is the Vera Institute of Justice, a New York-based nonprofit research group that works with governments on criminal justice issues.

The hearing continues today.

The commission next meets July 19-20 in New Jersey to hear testimony on safety problems at prisons.

A third hearing, in November, will address the problems faced by corrections officers. The final hearing in January will focus on oversight within the prison system.

See: www.prisoncommission.org/

Vera Institute of Justice: http://www.vera.org/

Bureau of Justice Statistics Corrections Statistics: http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/correct.htm

  • Back