Let us speak on behalf of the dead—because we are implicated in these particular homicides.
But let’s first be clear on who these murder victims were. Ricky Bailey and Michael Armstead were convicted rapists. Charles David Richardson IV was convicted of murdering two people. They were not innocents. They were violent criminals.
Yet all three died violent deaths since September while incarcerated at one of the most expensive, most secure facilities in the state of Maryland. Indeed, the North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland was designed to be one of the most technologically advanced, super-maximum-security prisons in the world.
Richardson was found bloodied from head trauma, his blanket covering him on his bunk in his cell. An autopsy showed he died of strangulation. Michael Armstead was beaten to death on his way to eat. Ricky Bailey was found in his cell last week beaten to death with trauma to his head and body.
It appears no one was charged with or held to account in any of these deaths.
In 2006 when the Vera Institute’s Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons released their report, Confronting Confinement, they began by observing how difficult it is in America to even talk about what goes on inside prison. They start their report: “Most Americans feel that life in prison does not affect them …”
It takes an awful event to remind people that the dangers inside can endanger them: a large-scale riot that threatens to spill over into the community; a corrections officer who is killed on the job leaving a family behind; the spread of infectious disease from cell block to neighborhood block. When the emotional reaction to the awful headline fades, however, we are left only with the sinking feeling that prison is a problem with no solution. The temptation is always to look away, hoping the troubles inside the walls will not affect us.
Every day judges send thousands of men and women to jail or prison, but the public knows very little about the conditions of confinement and whether they are punishing in ways that no judge or jury ever intended; marked by the experience of rape, gang violence, abuse by officers, infectious disease, and never-ending solitary confinement. Unless the experience of incarceration becomes real through the confinement of a loved one or through a family member who works day-to-day in a correctional facility, jails and prisons and the people inside them are far removed from our daily concerns.
Americans share concerns about struggling schools, dangerous hospitals, and corrupt corporations. We now talk openly about domestic violence and child abuse because we know there are terrible consequences for our loved ones, our families, and our communities if we remain silent. Yet there is a shame and a stigma about incarceration that makes it very difficult to have honest, productive conversations about what we are doing and the results.
Similarly, the group Just Detention International—which started as People Organized to Stop the Rape of Imprisoned Persons—struggled often to be taken seriously in their early advocacy for improved conditions and against prison rape; and as they note on their website, “served as a voice for corrections reform when few others had the courage to do so.” Their arguments rest on a basic premise: “When the government takes away someone’s freedom, it incurs a responsibility to protect that person’s safety.”
Sexual abuse behind bars is a widespread human rights crisis in prisons and jails across the U.S. According to the best available research, 20 percent of inmates in men’s prisons are sexually abused at some point during their incarceration.1 The rate for women’s facilities varies dramatically from one prison to another, with one in four inmates being victimized at the worst institutions
When the government takes away someone’s freedom, it incurs a responsibility to protect that person’s safety. In Farmer v. Brennan and the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, the U.S. government has recognized that prisoner rape can amount to cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Moreover, every state has rape and sexual custodial misconduct laws that criminalize this form of abuse, regardless of the victim’s custody status, sexual orientation or gender identity.
However, as Yale professor Caleb Smith writes in his 2009 award winning Prison and the American Imagination, while we may not know or care what actually goes on in prisons and places like the North Branch Correctional Institution, we do have a vision of what prison is for:
In the age of Guantánamo, Abu Gharib, and a sprawling domestic prison-industrial complex, the American prison looms vast and awful in the social horizon, an international scandal and a humanitarian disaster. The problems of mass captivity and of its consequences for the meaning of humanity, partly buried since the riots of the 1970s, are again forcing themselves into public consciousness. Today, however, the prison no longer promises to correct criminals or to train citizen subjects. Instead, it appears as a kind of grotesquely violent warehouse whose inmates have been divested of rights, even of humanity, and condemned to a living death.
After twenty-seven years of incarceration Nelson Mandela philosophically observed “that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails.” And the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky observed after his imprisonment and time spent in a labor camp, that the “degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
Ricky Bailey, Michael Armstead and Charles David Richardson IV were convicted of their crimes and severely punished, given sentences where they would live out their lives in prison. By any meaningful definition they died cruel and unusual deaths.