On Dostoyevsky, Jesus and American Prisons
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Russian author of Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov and other important works of world literature famously stated that one can understand and judge a nation by how it treats its prisoners. Jesus said something similar in Matthew 25: 31-46. When he was a political prisoner in Siberia, Dostoyevsky was subjected to the emotional torture of mock execution. In the early 19th century, British author Charles Dickens decried the common usage of solitary confinement at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, the “city of brotherly love.” The United States is still internationally known for its virtually indiscriminate usage of solitary confinement in the 21st century, despite recent attempts to curb the inhumane practice that causes severe mental problems. In this blog I will apply the insights of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Jesus to a legal case in Wisconsin and my own incarceration in Virginia in order to inform readers about how the United States of America treats its prisoners today.
The June 2018 issue of Prison Legal News reported on two pro se federal lawsuits filed in Wisconsin by prisoner Samuel S. Upthegrove in an article entitled, “Wisconsin Settles State Prisoner’s Lawsuits for $13,000. The lawsuits were recorded as (1) Upthegrove v. Bartow, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Wisc.), Case No. 2:16-cv-00424-JPS and (2) Upthegrove v. Baird, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Wisc), Case No. 3:15-cv-00509-wmc. These suits were settled on February 2, 2017 for the amount of $13,000, of which $10,643.14 was taken out by the state of Wisconsin for victim and witness restitution, DNA surcharges, medical co pays, legal loans and court costs. Those mandatory expenses left Upthegrove with a total net of $2,356.19 in damages. Readers can judge for themselves whether that amount was commensurate with the personal suffering Samuel Upthegrove endured. The Wisconsin Department of Corrections (WDC) did not challenge any of the plaintiff”s claims of mistreatment. They chose to settle the claims rather than have the legal case go to court. What follows are the undisputed and unrefuted legal grounds Samuel Upthegrove documented in his lawsuits.
At the Columbia Correctional Institution, Samuel Upthegrove was treated for an undisclosed mental illness by prison psychiatrist Dr. Michelle Andrade. Upthegrove stated that Dr. Andrade “developed animosity” toward him and “inappropriately cancelled” his anti-anxiety medication. In addition, Upthegrove claimed that the psychiatrist had correctional officers put him in a “straight-jacket like device” for 72 hours. Following this torturous experience, Upthegrove stated that the WDC placed him in an extremely restricted housing area where he was not allowed access to some of his personal property, including pens and paper to write his friends and family. In addition Samuel Upthegrove claimed he was periodically put in an “observation cell for weeks at a time.” This cell, according to Upthegrove, was “filthy, with blood, feces and dirt, and had no toilet or other sanitary facilities.” He received no cleaning supplies from the WDC. He was also denied toilet paper and had to use his bare hands “to shove feces down a hole in the center of the cell.” For this treatment by prison personnel at Columbia Correctional Institution, Samuel Upthegrove was given a net total of $2,386.19 for his pain and suffering.
My incarceration at the Rappahannock Regional Jail (RRJ) in Stafford, Virginia was similar. The primary commonality between the penal experiences of Samuel Upthegrove and my own is that we are being punished in the United States. The Wisconsin Department of Corrections and the Rappahannock Regional Jail must have taken their methods of treating American citizens from the same punitive playbook. After 55 years with no criminal history, I was unexpectedly incarcerated for a criminal offense. The judge in my case did not allow my defense to have a competent, independent expert witness in neuropharmacology who could have provided a medical explanation for the completely uncharacteristic act. When I was taken to RRJ, the two men who locked me in smirked and said to each other, as if I was not standing next to them, “Let’s take this one to crisis medical.” This is what I experienced at the hands of my Virginia captors.
For my “pretrial detention,” where defendants are functionally “guilty until proven guilty” and “pre-punished” by the American criminal justice system, I was placed in a small cell with no toilet, sink or bed. As with Samuel Upthegrove, I was required to urinate and defecate by standing and squatting over a hole in the center of the concrete cell. Unlike my fellow American in Wisconsin, I was given a small amount of toilet paper each day to wipe and push the feces down the hole that missed the rectangular opening. I was forced to beg the largely unresponsive guard who infrequently walked by for a cup of water. Bright fluorescent lights shone down 24 hours per day. The only clothing I was allowed to wear was a scratchy, robe-like garment that was never washed. Instead of a bed, there was an uncomfortable, uneven beanbag chair to sit on and try to sleep in. Deprived of a watch for the first time in several decades, I never knew what time – or even what day – it was. For “breakfast” and “lunch,” I was served the same punishment meal every day – “The Loaf,” also called “The Loathe” by some prisoners. It consisted of all the previous day’s leftovers baked into an almost inedible mound. I called it vegetable vomit soufflé. After a week to ten days of asking daily, I was finally allowed a shower at 1:00 am one morning. I did not sue the Commonwealth of Virginia for their retributive treatment. “Welcome to RRJ!,” both jail staff and prisoners would say when I asked about the conditions.
I paced the tiny cell, wondering if this could actually be part of the United States of America. I knew it was, because my home, children, practice in Christian psychotherapy, college where I taught psychology and religion courses and church music ministry were only about twenty miles away. Good, old-fashioned, all-American prison hospitality is what I called it. American tax dollars at work was another description. As a mental health professional who worked full-time for 25 years, I paid a very high amount of state and federal taxes on a quarterly and annually basis. When I experienced the incredibly shabby, overcrowded “accommodations” and ate the cheap, non-nutritious “food,” I said this to myself: So this is what I have been paying for during m 36 years as an American taxpayer! I realized, as Fyodor Dostoyevsky stated, that the treatment of American citizens in jails and prisons across our country spoke volumes about the United States as a nation. Not only is it nothing to be proud of, it is everything to be ashamed of. Unfortunately, my own treatment and that of Samuel Upthegrove is not aberrational. Space limitations prevent me from providing additional examples.
I wonder what Jesus would say about the American prison system. Since he was a prisoner given the death penalty by Jewish religious authorities for the charge of blasphemy, Jesus would certainly have an unequivocal opinion about how the United States treats its prisoners. The spiritual standard Jesus provided in Matthew 25 stands as an indictment against any country that dares to declare itself “the greatest country in the world” and “a Christian nation.” “‘When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” (Matthew 25:39-40) The converse is equally true. “They will also answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’” (Matthew 25:44-45) How comfortable and confident should Christians in the United States be with “doing unto Jesus” what is being done to “the least of these” 2.3 million mass incarcerated Americans? If they are not comfortable with and confident in doing to Jesus what they are doing to us, what should they do about it? What should American voters and taxpayers do?