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Prison Scrutiny Needed at Home

America. Prison Nation. That's what we have become. Don't miss this editorial in Monday's New York Times, The Dark Side of America. The abuses at home are at least as bad, and probably worse, than those abroad.

The nearly 12 million people who pass through the corrections system each year are often subject to violent attacks by other inmates, and prisoner-on-prisoner rape is endemic. Drug-resistant strains of tuberculosis, easily transmitted in tight spaces, have become a common problem. Illegal drugs ferried in by prison employees — and used by inmates who share needles — have made prison a high-risk setting for H.I.V. infection and most recently the liver-destroying hepatitis C.

Some prisons have actually cut back on testing for disease, rather than risk being required to treat large numbers of infected inmates at bankrupting costs. That means, of course, that released inmates will unknowingly pass on diseases to others. By failing to confront public health problems in prison, the country could be setting itself up for new epidemics down the line.

It is hard to quantify how many American prisoners are abused, or allowed to suffer from untreated illnesses, since the system operates largely in the shadows, outside public scrutiny. The maze of federal, state and local institutions defies easy assessment. ...Psychiatric care for psychotic inmates is poor to nonexistent. A recent study by the Correctional Association of New York found that nearly a quarter of inmates assigned to disciplinary lockdown — confined to small cells 23 hours a day — were mentally ill. Their symptoms worsened in isolation; nearly half had tried to commit suicide. Dissociated and sometimes violent, these people are dumped onto the streets when they finish their sentences.

The prison system can no longer be seen as the province of prison officials who cover up or mismanage problems that eventually come back to haunt the rest of the society. The country needs to formulate national prison standards and create an independent body that enforces them, if only by opening prisons to greater public scrutiny.

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