"No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions." --Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 1804.

Public safety on the inside

Political talk about prisons and prisoners tends to start and stop with locking up the evildoers and making sure we don’t coddle the criminals. Our narrow and crimped take on the subject has given us a raft of problems only starting with the world’s highest incarceration rates and super-high costs. There are many more, and some of them hit headlines this week.

When we (that is, us) lock up a prisoner, we take responsibility for that person. That can mean big medical bills, for one thing. But it also means protecting that person from violence: Sentencing a person to incarceration is not, or not supposed to be, sentencing them to assault and worse. (Shouldn’t that qualify as “cruel and unusual”?)

On November 18, the Washington Department of Corrections reported that “has agreed to pay $4 million to a former offender who sustained permanent, severely disabling injuries when he was assaulted by his cellmate at Washington Corrections Center near Shelton in 2006. Ryan Alwine, 26, was hospitalized and remained in a coma for nearly four months following the attack. The incident occurred in the early morning on September 7, 2006.” Washington’s taxpayers are on the hook for that payment.

Don’t be surprised if something similar happens in Idaho. On November 17 a jury in Ada County delivered a landmark, the first conviction in Idaho history of rape by a prison inmate (Cody Vealton Thompson) of another inmate; the incident occurred in September 2008, at the Idaho Maximum Security Institution. Since then, a batch of additional cases have begun to surface.

These inmates were sentenced to serve time behind bars, not to be raped. Among other things, these are lawsuits waiting to happen.

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