On a Bad Day

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Several years ago Mishi Faruqee, then director of our Women in Prison Project, now director of our Juvenile Justice Project, was asked by a funding source to prepare a statement on the principles guiding the Correctional Association’s efforts. Her eloquent write- up included the line: “The driving force behind our work is a strong belief in the inherent dignity of all human beings.”

Mishi’s words came to mind during the CA’s latest visit to our city’s court pens, which hold recently arrested individuals who are awaiting their first appearance before a judge. On a bad day, conditions there are the closest thing to the heart of the beast we see. Hundreds of people packed into decrepit, inadequate spaces; unsanitary, open toilets; vermin; peeling paint; darkened cells; breakdowns in medical care; and, virtually everyone locked up is a poor person of color. Cell after cell filled with black and brown faces—it’s what you imagine you’d find in South African jails at the height of apartheid, not what you’d observe in the criminal court buildings of America’s greatest city.

Remember that at this stage of the criminal justice process, detainees are not just presumed innocent, they have not been formally charged with a crime, seen a judge or spoken with an attorney. They are in custody solely because of a police officer’s decision to arrest them.

The CA has been monitoring the pens since 1989. Over that time—partly be- cause of our efforts, partly because of the good work of responsive government officials—the city has instituted many improvements: installed pay phones in every cell; placed medical screening workers in every criminal court building; partitioned toilets and added lights in some cells; placed mats in the women’s pens, especially for women who may be pregnant; and reduced the average arrest-to-arraignment time from about 40 hours or more to under 24—although many detainees are still held for longer than a day.

We continue these visits both to forestall slippage and to maintain pressure on the city to address persistent, systemic problems, such as the dank, deplorable, poorly ventilated physical plant in Brooklyn, and the irresponsible practice by arresting officers of discouraging detainees from informing the on-site screening workers about their health problems.

Then there are the very bad days, like our last visit to the Brooklyn and Manhattan facilities that, due to the unexpectedly high volume of recent arrests, were jammed full of “presumably innocent” people. Things had started to fall apart, and we were reminded of how brutally the criminal justice system can treat individuals, especially the vulnerable persons who get caught up in these circumstances. CA representatives respond by listening to the detainees’ complaints and bringing their problems to the attention of on-line officials. So sandwiches are delivered, cases get expedited, ambulances—five alone in Manhattan on the day of our visit—get called.

When we return to our offices, we discuss follow-up advocacy strategies to address these breakdowns systematically, not just on a case by case basis. Because that’s a principal part of our job as a prison watchdog organization.

One incident especially stays with me. Upon entering one of Manhattan’s cells for women, we encountered a detainee laying semi-conscious on a mat, moaning in pain. The other detainees told us that she was going through drug withdrawal, obviously cold turkey, that she had been “like that” for hours, and that none of the officers on duty had responded to their pleas for help. The woman’s mother was there, apparently having been arrested with her daughter. She said to me: “She may have brought this on herself”— pointing to her daughter and referring to the heroin addiction— “but she still is a human being.”