The Violence Against People Behind Bars That We Don’t See

(TIME) Lauren-Brooke Eisen, September 1, 2020

The constant violence perpetrated by police officers on Black and Latino people can now be seen by the broader public, thanks to cellphone videos and police bodycam footage. But what we almost never see is the regular abuse people behind bars endure at the hands of correctional officers.

The use of excessive force against prisoners, from punches to chemical spraying, is an everyday occurrence that violates our constitution. Taking measures like installing more cameras to hold perpetrators accountable and implementing meaningful oversight of our nation’s prisons are important to curb abhorrent conditions of confinement. But we need to also prioritize taking steps to significantly reduce mass incarceration so that we are no longer the world’s number one incarcerator.

The late Columbia Law School professor Robert A. Ferguson put it best: we have created a criminal justice system that is divided so that, post-conviction, the “suffering of the convicted is carefully arranged to take place somewhere out of sight.”

In a recent report, the Justice Department and Alabama’s three U.S. attorneys exposed what happens behind the prison gates in their state. They found pervasive use of excessive force against those incarcerated in men’s prisons, identifying violations of excessive force rules in 12 of the 13 Alabama prisons reviewed. Correctional officers, the report said, often relied on force “while making no effort to de-escalate tense situations.”

It took years of officials visiting these prisons, interviewing those who worked and were imprisoned there, speaking to family members of those who were incarcerated, and analyzing reams of testimony, documents, emails, videos, medical records, and more to understand how those who were under the supervision of the state of Alabama were deprived of not only their constitutional rights, but of their humanity.