News, On Campus

‘Punishment has some form of boundaries:’ Yale Law Prof. Seeks to Reform Prisons

There is an overwhelming stigma that prison is an ordinary part of society, when in reality the public really has no idea what is going on inside of them, said Judith Resnik, the Arthur Liman professor of law at Yale Law School.

In her talk on Thursday, Nov. 3 in the Barat House on Newton Campus, Resnik brought attention to the growing issues around corporal punishment within prisons and pushed fields of thought toward a more progressive and just criminal justice system. The event was sponsored by the Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy.

She began with the Eighth Amendment, which states, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” This amendment in itself allows punishment but also suggests that there is some type of limit. There needs to be some type of baseline, and the government needs to work with the prisons to figure out how bad is bad enough, Resnik said.

“Punishment has some form of boundaries,” she said.

Resnik continued on to point out that there is a notable relationship between prisons and that boundary. The prison system is committed to isolation, she explained. They are typically far from society, and prisoners have extremely limited access to communication with the outside world.

“Prison is not only implementation, but [its] own intrinsic punishment system.”

-Judith Resnik, Arthur Liman professor of law at Yale Law School

There have been, however, increasingly harsh and elongated punishments associated with incarceration, as demonstrated by the Wilkinson v. Austin case. Resnik revealed the conditions within Ohio’s Supermax facility, the subject of Wilkinson v. Austin. Nearly every aspect of a prisoner’s life is monitored. Prisoners typically spend at least 23 hours in their cells each day. A light is on 24/7, and punishment is dealt to those who attempt to shield their eyes from it while they sleep. Meals are served in their solitary cells, and communication and visitation rights are extremely limited. This type of extreme confinement is no anomaly and can be found in prisons across the country. As a result, incarceration has become synonymous with solitary confinement.

Resnik also said that prisons are scraping for funds. As a result, there has been a large increase in prison populations. Over 1.2 milion people are in prison, not including jails, according to Resnik.

This influx has resulted in double-celling and overcrowding. The federal government has taken the position that prisoners cannot expect to be free of discomfort and choose to leave it to the prison administrators to solve the issue. Leaving so many troublesome prisoners together in such close proximity, however, often leads to prison violence and, in turn, more corporal punishment.

Prison health services are also lacking. Resnik said that health services are so backed up that mental patients are often caged waiting for a psychologist, often for up to a day, without a bathroom.

Even more concerning to Resnik was the attitude that the federal government has had toward this issue. In the 1960s, the government adopted a hands-off approach, she said. In 2011, however, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court order that found California’s prisons unconstitutional.

Resnik ended her talk by broaching the issue of voting rights for prisoners, which is the topic of Hisrt vs. the United Kingdom. The court ruled that it is not constitutional to take voting rights from prisoners.

Resnik believes that the more people talk about issues such as voting rights for prisoners, the more they will see prisoners as people. She hopes that these people will then join her in the fight for change.

“Prison is not only implementation, but [its] own intrinsic punishment system,” Resnik said.

November 6, 2016