Strange Cellmates

11.10.14 4:04 AM ET

Here’s a Reform Even the Koch Brothers and George Soros Can Agree On

The Koch brothers and George Soros might have been on opposite sides last Tuesday, but they were united on one issue—our system of mass incarceration needs urgent reform.

Do you like lists? Of course you do! It’s the Internet! So try this one:

1. Koch Brothers

2. National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers

3. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ)

4. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)

5. George Soros

6. Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT)

7. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL)

8. Newt Gingrich

9. American Civil Liberties Union

10. Grover Norquist

Apart from a passionate certainty that either liberal Democrats or conservative Republicans (pick one) are a danger to the republic, what does this motley crew have in common?

Here’s what: They all agree that America’s practice of mass incarceration—unique in the world—is at worst a moral and practical failure or at best an outdated policy badly in need of adjustment.

That’s why they have busted out of their party and ideological boxes to try to do something about a dilemma that has become the ugliest face of America’s social, economic, and racial divisions. That’s why, for example, Gingrich and some prominent Christian conservatives joined hands this fall with the Soros-affiliated Open Society Foundation and the ACLU to back Proposition 47, a California ballot measure that redefines many lower-level felonies as misdemeanors. (Prop 47 passed comfortably last Tuesday.) It’s why the Kochs and the defense lawyers’ group just teamed up to train public defenders and help indigent defendants get counsel. It’s why Democratic and Republican senators are daring to co-sponsor bipartisan legislation like the Redeem Act—which, among other changes, would curb solitary confinement for youths and make it easier for nonviolent ex-offenders to survive without returning to crime.

There are 2.3 million Americans in prison right now. And the support of prisons and prisoners is costing taxpayers as much as $74 billion a year. No wonder criminal-justice reform is no longer the sole concern of balladeers and bleeding hearts. The United States of America locks up more of its population than any nation in human history.

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Between mandatory sentencing, the war on drugs, the profiteering of private prisons, and the political glee of being “tough on crime,” the land of opportunity has become a vast empire of imprisonment. And the insane cost of keeping so many nonviolent people locked up is an investment in failure. It breaks up families, burns hope, and perpetuates cycles of misery. If you are poor and black and can’t afford the right lawyer, you’re likely to vanish into the system and enter a forever world of forgotten pain.

Our criminal justice system isn’t simply bloated and cruel. It’s also, on the face of it, unjust.

One in three black men in America is incarcerated in his lifetime. African-American males are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males, and although black folks and white folks use drugs at roughly the same rates, blacks go to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of whites.

We have 10 times as many mentally ill individuals behind bars than in psychiatric hospitals. Our prisons are literally madhouses.

In North Carolina, they let a 54-year-old untreated schizophrenic die of thirst after 35 days in solitary confinement. In Texas, prisoners die from the heat of the jail cells. In Alabama, an arrested 19-year-old shoplifter got gangrene and died naked on the floor of a “medical observation cell.” His minders now stand accused of leaving him without water and treatment. In New York, a 16-year-old high school sophomore, falsely accused of stealing a backpack, spent three years in the Rikers Island jail because he maintained his innocence and rejected a plea deal. For more than two of those years, he was in solitary confinement. That’s a practice the New York Department of Corrections has belatedly banned for juveniles. But for adolescent inmates, says U. S. Attorney Preet Bharara, “Rikers Island is broken.” As he said at a news conference in August, “It is a place where brute force is the first impulse rather than the last resort, a place where verbal insults are repaid with physical injuries, where beatings are routine while accountability is rare.”

*******

Maybe a prison tour should be included in travel brochures about the glories of the United States. Visitors would find it a lot less enjoyable—and a lot more grimly enlightening—than the parade of mouthy comedic characters being “gay for the stay” in Orange Is the New Black, the hit Netflix show about a women’s prison.

I recently visited Graterford, a maximum-security state penitentiary in Pennsylvania, 30 miles from Philadelphia. I’ve led a pretty sheltered life in a lot of ways, and what I saw and heard there shook me up quite profoundly. Graterford is a forbidding, shabby, woebegone facility built in 1929. Thank God it will soon be evacuated and replaced by two new prisons, SCI Phoenix I and II, just next door.

Graterford houses some 700 lifers, ranging in age from 18 to 70—and in Pennsylvania life means life: No parole, no exit except on a slab. Which means it also means death: You are locked up until you die. Sixty of those 700 are “juvenile lifers,” men who came in as adolescents and are serving a life term. (We are the world’s only nation where it is legal to sentence a juvenile to life in prison without parole.) In Pennsylvania, an appeal by juvenile-justice advocates to revisit the sentences of juveniles serving life in prison was recently shot down by the state’s supreme court.

One in five Pennsylvania inmates are classified as mentally ill. But you wonder how even the sane keep from losing their minds when you step into a cell—or rather a cage—at Graterford.

I was taken into one by Maurice, a gnarled old Vietnam vet in a wooly hat. Maurice has been in prison for 46 years for a homicide committed at the age of 22. He was pleadingly ingratiating. When I stepped into his 6- by 13-foot cell, I had instant claustrophobia. The tininess of it was a shock. Two occupants can barely stand up in it at the same time. It is an airless closet. Its only window is a slit in the wall. Half of it is taken up by the bunk beds and improvised benches. On a ledge is a small TV set and a cabinet with a few sad possessions spilling out. An open toilet is the only other article of furniture.

I was taken for a walk down Death Row. The cells that hold its 49 inmates for 22 hours a day were a few feet bigger, and no one shares. But the light was dingy, the atmosphere more menacing. The inmates got off their bunks in their grimy cages as we passed and pressed their faces close to the bars to shout their beefs—about mail they hadn’t got, food they didn’t like, small privileges they had lost—the small agonies of their shrunken world. Their faces haunted me when I left.

These men have done sick and scary things. But there are also many lifers in the general population of Graterford who are there because of desperate circumstances and deadly juvenile folly. They drove getaway cars for robberies that went awry or did drug rolls that ended badly, or shot another frantic kid in a street skirmish when they were high. Imagine if you were doomed forever to live inside a youthful mistake. These middle-aged and old men are now such different people from the testosterone-fueled, unparented, hair-trigger people they were decades before in their teenage years and their twenties.

But all that isn’t the whole story. In that sobering place I also found selfless, dedicated people—people who are trying valiantly to bring hope through education, medical help, and psychological support.

I was taken around Graterford by the state’s buoyant and humane secretary of corrections, John Wetzel, who runs the entire Pennsylvania prison system. He and Mike Wenerowicz, Graterford’s superintendent, are committed professionals who believe in rehabilitation and reform.

Under their leadership, Graterford is conducting studies on the effect of post-traumatic stress disorder on criminality—many inmates have seen such shatteringly awful things in their lives that it has permanently affected their psychology and behavior—and on the high proportion of prisoners who have experienced blows to the head that loosen impulse control. (In 100 men tested, 60 had some form of brain injury.) Wetzel, a plain-speaking, physically imposing African American in his mid-forties who looks every inch the semipro football player he used to be, has taken flak for installing air conditioning in the new prison. He patiently explains that overheating prisoners is not just a human-rights issue. It’s also a safety issue: Severe heat changes a person’s response to psychotropic drugs. It makes crazy people crazier. That’s more relevant than ever in Pennsylvania, which used to have three state mental hospitals but now has only one. Prisons are left to take up the slack. “I’m worried we’re getting too good at it,” Wetzel says wryly, “because we keep receiving more mentally disabled inmates.”

Wetzel told me that at approximately the 10-year mark, lifers tend to become altruistic and “start getting involved.” A group of them mentor the turbulent, desperate kids fresh off the streets who are at their most violent when they first arrive. Many of these boys come from homes where a father has never been present. They have never needed a father more than they do now.

The tragedy is they will need them even more when they get out. Who will be waiting for them then?

Tina Brown Live Media is co-hosting The American Justice Summit on Monday, November 10, from 1:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at the the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, with John Jay College President Jeremy Travis, author Piper Kerman, activist Harry Belafonte, The New Yorker legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson, head of private banking and new markets for Credit Suisse Pamela Thomas Graham, Ford Foundation President Darren Walker, and The Marshall Project President Neil Barsky.

The summit is sponsored by Credit Suisse, the Ford Foundation, and the Investigation Discovery Network.

VICE News and The Marshall Project join as media partners.

To watch free livestream of this event, go to vicenews.com.

You can find a full program here