Emergencies are everywhere. Luckily, the earthquake on the Fourth of July in Ridgecrest, California didn’t hurt or kill anyone. A historic flash flood hit the nation’s capital on Monday, where Democratic leaders introduced a joint resolution to declare a "climate emergency." Louisiana Governor Bel Edwards has already declared a state of emergency in advance of a hurricane that may hit at any moment.
The one place where we are not declaring an emergency is our nations’ prisons, compounds and cages that are in severe need of urgent attention.
In April, the Department of Justice delivered a report summarizing a two-year investigation into Alabama prisons. It concluded that conditions there are so severe and dangerous that they violate the Eighth Amendment - the guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment. In the report’s preface alone, investigators describe five stabbings, six beatings and four sexual assaults that happened in just one week in September 2017. There’s more violence that hasn’t been reported.
Things aren’t dangerous in just Alabama; all forms of violence have been erupting in these facilities around the country. Last month, the Associated Press and Capital News Service of the University of Maryland reported that the rate of jail suicides nationwide is about three and one-half times that of the general population. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice experienced 40 suicides in 2018; that’s almost one per week. Inmate-on-inmate homicides have exploded in California jails since 2011. Reports of prison rape practically tripled in recent years.
The fact that people accused of crimes suffer violence and degradation when they’re confined comes as good news to some. But what those same people forget is that retribution is contrary to their own interests. Ninety-five percent of people in prison and jails will come home some day and very few of them will rehabilitate as long as they’re driven further into survival mode by dangerous conditions.
It’s not like declaring an emergency in prisons and jails would be that hard. It’s actually easy. The executive in charge, either the president or a governor, issues an order that simply states that certain conditions have developed. It’s a trigger that releases funding and other protections.
That is, if the money is available. President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis an emergency in August 2017 and its effect was minimal, most likely because the Public Health Emergency Fund has less than $57,000; it hasn’t been reauthorized since 1993. U.S. Representative Rosa DeLauro proposed the Public Health Emergency Funding Act in the last Congress to put $5 billion in the emergency piggy bank but it wasn’t even voted on by the Appropriations Committee. The fact is that we can’t effectively battle many emergencies whether we declare them or not.
That the burgeoning crisis within correctional facilities may not be helped materially by a pronouncement that it exists doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it, though. Because declaring an emergency can’t always be remedial, it’s become largely symbolic.
This is why not declaring an emergency in prisons and jails is a declaration in itself. It’s a statement that the lives inside these facilities don’t matter. And that’s another kind of emergency - a moral one.
Chandra Bozelko writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries and is the Vice President of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChandraBozelko and email her at email@example.com.