Jailed in the land of the free

McKINLEYVILLE, Calif. – In the middle of last year, due to a traffic violation, I spent a few months as a guest of our local county correctional facility. What I saw and experienced there was both hard and enlightening, and also says something about the future of our burgeoning police state.

I realize that prison is not meant to be a walk in the park. But we should expect reasonable, professional, humane treatment, and fulfillment of basic human rights and needs.

The Humboldt County Correctional Facility sits in the heart of the town of Eureka, Calif. This very drab building also houses the courts and their offices. The prison population is almost always at or beyond legal capacity. The “dorms” inside are divided by male and female prisoners, have no windows with an outside view, and are filled 24 hours a day with artificial light and heavy, stale air.

There is no recreational yard, just a basketball court that those on good behavior can visit for a short while each day. There is no daily access to newspapers, absolutely no radio, and the little television there is comes from a set mounted too high to see well. Most prisoners spend their day walking in a large circle around the “day” room.

When mealtime comes, food is very strictly rationed. I saw many fights over gambling for and trading for food. Liquids are limited to water and a small glass of milk. The occasional coffee is awarded those with special jobs. The short time that inmates are given to eat forces many to try to sneak food back to their bunks — a punishable offence.

Medical and dental treatment is minimal, and provided by a few questionably professional attendants. I myself suffered a transient ischemic attack, or mini-stroke. When I complained about needing a hospital, I was rewarded with a trip to the maximum-security block. It took two more days to be seen by a physician’s assistant. I stayed in “max” for a week.

In this jail most of those incarcerated either have dental abscesses, infections, a cold, the flu and/or mental illness. And the vast majority are there for minor crimes such as substance abuse associated with psychological disturbance.

In making a point, I did my “time.” I’m glad to be out but, but I’m truly sorry for those who are “in, or on their way in.

Prison doesn’t need to be cruel. But if prisons are going to be run as private profit-making businesses (as many now are), offenders, their families and the general public will suffer needlessly to insure the corporate bottom line of making the most money while providing the barest of public services.

We in the United States incarcerate a full 25 percent of all those imprisoned in the entire world. The land of the free?

Photo: Inmates are screened for contraband after leaving the exercise yard at a facility in California, March 2. Rich Pedroncelli/AP