Crime and Excessive Punishment

The Constitutional protection against “cruel and unusual punishment” should mean that going to prison for committing a crime does not equate to a death sentence.

And yet that’s what a series of disturbing reports published this week by Polk Award-winning journalist Gina Barton of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel point to for some prisoners in the Wisconsin state prison system.

On Monday, Barton wrote of how “Wisconsin’s law on police accountability in custody deaths goes unused” and that “Natural deaths, suicides of prisoners [are] not fully investigated.”  She tells the story of a prisoner with documented suicidal tendencies who was assigned to janitorial duties that allowed him access to poisonous chemicals, attempted suicide once by drinking cleaning fluid, failed, and then was again assigned to the same task, and the second time “succeeded” in killing himself.

“A state law specifically designed to hold law enforcement accountable when prisoners die was passed 30 years ago,” writes Barton. “But no one — in Milwaukee County or anywhere else in the state — has been charged with violating it for more than 20 years.”

In Tuesday’s Journal-Sentinel, Barton tells the story of how “Improper, inadequate treatment results in deaths of sick prisoners,” despite a court order mandating adequate staffing levels to prevent such tragedies.  But no amount of staffing will overcome deliberate indifference, as when staff ignored the pleas of inmates housed with Jeremy Cunningham, who allegedly convulsed to death after guards told his fellow inmates to go to bed.

Nonetheless, Barton reports that “Not only do officers avoid criminal charges when prisoners die, they rarely face discipline of any kind — even when investigations cast doubt on their actions.”


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