COMMENTARY | According to Reuters, a 27-year-old convicted murderer died recently in a California prison while protesting a lack of good food, access to health and legal services and other amenities. Christian Alexander Gomez was one of 31 inmates at the Corcoran State Prison's Administrative Unit who began refusing food in late January. Gomez's cause of death is unclear.
But that's only part of the story. According to the report, thousands of California prisoners have been protesting in recent months following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last spring that ordered the state to reduce its prison populations. In the Corcoran State Prison, prisoners are held in the administrative unit while awaiting hearings on infractions they have committed while in prison, the report stated. While there, they have limited access to the prison yard and no television, radio or education programs are made available to them. Sometimes they wait for up to six months for an available bed among the general prison population.
I've gone around and around thinking about this issue. Admittedly, my first thought upon reading Reuters' report is that it takes some nerve for a convicted murderer to protest the conditions of the prison. What right does one have to do so? Did his victim have that same right? Why is it that prisoners believe they should have access to decent health care, free legal services and education when those things are really hard for many law abiding citizens to obtain?
On the other hand, though, there is this belief that we -- as a society -- should hold ourselves to a higher standard than those we incarcerate. We should not be condoning the torture of human beings, no matter what crime they've committed, by placing them in overpopulated, unhealthy conditions. What is the answer? Is the War on Drugs the reason for the overpopulation? Would society really be a better place if we focused on treatment of addiction rather than drug convictions? Or should we build more prisons?
I don't think there's an easy answer to any of this. I don't agree with a system where convicted murderers have more access to health care, legal services and educational opportunities than the rest of us do. But then again, I'm not comfortable with the notion of locking people up in cells and leaving them to waste away, either. Nor do I like the notion of just opening the doors and setting a whole lot of people free who are a danger to society. And maybe my inability to know the answer is the same inability that keeps the prisons full and the prisoners protesting. Because there's just no way to say for sure what change is needed and what the outcome of that change would be.