WHILE I ATTENDED LAW school from 1991 to ’94, I worked for D.C. Prisoners Legal Services Project (DCPLSP), a nonprofit legal-services organization that works on behalf of the constitutional rights of D.C. prisoners. After reading Claudia Rosenbaum’s “Fear and Moaning in the D.C. Jails” (3/24), the only question I was left wondering was what was the most offensive aspect of her article? The answer is easy. Amid her misrepresentations of fact, exaggeration for shock value, and self-centered egotism that somehow she represents “the last hope for prisoners,” the most offensive aspect of her article is the overt racism exemplified by her characterizations that dehumanize and demonize prisoners.
Rosenbaum spent two weeks—two whole weeks!—serving as a legal assistant and interviewing prisoners. Though two weeks does not confer expertise, the author presents herself as one who dared to work on behalf of the rights of those who live there, in spite ofimagined danger.
Rosenbaum presents the world she entered as a violent one that threatens her personally. As she interviews a prisoner whose jaw was allegedly broken by a guard, her concern is not whether this individual has a claim against officials, but how to cause him injury if he attacks her. But despite her sophomoric musings about his “pent-up anger,” he is nothing but gentlemanly toward her. Or, as she interviews a prisoner at the D.C. Jail, she worries about being attacked. But she does not mention that one foot away on the other side of a Plexiglas divider is a guard who can observe her at all times. And the “campus” atmosphere she refers to at one Lorton facility is one where she is never out of sight of a guard, and the prisoners do not “wander around without restrictions,” but are monitored constantly.
Can and do nasty things happen in prison? Sure. But, as Rosenbaum admits, incidents occur between prisoners, not between visitors and prisoners. And there is even less likelihood that an incident would occur against lawyers or legal assistants to whom prisoners look for assistance. In the end, the only violence that Rosenbaum describes is the violence she fantasizes carrying out against prisoners who, from her own account, never presented a threat to her.
This is not surprising. Rosenbaum fancies herself as “the only female” prisoners have seen in months. She is wrong. Male prisoners at Lorton and the D.C. Jail daily have contact with women lawyers and legal assistants, women correctional officers and administrators, health care personnel, and educators, not to mention their wives, daughters, mothers, and girlfriends. And, while she may think she was prisoners’ “last hope,” she neglects the small group of lawyers and paralegals, as well as pro bono private attorneys who represent prisoners in class action litigation and seek to make correctional facilities humane and rehabilitative.
Rosenbaum’s inaccuracies should not go unchallenged. Prisoners are not allowed to go from one area of the facility to another without passes signed by officials. No legal assistant ever interviews a prisoner at the Maximum Security Facility in a cell. In fact, a visitor is not even allowed on a cellblock. Maximum does not have a “100-foot wall.” Her representation that she could be “stabbed, raped, or beaten” at the D.C. Jail without a guard observing is absurd. And her fear that “prisoners could sue for millions” but she would only “be entitled to a workers’ compensation settlement” if she were injured is inaccurate, because she did not work for the prison system.