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Published:November 12th, 2010 17:52 EST
Defining Justice in America

Defining Justice in America

By Tony Graff

Cruel and unusual punishment is a delicate topic in the Unites States. Many other countries don`t seem to have that problem, and are considered cruel and unusual by America. Frank Abagnale Jr., the con artist and forger spotlighted in the movie "Catch Me If You Can", recalls some of the prisons he was forced to endure worldwide, many of which we would deem cruel and unusual punishment. Inmates who would survive such places have a fear of returning, and never commit crimes of that nature again. Similarly, hearing the harsh stories from others motivates citizens to stay clear of decisions that would put us in that place. 

Compare that to what Americans will consider civilized punishment. Inmates are housed in a correctional facility for a period of time, then released. Due to a criminal record, getting a job of any kind becomes difficult, leading the released inmate to commit crimes, landing him or her once again in prison. Some are even looking forward to joining "club fed" wanting to have room and board for free, as well as other amenities such as cable, smoking, and movies.

One Sheriff, Joe Arpaio, has a reputation for being the toughest sheriff in the US. Inmates in his prison are charged for their meals - 40 cents - and forced to complete public work projects in chain gangs for no pay. When a federal court deemed cable TV necessary for prison inmates, something Sheriff Arpaio had cut off, he plugged the cable boxes back in, but only allowed the Disney channel and the Weather channel. He even made coffee inaccessible to inmates, claiming "This isn`t the Ritz/Carlton. If you don`t like it, don`t come back." This sheriff has had many cruel and unusual punishment cases brought against him, only to be thrown out. 

Another law enforcement agent with a reputation for cruel and unusual punishment is Judge Ted Poe, now a congressman for the state of Texas. Many of his court rulings, considered humiliating and shameful, force the guilty to carry photos in their wallets of their victims. If they go to prison, pictures of the victims and their families adorn their cell. Part of their sentence is writing letters of apology to the victims` families and placing flowers at their graves. But the harshest punishment, one he regularly doled out during his 20 years as a judge, was having the guilty carry a sign describing their offenses in public, forcing them to account for their actions and take responsibility. Judge Poe is adamant that punishments like these are to correct attitudes, and not merely punish the guilty. During his office as judge, repeat offenders dropped to only 11%, unlike other states which saw up to 33%. Punishments like these, which have proven to modify behavior, have many calling cruel and unusual punishment against him. 

The whole topic of cruel and unusual punishment is filled with grey matter. There are no set definitions of what is acceptable because the notion of cruelty changes from person to person. Obviously, we have dropped torture devices like the rack, the iron maiden, and thumb screws, since they are clearly cruel punishments. But what about in the case of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who had six separate cases of cruel and unusual punishment when inmates listened to Christmas and holiday music from around the world 12 hours a day? Many claimed this was cruel because it forced inmates to participate in religious celebrations. 

Seriously? Inmates who commit crimes we know are barbaric and wrong must suffer the cruelty of Jingle Bells? And if they are really bad they have to suffer the intolerable punishment of being kissed by their crazy aunt. Lack of sympathy aside, inmates in America live better than an inmate anywhere else. There are some countries that would kill to get what inmates had to deal with, Christmas music and all. 

With the festive season right around the corner, let`s take a moment to remember just how much cruelty we deal with. Let`s file a case against shopping malls and radio stations that blare nothing but Christmas music. 
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