Two San Francisco sheriff’s deputies were recently charged with crimes for their participation in a real life “fight club” inside the city’s Hall of Justice jail. According to news reports, deputies forced inmates to participate in fights while the deputies watched and bet on them. Though the first rule of Fight Club is, according to the 1999 film, “you do not talk about fight club”, we’re glad somebody revealed this atrocity. This “fight club” came to light last year after the father of an inmate complained to the San Francisco Public Defender, who brought attention to the matter.
Contrary to the movie, which glamorized the visceral pleasure of fighting, this story is about corruption and abuse of power. In the film, Brad Pitt and Edward Norton star as revolutionaries of sorts who renounce the economic system and express their liberation by doing terrible things to food and beating the hell out of each other. The movie is great fun but also makes serious (if twisted) points about alienation in modern society. I’m a fan.
In San Francisco, what happened is just one more stark example of the potential horrors of incarceration. There’s no choice in this fight club, there’s nothing liberating about being forced to fight, and the people responsible should be held strictly accountable.
As a criminal defense attorney, a lot of my clients have either been to jail before, or are looking at jail time as a possible outcome in their current cases. I can tell you that the vast majority are good folks who made a poor decision or have been through very tough circumstances. But even the true troublemakers among the jail population are human beings who deserve a safe place to pay their debt to society.
Even as a criminal defense lawyer who fights for compassionate and fair sentences for defendants, I do understand that jail is a necessary part of the criminal justice system. But when we as a society take people out of the world and lock them inside a cell, it is our responsibility to make sure that they are cared for. Proper nutrition, medical care and safety are minimum standards, but things that are necessary to maintain the soul and mental health are necessary as well. Without access to things like books, recreation, socializing opportunities, natural light, and more, we can expect the mental health and optimism of an inmate to quickly degrade. And the point of incarceration is not to crush the spirit of a person, which would be counterproductive– most inmates serve relatively brief sentences and then we want them reintegrate with law abiding society. No one will ever mistake a safe and humane jail for a pleasant place, but such jails achieve better rehabilitation of inmates and better satisfy society’s moral obligation to the incarcerated. As many have said before me, the measure of our society is how we treat our weakest and most helpless among us, and how we respond to scandals like this speaks volumes.
In this case in San Francisco, we have a more sensational version, but not necessarily worse version, of the countless stories of inmate abuse that happen around the country each year. From failing to protect inmates from sexual assault, to too-casual orders of solitary confinement, to systematic neglect of mental health problems, jails often fail to live up to the standards we set for them, and it reflects poorly on all of us. Unfortunately, many in society have gross misconceptions or abhorrent attitudes about inmates, which leads to ignorance and indifference about stories like these. Hopefully media coverage and civil suits will force the complacent to care more, and will lead to jails that serve the purposes of a criminal justice system in a way that does not shame us.