Jenna Ryan An Ass, Also Not Wrong: Incarcerated People Should Have Cell Phones
The attempted coup last January 6 was horrifying. The people who participated in it were horrifying. It was beyond disturbing to see a bunch of rabid conspiracy theorists attempt to scare Congress into nullifying an election and installing Donald Trump as Dictator For Life.
Thus, it's hardly surprising that people have engaged in a certain amount of schadenfreude, that well-meaning people who do not actually think rape is acceptable punishment for any crime would be making "don't drop the soap" jokes. It feels like justice, especially because many of those being imprisoned for their roles in the attempted coup are the kind of people whose wealth and skin color usually shield them from the consequences of their actions. People like Jenna Ryan.
Jenna Ryan is an absolutely awful human being. She is a conspiracy theorist who took a damn private plane to an insurrection. I really, really, do not like her as a person.
That being said, it is also possible for her to be right about a thing. This weekend, Ryan tweeted about her experience of prison, writing, "They're using COVID to sadistically abuse all the inmates and deny basic human needs like sunshine, phone, food. No human deserves what they're doing in Federal Prison to every inmate. If people knew what was happening, there would be major reform action" in response to a question about how she was tortured, and then tagged Senator Ted Cruz.
They're using COVID to sadistically abuse all the inmates and deny basic human needs like sunshine, phone, food. \n\nNo human deserves what they're doing in Federal Prison to every inmate. If people knew what was happening, there would be major reform action. @SenTedCruz— Jenna Ryan (@Jenna Ryan) 1645331646
I'm going to say that her main mistake there was tagging Ted Cruz, a person who actually thinks that it's bad to get innocent people out of prison, not in criticizing the treatment of incarcerated people. Naturally, she got mocked by people who thought it was hilarious that she would consider those things torture. But while her categorization may seem a tad hyperbolic in a country wherein there was an actual discussion about whether or not waterboarding was torture, that doesn't mean that the things she complained about are acceptable.
Prisoners actually are supposed to have a right to physical activity and to go outdoors, and the courts have continually upheld this (Spain v. Procunier, 1979). Denial of this right for an extended period of time can and should be considered a violation of the Eighth Amendment.
Granted, it is not always observed, as was the case with three men in Colorado's prison system who were denied the ability to exercise or go outside for a period of 11 months to several years. Those men attempted to sue Rick Raemisch, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, and Travis Trani, warden of the Colorado State Penitentiary, for violating their Eighth Amendment rights. Their petition was denied by the 10th Circuit, which found that while the prisoners' Eighth Amendment rights were violated, Raemisch and Trani were protected by qualified immunity and therefore could not be sued for their treatment of the prisoners. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court, which refused to hear it, but Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued an eight-page opinion criticizing the use of solitary confinement and not allowing the prisoners access to exercise and fresh air and urged courts to “remain alert to the clear constitutional problems raised by keeping prisoners like Apodaca, Vigil, and Lowe in ‘near-total isolation’ from the living world, in what comes perilously close to a penal tomb.”
Ryan may want to consider that liberal SCOTUS judges, and liberal judges in general, are more likely to agree that prisoners deserve exercise and "sunshine" than are the judges that Donald Trump or another Republican might appoint. That being said, not wrong.
As for phones? Yes, give incarcerated people cell phones. It's a good idea. Multiplestudieshaveshown that inmates who keep close ties with their families during their imprisonment are more likely to be successful upon release and less likely to reoffend. A 2014 study specifically found that not only were incarcerated women who had regular phone contact with loved ones less likely to reoffend within five years, but that they were less likely to reoffend than those who only had in-person visitation.
Allowing phones would make things less horrible for the families of those who are incarcerated. It's scary and unbelievably stressful for those who have someone they love in that kind of situation, particularly for the approximately 2.7 children with incarcerated parents. Not to mention the fact that prison phone calls are grotesquely expensive. Families of prisoners spend over a billion dollars a year on phone calls, with all of that money going to the private equity firms that operate them. There are actually people in this country sitting around getting rich off of kids trying to maintain contact with a parent in prison. That is horrifying.
Also horrifying? The fact that Mississippi prisoner Willie Nash got 12 years added onto his sentence for possession of a cell phone he was using to talk to his wife.
And sure, you can say, "Oh well if they have cell phones they can do crimes and order hits and run their cults on people outside prison," which, it seems fair to note, people have managed to do just fine without cell phones for years. There is no reason to deprive those who are not criminal masterminds of this right.
Food in prisons is also a problem. It is so bad in some prisons, so lacking in nutrients, that it is actually a human rights issue and has long been considered as such by advocacy organizations. Food seriously impacts both mental and physical health, and yes, incarcerated people do deserve non-disgusting food.
Photos obtained by The Frontier and taken with contraband cell phones show meals served in Oklahoma state prisons in 2020The Frontier
The basis for so many of our problems is the very American instinct some people have that tells them that if someone commits a crime, they deserve whatever happens to them. It's why we torture people, why our prisons are horrible, why people make those "don't drop the soap!" jokes, why people make snide comments about Club Fed and why police officers feel free to kill people for selling loose cigarettes. It's a toxic mindset but it feels a lot better than the alternative. Because the first step after realizing that our prison system is desperately inhumane is realizing how hopeless it seems to do anything about it.
We do ourselves a disservice by mocking Jenna Ryan's complaints about her time in prison, and acting as if they are the silly complaints of a spoiled brat who doesn't get that prison is supposed to be a punishment. Because the things she's complaining about actually are bad, and they are things we should really care more about changing than we care about "burning" a Trumpy Capitol rioter. This is not a situation where we are going to have a surplus of sympathetic characters on which to build a case for changing things that need to be changed, so that is just something that is going to need to be beside the point.
I fully understand that it would be upsetting to see incarcerated people get cell phones or to see other kinds of prison reform happen due to outrage over what this white Republican woman endured rather than because people care about Willie Nash, the Black Mississippi prisoner who got 12 years added to his sentence for possession of a cell phone. It is enraging that people know her name and not his, and I too would absolutely love to live in a world where the opposite would be the case. But also I'm pretty sure incarcerated people and their families don't actually care how these reforms get done, just that they do.
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse