Reclaiming Our Way promoting the well-being of African American children & families

21Jun/120

Our Response to Dr. Conrad Murray Says A Lot About Us

Rarely would I be inclined to weigh in on something like the affairs and conditions of someone like Dr. Conrad Murray.  Admittedly, however, I've been following some of the news coverage and public discussion over the last few days, stemming from Dr. Murray's complaints about the conditions he's reportedly experiencing in jail, and his request to be transferred to prison, of all places, to serve out the remainder of his sentence.  A lot of what I've heard in the public discussion about this most recent episode in the Conrad Murray chronicles is pretty alarming.

For most of us, Dr. Conrad Murray became a household name because of his relationship with Michael Jackson, and his role in the pop superstar's death on June 25, 2009.  Dr. Murray had been Michael's physician during the period leading up to his death, providing Michael with some pretty strong meds to help him sleep, among other types.  Murray was convicted in November 2011 of involuntary manslaughter for his actions, actions which were found to have greatly contributed to the circumstances resulting in Michael's death.  Approximately three weeks later, Murray was sentenced to 4 years in prison, and is expected to serve approximately two years of that sentence in the Los Angeles County Jail because of severe overcrowding in California's prison system.  Murray is approximately seven months into the sentence.

Murray made headlines again this week because of his complaints about the conditions he says he's experiencing in jail, and his seemingly unusual request to be transferred to one of the state's prisons to serve out the remainder of his sentence.  Murray is complaining, specifically, that he is not getting adequate (or even the minimum required) outdoor access, is only getting clean underwear once a week, and has been suffering from a nagging headache for the last couple of weeks (which he says is uncharacteristic for him), with little responsiveness from jail officials to his request for medical attention.  He has speculated that the headache could be from an undetected tumor, and that if things don't change he is worried he might actually die before he gets out.

Jail officials don't seem to be disputing Murray's general description of the conditions in jail, but have said they believe Murray's treatment is appropriate given their normal operating procedures, his status (as a high-profile inmate) and his identified medical needs.  Murray made the prison request, thinking he would experience more favorable conditions in an actual prison setting than what he is experiencing in the LA County Jail.

So what's the big deal here you may ask?  What is most alarming to me is that most of the public discussion I've heard thus far has really been about how foul of a person Dr. Murray is, and the general sentiment that he deserves whatever comes his way while he's in jail.  The public sentiment seems to be that 'he did the crime', so he needs to stop complaining and just 'do the time'.

Now I don't know much about Dr. Murray, certainly no more than what has been in the media since he was initially suspected of involvement with Michael Jackson's tragic death.  But there are two things that I do know: 1) Dr. Murray is still a human being, and still has the rights of humane treatment shared by anyone else convicted of a crime in this country; and 2) what Dr. Murray is complaining of is not a new phenomenon, and speaks to a fundamental and very real dynamic about our nation's correctional system that has it recognized among the world's most troubling.

To be clear, there are many hundreds of thousands of inmates who are locked up in facilities throughout this country and who are experiencing conditions as bad or worse than what Conrad Murray is complaining of.  Seemingly, most of us either have no idea about these very real conditions in our nation's correctional institutions, or worse, we don't see incarcerated citizens as being worthy of the basic protections and treatment that countries throughout the world have agreed should be minimally afforded inmates.

This is a far bigger issue than Conrad Murray, yet our response to him says something pretty damning about this nation's collective conscience.  We're either so fixated on Conrad Murray because of our supposed affection for Michael Jackson (although society's treatment of Michael when he was alive would suggest otherwise), or we've lost so much in terms of our collective ability to see the humanity in people who have been convicted of crimes.  Perhaps both are true.

So what does the incarcerated population look like in this country?  The following, obtained from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, provides a brief snapshot of our nation's correctional population:

  •  On December 31, 2010, state and federal correctional authorities had jurisdiction over 1,612,395 prisoners throughout the United States.
  • The 2010 imprisonment rate for the nation was 500 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents, which is 1 in 200 residents.
  • In 2009, the most recent data available, 53% of state prison inmates were serving time for violent offenses, 19% for property, 18% for drug, and 9% for public order offenses.
  • About half (51%) of federal inmates in 2010 were serving time for drug offenses, 35% for public-order offenses (largely weapons and immigration), and less than 10% each for violent and property offenses.
  • States held 2,295 inmates under age 18 in custody at midyear 2010, down from 2,779 at midyear 2009.
  • A reported 95,977 non citizens were held in state custody at midyear 2010, down from 97,133 at midyear 2009.
  • Males had an imprisonment rate of 943 per 100,000 male U. S. residents, 14 times higher than the rate for females (67 per 100,000 female U.S. residents).
  • At yearend 2010, black non-Hispanic males had an imprisonment rate (3,074 per 100,000 U.S. black male residents) that was nearly 7 times higher than white non-Hispanic males (459 per 100,000).
  • Black non-Hispanic females (133 per 100,000 U.S. black female residents) had an imprisonment rate nearly 3 times that of white non-Hispanic females (47 per 100,000).
  • An estimated 7.3% of black males ages 30-34 were in state or federal prison.

In case you aren't familiar with the conditions experienced by our incarcerated brothers and sisters, below is a sample of what has been documented most recently.

Discussing the conditions observed in many of our nation's local, state and federal corrections facilities, Human Rights Watch describes the conditions thusly...

 

Prisoners and detainees in many local, state and federal facilities, including those run by private contractors, confront conditions that are abusive, degrading and dangerous. Soaring prison populations due to harsh sentencing laws—which legislators have been reluctant to change—and immigrant detention policies coupled with tight budgets have left governments unwilling to make the investments in staff and resources necessary to ensure safe and humane conditions of confinement. Such failures violate the human rights of all persons deprived of their liberty to be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, and to be free from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

 

More specific to Los Angeles County in California, a 2010 report issued by the American Civil Liberties Union describes the conditions of the Los Angeles County Jail in similarly alarming terms.  The May 5, 2010 report released by the ACLU describes the L.A. County Jail as follows...

 

Unsanitary and downright hazardous living conditions within the Men‘s Central Jail, where prisoners are housed in windowless cells and dorms plagued by poor ventilation, plumbing leakages and stoppages, and extreme temperatures, are also examined in this report. Many detainees report that their shower times are frequently cut short or skipped altogether for unspecified reasons. In addition, the space provided per prisoner in the jail falls shockingly short of nationally recognized standards. Some dormitories contain more than 140 prisoners, with tiered bunk beds that are jammed so closely together that it‘s almost impossible to move between the rows of beds.

 

In total, the conditions at the Los Angeles County Jail have been consistently criticized because of dynamics related to violence and retaliation against prisoners, inadequate mental health care, as well as unsafe and unsanitary facilities, among other noted concerns.

What I'm trying to point out here is that there's a long history of concerns being raised about jails and prisons throughout this country, very similar to what Dr. Conrad Murray is describing.  I'm not arguing that he deserves any special treatment.  My concern is that we have such strong negative opinions about Conrad Murray because of his connection to Michael Jackson's death, that we are missing yet another opportunity to spread awareness and understanding of the plight of hundreds of thousands of inmates throughout this country (women and men) whose human rights are being violated, who don't have the basic protections and services that should be guaranteed, who don't have the basic educational and recreational resources needed to promote well-being and rehabilitation, and who you and I have the ability to make change for.

The inmates I speak of are not strangers to us.  They are a part of our communities.  They are disproportionately poor.  They are disproportionately Black and brown brothers and sisters.  They are our brothers and sisters, our aunts and uncles, our parents, our grandparents, our friends, our spouses, our children, our grandchildren.  They are we, and we are they!

We owe it to them to advocate, just as much as we would want them to advocate for us if the situation were reversed.

We can do better than this!  We must do better than this!

The future of this country, our children's future, depends on it!

 

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