Comparing Captivities – the predicament of human and nonhuman prisoners

By Dortell Williams

The Los Angeles City Council is intertwined in a dusty ruckus as challenges loom against their decision to continue with a $24 million, 3.6 acre “Pachyderm Forrest” at the city zoo.

Animal rights advocates say the zoo exhibit is inadequate in size and makes for excruciating lonely days for the single elephant named Billy.

This controversy is interesting in view of the concurrent controversy regarding the medical condition of crammed and crowded California prisoners. Human rights advocates have prevailed in proving that the bustling concrete behemoth is so swelled that it infringes on the basic health rights of the captives.

Zoo officials lament that 12 elephants have died at the exhibit since 1968. Experts believe past care practices contributed to the demise of the creatures, but those practices — such as concrete floors and tight enclosures — have now been replaced with soft dirt courtyards laden with trees and greenery.

Human rights advocates cite an average of one prisoner death a week due to neglect or malpractice in the state prisons. That was until Thelton Henderson, U.S. District Justice for the northern district intervened by taking over the prison medical system in 2006.

Following an embarrassing early December trial before a three-judge panel, including Justice Henderson, it was determined that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is desperately overcrowded. The prison system was designed to hold 100,000 by an expanse of 33 prisons. However, the current population is a fluctuating 172,000 at it’s zenith, causing deaths, mental health deterioration and the rampant spread of diseases.

At the zoo, the geographical ethnicity of the most recent elephants to expire, Tara, a friendly 39 year old elephant who died in 2004; and Ruby, a careful 47 year old elephant who passed on to elephant heaven last year, was African. Then there was Gita, a gentle 48-year-old Asian elephant who slipped from life in 2006. Billy, the only remaining elephant at he zoo is a young 23-year-old Asian stud.

In contrast, the majority of California’s prisoners are of African American and Latino descent. As a result of a long held practice of state sanctioned racial segregation, a bloody froth of ethnic tension has developed, spilling over into innocent communities and making carnage of uninvolved citizens and their blameless children.

Hate-filled prison shanks are replaced on the streets by indiscriminate high-powered, rapid-fire semi-automatic weaponry. And while the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a straightforward cease and desist on the vile practice of racially segregating prisoners in a 5-3, 2005 vote, many believe this violent community cancer has already seriously escalated gang rivalries that have spread nationally and even internationally.

Critics of the zoo exhibit argue that 3.6 acres is not nearly enough for a half dozen or more elephants planned for the sanctuary. Some would like to see a 35-acre elephantine spread to be shared by as many elephants. Zoologists say the 3.6 acres is enough and will be furnished with a deep pool for swimming, fallen trees, a waterfall and rocks for the creatures to push or walk around.

Still, animal rights advocates explain that elephants are natural roamers and need to trek miles not acres to achieve optimum health and happiness. They also cite a high rate of infant mortality in captivity because without the opportunity to learn social skills from others the new mothers are ignorant of how to care for their young.

In the prison system there is such a thing as “social overload”. Overcrowding forbids prisoners the room to move about, resources are scarce and rationed, and privacy is almost non-existent because someone is always around. Paradoxically, loneliness still prevails because so many people are brought in and out of the system — in a constant cycle of recidivism and transfers — that people are rarely allowed to engage in meaningful friendships.

Indeed, the American Correctional Association recommends that prisoners — people incarcerated — be afforded a minimum of 60 square feet, and for those confined in their cells for more than 10 hours per day, 80 square feet.

Animal experts complain that elephants like Billy who show a neurotic habit of repetitiously bobbing their heads are signaling bouts of depression. Meanwhile, as the three-judge panel now contemplates how to remedy the gross inadequacies of the prison system, Justice Henderson has expressed concern about prisoners being subjected to extreme idleness and lack of productive rehabilitation programs that lead to mental deterioration and an inferior existence.

Dr. Joyce Poole, an animal behaviorist who has studied elephants in Africa for decades says that elephants bob their heads ” because they’re frustrated and bored and have a life that has no meaning…”

Perhaps people and pachyderms have more in common than we ever thought, yet only time will tell who’s right.

The author is a California prisoner. Write him at Dortel Williams #H-45771, A2-103, PO box 4430, Lancaster, CA 93539.