Resource: Overcoming Dehumanization: The Challenge for a Jurisprudence of Dignity

By: Mona Lynch

January 1, 2016


Jonathan Simon's Mass Incarceration on Trial uses the landmark prison conditions case of Brown v. Plata, decided by the US Supreme Court in May 2011 as a window into the rise of mass incarceration in America and as a possible roadmap away from mass incarceration. The plaintiffs put forth a compelling and frightening case that details systemic health care failures and abuses within California's prison system, resulting in vast and deep harms to prisoners in the state, including numerous fatalities. For the Plata Court, "human dignity" is incompatible with such egregiously inadequate health care; therefore, the Court ruled, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation had violated the Eight Amendment of the US Constitution. Justice Kennedy's majority opinion asserted that "prisoners retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons. Respect for that dignity animates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment" (Brown v. Plata 2011.12).
Simon sees this explicit invocation of dignity as key to undoing the worst harms of mass incarceration, arguing that this decision reflects an incipient "dignity cascade" that has the potential to fundamentally transform punishment in the United States. While his optimism about the future--and about law's ability to rectify an exceptionally broken system--is refreshing, my more pessimistic side thinks Simon's proverbial glass is at least three-quarters full, and that the achievement of dignity, much less a meaningful reshaping of prison life, is a far way off even in the wake of Brown v. Plata.