Locking up nonviolent offenders is not just the most expensive form of punishment, time in a penitentiary or county jail also condemns nonviolent men and women to a violent and disease-ridden world where many become increasingly likely to commit more serious crimes.

In other words, prisons can do more harm than good and destroy rather than rehabilitate lives.

Too few leaders in Washington seem to care. One exception is Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, who recently spent a night in a Louisiana prison to publicize that prisons need to start rebuilding lives.

Another advocate for sane prison policies is Julie Steward, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a grassroots, Washington-based organization working for sentencing reforms.

That’s a good start, but to better understand what awaits nonviolent offenders behind prison walls, every member of Congress and every Colorado legislator should subscribe to the “Prison Legal News,” a monthly publication “dedicated to protecting human rights.”

Here is what they would find in recent issues:

Physical abuse

  • A Colorado jury found several inmates guilty of beating another prisoner after his testimony was used to convict them of income tax fraud.
  • While held in the Sherburne, Minn., county jail, a motorist arrested for not having proof of his vehicle insurance was beaten to death by another prisoner.
  • The state of Michigan agreed to pay $365,000 to a boot camp prisoner who was strapped to a restraint chair for six hours and suffered kidney and liver failure at the Manistee County jail. The inmate was arrested for violating his parole by returning home one hour late.
  • The County of Mateo, Calif., will pay $475,000 to settle a wrongful death suit brought on behalf of a woman sentenced to 120 days on a minor drug charge.
  • In Oklahoma, an Ottawa County Jail prisoner has been charged with manslaughter in the death of another inmate serving time for failure to pay child support.

Poor medical care

  • An inmate in the St. Lucie County, Fla., jail who was serving a 240-day sentence for peddling marijuana died from a reaction to a drug received from another prisoner. The county agreed to pay the man’s family $65,000 for negligence.
  • While serving a five-day sentence in the Portsmouth City, Va., jail for driving with a suspended license, an asthmatic man died because of inadequate medical care. His family has been awarded a $769,000 settlement.
  • Broward County, Fla., and a private company have been ordered to pay $500,000 to a woman who suffered permanent injury from an untreated ectopic pregnancy while imprisoned in the North Broward jail for failing to appear in court on a cocaine possession charge.
  • In Massachusetts, more than 1,400 prisoners are know to be infected with the hepatitis C virus but, because of a shortage of money, only 150 are on a waiting list for treatment.

Sexual abuse

  • In an ongoing case in Georgia, a female guard has been charged with forcing a male prisoner to strip and masturbate while she watched through the cell door.
  • A former state prison guard at the Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility in Iowa was found guilty of withholding exercise privileges when female inmates refused to show him their breasts. A $160,000 settlement was ordered.
  • Serving time for misdemeanor offenses, three female prisoners at the Haltom City, Texas, jail were sexually assaulted by a male guard who demanded sex in return for favors.
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Taxpayers get hit twice. Not only do our taxes build and staff these prisons, but guess who pays these huge court-ordered financial settlements going to abused prisoners? The taxpayers, of course.

Here is how Steward sums up prison policies in America and why more than 1 million nonviolent men and women are behind bars: “Blame mandatory sentencing laws and the record of nonviolent drug offenders subject to these laws. One day, I predict, we will look back in horror at the sentences that were enacted for low-level defendants, marvel at the cruelty and be grateful that we moved beyond this dark period in our history.”

The problem concerns more than a few people in Denver and Washington. Prisons are built and operated, and prisoners are abused, with your tax money and mine.

That makes you and me morally responsible for what goes on behind prison walls — and for finding ways to fix the problem.

Ronald Fraser Ph.D. writes about public policy issues for the DKT Liberty Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization. He can be reached at fraser@erols.com.