Sunday, April 26, 2009

Dog Years

When I began reading an essay about the Obama family’s new dog, Bo, on the op/ed page, I wasn’t looking for material to use in a blog post. As much as I embrace E.O. Wilson’s notion of “consilience” — drawing on all spheres of human knowledge for holistic problem solving — I really didn’t expect Bo to contribute much toward the illumination of criminal justice issues.

The more I read of Wayne Pacelle’s essay, however, the more striking the parallel seemed between the warehousing of dogs in “puppy mills” and the warehousing of humans in jails and prisons. Pacelle is the president and CEO of the Humane Society. He paints a disturbing picture of the conditions inside the factory farms that spew out 4 million puppies every year, nearly 2 million of whom end up being euthanized in shelters for lack of a good home. Within the puppy mills, disease is rampant, as dogs typically get no exercise, no opportunity to leave their cages, and precious little, if any, human interaction.

It was jarring to read about these miserable conditions and disconcerting to realize I had been so oblivious to then. It's not as if our culture has no standards for the treatment of dogs. In December 2007, Michael Vick, the former Atlanta Falcons quarterback, was sentenced to 23 months in federal prison and 3 years of probation for his part in a brutal dog-fighting conspiracy. A professor at Valparaiso University School of Law (my law school alma mater), Rebecca Huss, was appointed guardian to the 48 pit bulls seized from Vick’s property by investigators. The legal system does not go to the trouble of bringing down star quarterbacks, and appointing guardians, for species whose members are completely disposable.

Is there an analogy between puppy mills and American prisons? In one way, the situation is the exact opposite. Dog farms churn out the pups hoping to sell them to people who want them, whereas prisons provide a place to confine unwanted people. But the health hazards of warehousing are inescapable, whether the species is canis lupus familiaris or homo sapiens.

For American inmates, the belly of the beast is most exposed in California, where the prison healthcare system has broken down under the strain of constant overcrowding. With inmates triple-bunked in gymnasiums, hallways and other unlikely places, and their medical records in chaos, many have died of preventable illnesses or committed suicide over the past decade. The federal courts have found this to be cruel and unusual punishment, which is prohibited by the Eight Amendment. On February 9, a special three-judge panel announced its intention to cap the number of prisoners at slightly more than 100,000, a reduction of more than 50,000 from the current size of 156,000, which is twice the system’s designed capacity. (Coleman v. Schwarzenegger, 2009 WL 330960)

Michael Vick is scheduled to be released from federal prison in July. (Just in time for training camp?) How many unwanted dogs will still be languishing in puppy mill and shelters then, and how many unwanted humans in jails and prisons?

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