Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Bad Apple Virus

It frustrates me that so few prisoners in this unit seem able to see any connection to their own lives in debates about law enforcement, race, and class struggles in the wake of Ferguson. The indifference of my fellow inmates is so maddening because much of the discussion is thankfully centered around criminal justice reform, with people all over the U.S. currently focused on public policies and laws which affect different communities unequally. It is hard to imagine a better moment in time for informed conversations concerning the real effects of policies which too often never see the light of day in public imagination and discourse.

I understand the point of view which resists the idea that any problems at all exist within the American criminal justice system. After all, there is a strong emphasis on individualism and individual responsibility here which stretches back to our pioneering ancestors. I myself committed a serious crime in my youth, taking a life which can never be restored, and I have repeatedly affirmed what I believe most prisoners will also admit, that those who do wrong must be held responsible as a part of our response to crime. Humans have an almost instinctive understanding of this concept. For instance, even as children we learn that when we steal it is wrong and our family will discipline us, perhaps sending us to the corner to stand or having a cherished toy taken.

Yet what family will take its beloved but misbehaving child and banish them to some far corner to stand forever, never to return? Implied in punishment should be the intent to bring about a better outcome, and a better behaved child who be welcomed back to the fold as a functioning member of an improved family. If our policy instead was to permanently banish the child or only allow his return as a limited member who can, say, sleep at home but cannot eat meals with the family; we must recognize in such treatment of the offender a permanent negative value judgment. We only treat a family member this way who was by nature deficient, who lacked the potential to function properly, or who inspired more fear than love.

Today, this kind of negative character judgment is built into our criminal justice system. Our policies imply the belief that some people by nature are apt to commit crime; that they lack the ability to function as members of our law-abiding human family. Viewed this way, the role of the law, of law enforcement, of our prosecutors and courts, and of our detention and supervision methods is to reach out and find the defective ones among us, to watch, punish, and detain them, and to stop them from harming others and themselves.

In a culture so enamored of individuality, such a role for our system seems to make sense. Now we have enforcement and sentencing policies which ruthlessly carry out this program. So confident are we in our ability to root out the criminals, label and deal with them as it is necessary to treat such dangerous animals, that we now routinely lock away youthful first-time offenders for the majority of their lives, only allowing them to escape the system when they are old, if ever. We have sought out and identified in our state alone more “bad apples” than the total prison population of the country of Australia. And we know that they are bad apples because they have committed a crime, and anyone who would commit a crime must be by nature a defective irredeemable product from our human factory.

Right now people in our nation are starting to realize something is not quite right with this process. When you personally know someone who has been caught in the net of our system, it becomes evident what a tragic mistake it is to judge a man or woman as defective and irredeemable based on one act, or one time period in their lives, usually when they are young. And if you are very poor and happen to be a minority or both, you cannot help but see how our system applies its justice unequally. If you are none of these, you may be among those in our country who feel nothing is broken about our system, a position much easier to defend when you don’t live in one of the poor regions targeted most intensely by law enforcement.

Looking at prisons is essential to shed light on this debate. A process has been taking place inside Tennessee prisons which mirrors what has made people so angry in our country. Right now, I live in a disciplinary unit where men who are judged dangerous have their jobs and most of their outside contact stripped from them and where they are concentrated together under the most intense conditions of poverty, restlessness, and hostility. No matter the nature of the inmate’s transgression, or how well they were doing before their mistake, they are sent here for punishment for a length of time depending on their offense and removed from the neighborhoods of less dishonor in the prison where the men have jobs and outside support. Unlike those upper regions where inmates are generally left in peace by their peers who have incomes, and the officers who feel less threatened by the “good” inmates, in the lowest region, one will witness atrocious levels of drug abuse, violence, theft, and gang activity while the inmates are constantly harassed by the officers who feel all the bad apples naturally end up here, and who therefore focus most of their vigilance in this direction.

To say that it is a matter of individual choice where an inmate resides inside the prison, is only a half-truth at best. Mobility between the different regions depends on much more than personal choice and character. However it happens that one slides down the scale from good to bad, it is much more difficult to climb the ladder than it is to fall because the conditions one faces makes it more difficult to avoid further writeups, and those conditions are created only in the context of the punitive policies which are ironically implemented in the name of promoting good behavior.

So this zone takes up its place along a continuum of zones corresponding to our judgments about the nature of some people who belong in them and what enforcement punishment policies are necessary to control them. Authorities refuse to acknowledge that their own policies have anything to do with the increased problems in these areas, choosing conveniently to place the blame on individual accountability alone. In prison, the bad apple theory reaches its pinnacle practically unopposed. In fact, at this prison, the inmates in each zone wear wristbands color-coded to the unit, and an inmate's nature is commonly judged based on the color of the band alone. My comments about past regimes who used similar techniques on populations gathered into ghettos are not appreciated. I am not a bad apple. For anyone who knows me, the thought approaches absurdity. Yet I am a man who will defend myself as any man will, and as such I am walking a razor's edge every day trying to function while avoiding getting into trouble with an authority who knows what conditions we face here and callously blames the whole situation on individual responsibility. And I may succeed in making it out, but I have extraordinary advantages most don’t have. Just like the exceptions who make it out of bad neighborhoods and succeed out there, my example will only prove what it takes to rise above the rule. The rest may well curse me as they drown in bitter resentment.

This pattern of judgments about the nature of some individuals, and the policies enacted to control them should seem familiar to those engaged in the debate post-Ferguson. It is the same pattern which is repeated like a fractal inside each prison, inside the TDOC as a whole (determining whether inmates go to “good” prisons with at least some opportunities or “bad” prisons where conditions are wretched), and outside the prison system where some communities continue to be the primary targets of broken window policing and simultaneously the inheritors of a legacy of economic and educational devastation in the wake of race and class struggles reaching back in history to before the Civil War and seemingly woven into our societies fabric. It is all the same practice of power justified by the erroneous belief that some people are simply defective by nature, a belief that can only exist alongside a tragic ignorance of the way the conditions one faces in life limits personal freedom and makes a mockery of the classic view of opportunities for mobility in the U.S.

Departments of corrections defend their policies by describing the monster everyone fears, the criminal, the boogeyman; and when I watch men victimizing one another every day, just like many prisoners, I am tempted to curse some of my fellows as well. But I live in danger myself, and even so, I can see the humanity in all but the worst men around me. As hard as it is to understand, only the extremely rare sociopaths are exempt from a certain pattern seen in those I’ve met who seem to be unrepentant lost causes. Namely, from one angry broken man to another, they feel justified in what they do because in their hearts deep down it seems clear to them that before they turned on the world, the world turned on them first.

As Michelle Alexander has pointed out, it is the last resort of the most desperate to embrace a negative stereotype in an attempt to turn shame into pride when no other option exists. The divide lurking beneath the post-Ferguson debate runs deeper than many are aware; it centers around history, shame, and an inability or unwillingness to imagine multiple/competing narratives across the lines that quite naturally divide localized regions. Until we penetrate these layers it will remain possible for either side to demonize the other, and when we cannot see the humanity in one another progress is impossible.

I wonder now whether we will ever be able to make the connections which will humanize the exchange and make progress possible on a problem stretching this deep into our history. One thing seems certain to me; as long as those with power to enact policies are allowed to do so across the barriers if imagination that make it impossible for us to see each other as human beings, as long as those safe and comfortable and prosperous have no place in their hearts for the cries of those they fear and do not understand, and as long as we cannot even be honest with ourselves about our own history in a nation with deep, deep wounds still fresh and bleeding, healing will escape us.

I challenge the notion that communities should not be trusted to respond to crime responsibly and humanely in the context where problems occur and when the parties involved may meet with some understanding of common history and common interests. I challenge the notion that lawmakers should pass laws and enact policies from the capitol which will affect different communities in different ways. I challenge the notion that a vast state-wide system on the scale we see in the U.S. is more useful than harmful, much less necessary. I challenge the notion that the state and national policies which benefit some regions at the expense of others are beyond the attack of those regions and communities which pay the heaviest cost while others prosper and fall back on the lame bad apple theories that only serve to cover what is at best ignorance and at worst pure exploitation.

Our criminal justice system cloaks itself in the illusion of legitimacy, necessity, and righteousness, but that cloak disappears when we lose the lenses of fear that also hide the humanity of prisoners. Those caught in the bowels of the beast often fail to see the humanity in each other because we are kept in a divided state, degraded, hungry, and at each other’s’ throats for the scraps our masters throw at us. But no one thinks himself or his friends to be animals; it is always the other. And if someone out there has family in here, the illusion may disappear as well.

But in order to proceed forward intelligently and humanely, it is vital to recognize the false belief that some people are by nature flawed; the lie which seeks to justify ultimately oppressive policies and practices carried out in the name of justice. This pattern of belief and practice concerning certain people who live in certain zones has replicated itself until it permeates the organism of our society like a disease. Like any doctor would recommend, we must first listen to the shouts of pain and seek to stop doing so much harm. Then this disease must be identified and eradicated to allow the healing we need.

by Moses

Monday, January 12, 2015

Ferguson on the Inside

I watched the Ferguson decision with my cellmate as it was announced, and I monitored the noise in the pod to see if there was any reaction. It became clear there would be no indictment as count time and lock down was approaching, and it also became clear there would be no reaction in my neighborhood; a place where callous police interdiction and surveillance have reached their intrusive totalitarian pinnacle in our society.

As an example, until very recently, the correctional officer was considered a sufficient presence for security and operations of the prison environment within TDOC. Now, however, I wake several times a week to the sound of some inmate screaming the warning "Green Team in the pod! Green Team in the pod!" Every prison now employs a full time "elite" para-military security team dressed in green fatigues and equipped with tactical gear. There are usually between four and six members of this team who serve at the warden's discretion and at his or her direction. These teams maintain a near-constant presence of fear and intimidation. It is very much like every little suburb or neighborhood in Tennessee having a convoy of SWAT trucks assigned to it on a permanent basis – which, in reality, is not unlike the truth in some neighborhoods and cities in America, and this brings me to an important point.

Some would say prison is supposed to be this way. Prisoners have proven themselves to be dangerous and therefore must be controlled and punished. But the reality is that prison has become merely one point along a continuum of judgments built into our society about people who live in certain places and the way we feel we must treat the people who live in those neighborhoods. Prison happens to be at the bottom of the continuum of fear and interdiction. Yet it is just another place where a huge number of people, who are still part of American society, though rendered invisible, must live. For me this is simply home. And I know that millions of other prisoners in our country and tens of thousands in our state, still consider themselves citizens and participants in the social order because we are still, for now, participating with your increasingly intolerable criminal justice system.

It should not be surprising that prison requires the participation of the prisoners, but it is understandable that people find it so at first when so much money is spent on expensive things like metal fences, and guns, and walls, and other visible signs of the power to restrain. In reality, prisoners know they could decide to leave en masse at any time with their far superior numbers, if they had nothing to lose, nothing left to live for. But most of us (less than before since mass incarceration and modern draconian sentencing laws were implemented) still hope to move back to our home neighborhoods the legal way one day because we still love our homes and our families and our communities and our state and our country.

So if prisons are truly just neighborhoods of normal people extending below the rock-bottom lines of race and class disparity on the field of economic desolation; and if it is the stomping giant called our historical legacy that has pounded these craters called prison into that landscape, then one would think that here of all places one would find unrest about Ferguson. But I find almost none, and I wonder why?

I now live in a pod which epitomizes the fear and tension exemplified by Ferguson. Once inside the prison system, individuals are subject to the ultimate in dystopian surveillance policing reflected over and over at different scales like a fractal. Being a disciplinary unit, the pod I live in is double or triple distilled so to speak. I discussed these policies in a previous post. What is the result of such policies? Extremely high rates of addiction and poverty coupled with distrust and hostility toward one another with an almost playful, childlike acceptance of or dependence upon the presence and actions of the authorities who rule over the inmates with often open disgust.

Sound familiar?

Perhaps it is a law of human nature that once you cross a threshold of deep dehumanization, resistance is no longer to be expected. Almost everyone in here lives as though what they are experiencing was as inevitable for them as the gravity that holds them to the earth. When every single immediate fact surrounding them, and everything in their history seems to agree, it is difficult to argue with the hard look in their eyes that says, "I was born for these chains, and I know I will die in them as my fathers did." But the real telos of this system is the simple stark fact that many of my brothers in prison have ceased to even see the chains as chains at all, and instead choosing the last defense available for men given no realistic way to earn dignity and status: to embrace the negative image with pride, to become the anti-hero, and to make their last appeals only to those few who understand and to God, while disappearing into the haze of drugs and alcohol.

We are living, yet we can’t breathe.

Perhaps there is a disconnect between those outside the prisons who criticize the severity of the criminal justice system, and those in here who have lost any sense that they have a legitimate voice of dissent. If anything, given our long experience inside the crucible which most people never see, many just raise their heads momentarily and stare, but the sounds of their chains, our chains, and the old hard voice of their protective skepticism drowns out the media blitz.

The Sunday shows broadcast discussions about the grand jury process, and policing reforms, and community demographics into my cell, and I shiver inside, afraid to hope that this vision of oppression and the need for change is reaching critical mass. I urge my brothers to lift up their eyes, but I think in the end it is the last great sign of our humanity that we so desperately fear the cruelty of false hope.

Hear us. We are living, yet we can’t breathe.

by Moses

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Into the Wasteland

Two days ago, I saw "Adam's" form walking around in the pod and I knew he must have gotten into trouble at the annex. I also knew he would get in trouble again with the guys in this unit, and I am ashamed to say I intentionally limited my contact with him to protect myself.

Adam is big enough to have played college basketball, a white guy with broad shoulders, glasses and a sincere, almost childlike smile. I met him when I first arrived at my new place of exile before I was moved to the gang & disciplinary unit. My first thought when I saw him was that he was either affiliated with a white racist gang or that he soon would be because he appeared young, inexperienced, and very strong, the type of guy often forced into the role of enforcer by dynamic leaders. But I soon found out he wasn't in a gang, he was a nice guy, he liked comic books and he needed a shot of coffee. I gladly gave him the coffee as well as a book to read and made a friend. Since he was on his way to the annex, a much softer place where he could theoretically make parole on his short sentence, I strongly advised him to continue to resist the heavy, persistent attempts to recruit him. He was almost too grateful, too eager to fit in and make a friend, and I worried about him, but I had problems of my own to worry about.

Having arrived at my new home, unlike Adam who was just stopping over temporarily to go to an annex, I was concerned with the question of which unit I would live in this new prison. Right away it was clear this was not the place it used to be, the place I had heard about all those years as I did time elsewhere - but then, the whole system had been evolving from what it had once been as the effects of laws passed and policies implemented in the 90's kept accumulating, and authorities and inmates alike struggled to keep pace with the quickly evolving prison environment.

The first impression I got walking into the wilder part of the facility: wasteland. Unemployment is outrageous, educational opportunities this prison was once known for like the cosmetology and culinary schools have disappeared, recreation is at a minimum, the tension in the air is thick in every quarter, and the whole prison is divided into neighborhoods which control the perceptions and behaviors of those who both live and work in them. The inmates even have little wrist bands which demarcate where they live and therefore what behavior is expected from them.

As I looked around the unit my first day, I remember the guard on the bus after we arrived who recognized an inmate and said in a fashion fit for Dante's entrance into hell, "You don’t want to be here no more. I'm getting out, man, quick as I can. This place fallin' apart. It ain't straight. It ain't straight. This ain't the place you want to be.”

A few days talking to people while I lived in the transit cell made me feel like he was right. I distinctly remember looking around at the men in that pod and thinking they looked like hard-driven, dirty refugees with sunken eyes, unkempt hair and beards, and ratty unwashed clothing that did not fit. Men just surviving, just being.

Those in that area of the prison had been excluded from the "good" part of the prison, and although they had not been sent into the worst place, all wanted to get back on top of the hill where men had jobs and did not fear being beaten, being locked down, going hungry while surviving on chow hall food, and constantly living with the tension in the atmosphere that comes from everywhere and nowhere at once. They wanted to live in a place where men did not have security escort details packing knives escort them to the showers, where walking to a table to play spade after dinner and crossing the path of such an escort accidentally can turn your world into a "Nature" documentary.

It seems that our prisons have been neatly and quietly divided into areas where such behavior takes place with vigorous intensity, and areas where inmates are held under oppressive submission with the threat that they may be sent to such a place. This control technique is simple, and in many ways, it eerily mirrors the way ghettos and similar control regimes appear elsewhere in history.

The reality is that some men and women in prison are committed to a lifestyle of depravity and predatory behavior that extends from a social legacy of racism and class warfare we in the US have yet to come to grips with. Birthed into a world they felt did not want them and having nothing but shame heaped upon their heads, lacking security and basic necessities, many have turned and declared war on the world. The fear of these people is the reason for mass incarceration, and here filtered down to its essence in the worst pit of our prison system is the real legacy of the race and class struggle we have inherited from our ancestors.

The administration has found another way to use these men. Having chosen criteria and implemented policies that concentrate those they fear the most into one unit at the bottom of the prison, they have created a lawless, brutal zone of violence where reluctant men from opposing gangs, cities and cultures keep each other at a constant tense stand off. This serves the purpose of controlling the population in two ways. First, it tends to silence or at least minimize the influence of rebellious voices who may stir up resistance to the increasingly oppressive and onerous conditions inside the prisons. Second, when such a fearsome unit exists, it allows the rest of the population of the prison to be controlled through sheer intimidation. The threat of being stripped of one's job, shorn of access to one's family at visitation, and being placed in a unit where violence is unavoidable if you are not affiliated and still likely if you are, is a powerful deterrent.

So when I arrived at this prison, all I heard from the men here was that you don't want to go to that unit. Just recently it had been locked down when a man's head had been smashed and the gangs were beating and stealing from unaffiliated white guys. When I explained the write-up I had been give when I was shipped here, everyone I talked to got a dark look on their faces and said without conviction, "Well maybe they won't put you over there. Clean-cut white guy, not affiliated, never been a problem before; maybe they won't put you over there." But though I hoped like everyone else to avoid it, I knew deep down that's exactly why they had sent me here to this prison, to see what's at the bottom of the prison system's funnel-web trap. The person who signed my transfer papers to this prison has strong ties here and had to know where I would be going and what I would be heading into.

I have been in this unit about two months now, and I am sickened by what I have seen and what I continue to see. I cannot help but recoil at the brutal cost of these techniques of control extracted in terms of real human suffering right in front of me, so close I can smell the blood. Over and over, wave after wave of inmates from the rest of the compound desperate just to work or educate them selves and live in peace are swept up by the administrative hand and thrown into the funnel to be sacrificed upon the altar of oppressive control. As soon as they arrive, the monster pounces on them, tearing them to pieces. I have literally watched the blood flowing like a river, and even as I write this, I do not know whether mine will be next.

These men have nothing. They cannot get jobs because the jobs aren't there to give them, and if they were, they wouldn't qualify because of the same policies and criteria arbitrarily defined to exclude them. Once a person is thrown into the funnel, he finds the sides are so slippery that he cannot climb out. The conditions make it almost impossible to avoid getting further write-ups-for those who even care to try to avoid them. Some men don't seem to care about anything anymore. Nearly every policy seems from this perspective to be designed to reinforce the horrible conditions humanitarian principles should oppose: poverty, drug addiction, violence, robbery, rape, gang activity, strong-arm activity, racism and racially motivated violence. In the last thirty days, the word is that over 30 men have gone into protective custody from this one unit alone.

I am sick because I know that the administration is fully aware of all these conditions and events and finds the situation useful. I am sick because try as I might, I cannot convince the ones doing the worst of it they are being used as weapons formed out of a people against its own people. I am sick because these insane places make all this insanity possible. I am sick because when I saw Adam walk back into this unit, I feared he wouldn't escape the visceral teeth of those poor souls who have been so dehumanized that they don't realize or don't care that they have become the trained attackers of their masters, temporarily trading the majesty of their humanity for pocket change. I am sick because Adam has been swept up and sacrificed right in front of me and I can't save him. I don't know if I can save myself.

Adam dressed in a suit and tie would be the manly pride of any family in the State, tall and strong with a chiseled chin. He walked into a unit anointed with the distilled essence of ten generations of his ancestors' racism, and the cancerous, monstrous child they birthed devoured him while I watched. My mother was speaking to me on the phone and I could not reply because I was watching the scene play out in front of me. One of the swarm jumped on the chair by the phone beside me, grabbing his crotch in front of my face but ignoring me as he screamed across the pod, "Cell 200 is mine: That's me!" Adam didn't even fight. His celly did, but not for long.

Being so inexperienced in the system and having such a short sentence, I knew Adam wouldn't be able to stand against this assault. It has taken all my personal strength and the help of like-minded men I have formed community with to stand for my own freedom since I was exiled here. I don't have the power to stop what's happening around me. In my heart, the fact that I would stop it if I could is only partial consolation for the shame I feel for not helping Adam. He cannot understand why I shunned him. He will never know how I have begged for forgiveness in my heart and how I continue to beg God to help me forgive my captors for forcing me into this situation.

It would be easy to say, as the administration no doubt would in defense of their policies, that all this is merely the inmates' faults. "Those gangbangers, those violent offenders," they would reply, "they just refuse to comply with the rules no matter how we try to control them. We do our best to manage them and keep them off the streets for you, and we do what we have to do with the worst cases. Unfortunately, we don't have enough maximum security cells in our system [thank God!] to put them all in solitary confinement, so we have to do something with them. It seems to be their consistent choice to engage in violent exploitative behavior no matter how strongly they are discouraged, and the department only has limited resources to deal with these most dangerous men when it is now over-burdened with non-violent offenders as well."

And I sympathize with their point of view, seeing that prisons have now become mere extensions of the poorest neighborhoods in our State and this problem stretches from my doorstep to yours. Yet it is dangerous not to recognize two falsehoods in the protest above if we actually want to solve problems.

First, TDOC will not release deep statistics on this subject so that independent minds and policy makers can analyze what's going on. There is a lot of shallow talk about releasing the non-violent offenders that supposedly clog up our system. But instead of looking at violent and non-violent offenders, we should be looking at what violent conditions are consistently associated with and maintained around certain locations. It is clear from my view in this unit that very many of those most feared and hated are exactly those "non-violent" offenders being discussed, those who also happen to be young, black (or ultra-poor white), affiliated, drug addicted, and under these conditions, ultra-violent. It is the conditions people are forced to live in that matter most.

What is missing is any political acknowledgment in our State that it is to a large degree our laws and policies which have brought about the cultural and socio-economic conditions as well as the shifting localities where both violence and drug-related crime thrive. As Michelle Alexander and Jeffrey Reiman have pointed out, not to acknowledge this is tantamount to the implicitly racist and class-biased statement which cuts to the cancer still stinking inside the South that those people (i.e. blacks and ultra-poor whites) are just naturally violent and drug-addled animals. I know this is at the core of all of it because I live here inside the festering core and I hear the predominantly white, lower middle class staff, literally saying just that about anyone who lives in this unit. Prison is the best mirror we have of society, and that's why no one really wants to look at it.

So now that it is costing too much, the "non-violent" offenders should be released because that is the most politically expedient tactic to release the pressure from the system which hasty fear-motivated policies passed by opportunistic politicians in the 90's caused in the first place. Perhaps Governor Haslam can personally come open the gates of those five-star hotel prisons that he promised to eliminate in 2010 and release them himself.

by Moses