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

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