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Following our discussions of race and mass incarceration along with disproportionate punishments doled out to POC by the justice system, it is time to put those concepts together and discuss the full horrifying reality of American prisons from the inside.
We are taught at a young age in schools that law enforcement are the good guys and everyone they arrest is deserving of the punishment coming. I wanted to believe that for the longest time, but I realize how privileged I was to be able to have that notion at all. To have any distance from the brutality of the American law enforcement system is to be white and middle or upper class. The propaganda that we are fed in our daily lives is devastatingly effective at pushing false narratives to reinforce this status quo too. When looking at figures like Joel Patrick, a black YouTuber who argues (among other pilled rhetoric) that African Americans commit 55% of violent crime, it is clear how badly binary and white supremacist backed agendas infect people past a point of recognizing reality, the only focus is trying to maintain a “good” identity for the in group.
By being told for decades that POC are more violent and dangerous to the white community’s existence we are primed to believe misleading statistics like this. People refuse to take into account the over-reporting of certain communities due to ingrained racism, the fact that young black men don’t feel safe walking with a hood up because they might get shot for looking suspicious. We have set many double standards in our system that allow rich white teenagers off scot free while sentencing black kids to years for the same offense, but this is by design as the justice system is meant to serve as a modern solution to the problem of allowing POC have too much autonomy under the status quo of white supremacy and capitalism.
Warning: Descriptions of rape and suicide ahead. If you need resources, the Suicide Hotline is 800-273-8255. A link to RAINN for Sexual Assault survivors.
On a cold winter night in Central Park, a jogger was attacked, raped, and left beaten to a pulp. Once she was found police began blindly arresting dozens of POC teenagers around the park, allegedly fitting the profile of a rapist seen fleeing the scene. Ultimately six young black men (all under 18) were arrested and sentenced for the brutal rape of Trisha Meili, with five being convicted and serving time. Their convictions were based on testimony that was gained in one on one interrogations by white cops, which took place in a manner that was very aggressive. (As all police interrogations are.) Practices that coerce admissions like this are themselves another miscairrage of justice, as police will make suspects uncomfortable, physically get aggressive and at the worst, torture people into confessing. Thousands of false testimonies have been coerced by law enforcement, and I will detail these issues more in the next chapter.
Following conviction, the sentences varied among the youths with 5 – 10 years for four of them and a 15 year sentence being handed out to the oldest, Korey Wise. Wise was tried as an adult because he was 16 and sent to Rikers’ Island, a notoriously inhumane prison that is filled with hardened inmates who serve serious time. Wise’s sentence, and those of the other 4 kids, were based on disgusting racial prejudices that cause African American youth to be 8.5 times more likely than white kids to be charged as adults. The justice system, along with many other institutions in America due to our ingrained white supremacism, disproportionately view POC as inherently criminal and thus must be locked away once they show signs of that criminality. The court was willing to send a 16 year old child to this hell hole because it didn’t view him as a human with rights in our society. Other stereotypes, such as the notion that African Americans can endure harsher punishment and have higher pain tolerances further push the narrative that makes excuses for treating them as less than human.
In 2001 a convicted serial rapist named Matias Reyes, already serving a life sentence, confessed to the rape of Meili. Upon investigation his confession was very real, and it became apparent how tragic this situation really was. New York police, spurned by a call for blood from Trump and other white elites in the city, had hastily gone about making blanket arrests based on vague suspect profiles. The bloodlust for an assailant to be named in the Central Park rape caused a community to single out 5 young POC for a horrible crime, force confessions out of them that were later recanted, and sentence them to years in adult prisons because they fit the stereotypical profile. In 1991 and again in 2016 the wrongness of these accusations was emphasized in articles written on the case. Figures like Trump, who ran ads promoting the death penalty for the conviction in 1989, helped whip the city into a frenzy that “poisoned” the minds of the jurors. It was noted that jurors and the rest of the population alike were so focused on the narrative that this awful crime could happen to a jogger, and needed a conviction badly to feel safe. Thus it became almost unthinkable to them that these kids hadn’t done it.
The point of this example is to show that our biases affect how we view objective situations, especially in regards to the justice system. Cases like this reinforce the narrative that POC are violent criminals who should be the first suspects to look at. Despite their later proven innocence these 5 young men were used as the face of violent crime in New York and America. I can almost guarantee that their case still counted towards that statistic of 55% people like Joel so readily believe. Meanwhile, Brock Turner received 2 months of jail with a community service option afterwards when he was quite literally, pulled off of the woman he was actively raping. With physical, visual, and victim statements that confirmed without a doubt Turner had viciously raped a young woman in broad daylight, the judge said that it was a “shame” Brock decided to do that because he had such a bright future.
Five African American children were wrongfully arrested for, convicted of, and sentenced years for a crime they did not commit. This happened while Trump and other prominent figures called for their death in a scene comparable to lynch mobs. The odorous slug squelching through life, draped in human skin and leeching off of society that is Brock’s existence, received a sympathy statement from the judge and was given a tap on the wrist after being forcibly removed from inside his victim.
Our justice system is so purposely unforgiving that wrongfully accused people, and even those who may have committed a crime, are subjected to its disproportionate punishment. Since 1990 over 365 people have been exonerated based on DNA evidence, spending an average of 14 years in prison before they were released. An even more horrifying statistic; a third of individuals who were found innocent had been coerced into false confessions, and over half of this group were under 21. This is based on harmful racial stereotypes and an eagerness of American society to just lock them away and be done with it. People are even sent to the horrors of the prison system while knowingly innocent, such as the tragic case of Kaleif Browder, only 17 at the time of his wrongful conviction and sent to Riker’s Island where he was mercilessly beaten and driven to take his own life at the age of 20.
There are virtually no resources for inmates integrating back into life, let alone while they are incarcerated. Literature suggests that there are serious histories of trauma within the population that is arrested and sentenced; roughly 25-30% of the prison population is estimated to have a mental health disorder, diagnosed or not. (About 20% of prisoners have been actually assessed and diagnosed at some point.) Women in particular have a higher acuity for PTSD, with about 40% of female inmates having the disorder in comparison to roughly 15% in the male population. However, regardless of gender, 94.7% of the inmates surveyed reported experiencing at least one traumatic event as classified by the standard Trauma History Questionnaire. Unsurprisingly there is virtually no research that has been done into the effects of trauma on inmates otherwise, but I could guarantee you that if a comprehensive survey were done we would gain a lot of insight into the motivations and histories of the people who feel they had to turn to crime. When people come out of prison and are forced to integrate back into normal life, there is that lingering history of trauma that now has new tribulations added on top of it from life in prison.
The living conditions within prisons are the most traumatizing aspects about them, usually putting people in more danger than the other inmates. It is simply a fact that most prisons in America force inmates into conditions unsuitable for rats, let alone humans, and the UN Committee Against Torture has investigated the United States justice system for humanitarian crimes, specifically within the Texas state prison system. Over half of the prisons in the south and southwest regions, our hottest states, lack any sort of air conditioning. Many prisons have AC units in staff offices or separate dwelling spaces, but a majority leave inmates to suffer through heat waves with damp towels. On top of this, 40% or more of inmates have a preexisting condition that makes them more susceptible to harm from high heat. This problem is specifically prevalent in the Lonestar state where 75% of their state penitentiaries don’t have AC subjecting prisoners to temperatures as high as 150 degrees in their cells, trapped with nowhere to go. Along the east coast there are many issues with this too, especially in New York as climate change creates more extreme summers and colder winters. Suicide watch lists have begun to fill in the summer months as inmates with mental health issues begin skipping medication because it makes harder to regulate internal body temperatures. When prisons inevitably have inmates collapse from heat stroke or other medical emergencies, there are even fewer resources to actually help them.
Inmates have much higher rates of viral infections and chronic illness (diabetes and STI’s are particularly common,) that are exacerbated by the conditions they are forced to live in; yet time with a doctor is infamously hard to come by when incarcerated. 14% of federal inmates and 20% of the state prison population had or have never received a medical examination since admittance. Nearly 25% of inmates who took a prescription medication, such as antidepressants or cholesterol aids, have been forced to stop taking that medication from lack of access. Prisons have little to no accommodations for inmates that have extra needs beyond a shitty meal to survive, while cramming them into hot, crowded, unsanitary cells that perpetuate the trauma within as prisoners eventually break under the horror they face daily.
Louisiana State Penitentiary (or Angola, after the slave plantation that once occupied the land,) is a prison notorious for its harsh conditions and segregation. The prison has been documented to have black mold growing everywhere that causes respiratory illness, overcrowding of three to four men to a two bunk room, rats living among the inmates, and little to no regard for the health or safety of prisoners on the part of staff. Disease spreads rapidly as up to 200 men can be crammed into a standard sized dormitory. There is no air conditioning, and temperatures in cells get up to 120 degrees in the southern heat, with extreme humidity that further dehydrates prisoners. Many collapse from heat exhaustion, and several inmates have been documented to die from lack of water and being overworked in intense heat. The prison also has an extremely high number of inmates serving life or other extended sentences, creating an environment that is very heavily partitioned by gangs. Inmates are sent to hard labor in the fields of what once was a slave plantation, spending hours in the blazing sun picking cotton (irony calling) and other cash crops, then going back to their cells with no release from the heat. This labor is done under the 13th amendment, emancipating slaves yet legalizing slave labor when one is incarcerated.
Inmates usually generate over 1800 metric tons of crops every year, yet get paid nothing for it. Louisiana caps prison wages for this work at 20 cents an hour, and nearly every job within Angola only pays up to 4 cents, with field labor netting prisoners nothing. Slavery in America has not truly ended. Solitary confinement is also used in Angola frequently, as it is in almost every American prison, but the difference about Angola is that death row inmates are in solitary as a standard regardless of their crime and other prisoners get thrown in much more often than an average facility would for punishment. Three seperate death row inmates are alleged to have been in a solitary cell for over 25 years, with at least one of those allegations confirmed to be entirely accurate. Other serious accusations against Angola include excessive brutality by guards who take pleasure in beating prisoners, and perhaps most disturbingly, a gang of inmates who raped and enslaved others. While the conditions at Angola may be an extreme example of carceral cruelty, these sorts of living conditions and use of force by guards are not uncommon throughout prisons in America.
Politicians co-opt tough on crime personas to build up a mythos, appealing to their sycophantic followers by subjecting prisoners to extremes of human depravity for the laughs and votes. For example Joe Arpaio, Sheriff of Maricopa County for over 20 years, opened an outdoor jail in Arizona during 1993 that was supposed to be his grand solution to overspending so that he could save taxpayers money. This “jail” was originally meant as an extension of other Maricopa County facilities due to overcrowding, and Arpaio shipped in leftover Korean War era tents that could house up to 1700 inmates. Unsurprisingly it earned the nickname Tent City. The facility was heavily fortified with razor wire due to inmates “adept” attempts at escape, handed out pink towels, underwear, and sandals so that prisoners wouldn’t “steal” according to Sheriff Joe, and held a large neon ‘vacancy’ sign on the watchtower. Overcrowding was a big issue in Tent City, as with nearly all modern American prisons, and oftentimes would see inmates stacked into tents like sardines. They were also given trash bags as raincoats, regularly denied having their needs met because guards claimed to not understand them, and only fed 2 rotting meals a day that cost the prison 30 cents per prisoner.
Now, if you know anything about Arizona, it gets pretty hot; even hotter than in Louisiana or other parts of the south. During winters, it also happens to drop below freezing at night frequently, and tents were on top of concrete with holes that let rain and cold seep through. Arpaio also instituted chain gangs at the compound which paid inmates $0 for prison labor while tied together in searing heat, for shock value adding what he claimed were the only female and youth chain gangs in existence. He subjected literal children to this outdated punishment, as he placed juvenile work crews in prominent spots where families could see them and ‘teach kids a lesson,’ so they wouldn’t end up like those on the road working. The rest of America broadly abandoned chain gangs after 1955, and even Angola refuses to use them now. Prisoners were verbally and physically abused for not speaking English, even though many were immigrants from Latin America. This was due to the blatant white supremacy and prejudice with which Arpaio ran his facility, targeting any migrants that he suspected of being in America illegally.
Many inmates were beaten close to death, in a couple of instances actually killed, as was the case for one inmate tied to a chair with his throat crushed. One would think that for this level of security and isolation in a tent city, inmates would have to be dangerous and violent, right? The offenses for nearly every inmate at the facility included one of these charges; drug use, shoplifting, or working with false documents. Not only was the prison extremely cruel and overcrowded, most of the people held in Arpaio’s facilities were innocent, awaiting trial or a judgement and forced to wait for months or years; such as a teenager who was forced to sit in Tent City for 4 years while awaiting exoneration in a ruled entrapment case in which Arpaio set him up for a fabricated assassination attempt.
To summarize the vile conditions our prisons force upon inmates; it doesn’t matter if the prison is private or state owned, there will be deplorable treatment and inmates leaving the carceral institution are most likely going to have severe trauma while trying to integrate back into normal life. Our country has so heavily leaned into law and order propaganda that keeps the lower class and minority groups in deep oppression, the notion of an America without horrific oppression is unthinkable to many. Politicians can slimly hidden behind the brutal conditions that prisons endure so that cheap labor is accessible and white supremacist standards can be reinforced. Arpaio himself described his nightmarish facility as a concentration camp, proudly proclaiming that he was the “toughest Sheriff in America.” When asked why, he replied that he keeps getting reelected, so what difference do the conditions make? His popularity was so high he said he could have been governor of Arizona, and he was probably correct, despite scandals such as multiple murders on his watch and overseeing thousands of men in his ‘posse’ (a group of random Arizonans he had deputized) and other sheriffs in a sting operation wherein they received sex from prostitutes and then arrested them before they had to pay for services.
The Department of Justice even released a statement that claimed Arpaio was racially profiling Latinos to send them to Tent City, then denying them basic human rights once incarcerated. Oh yes, Joe was sentenced by a federal judge for illegally detaining latiné individuals during traffic patrols and sending them to jail on suspicion of being in the country illegally, even when they had no criminal record or flags on their history. People like Limbaugh and other tough on crime racists applauded Arpaio though, and his stoking of public image only served to reinforce their adoration. In many ways he was one of the original image obsessed ‘gun slinging’ conservatives that are common among modern alt right LARPers, and after being sentenced for illegally profiling immigrants Arpaio was pardoned by none other than Donald Trump in a statement that said he was a “great American patriot” who had done a lot in the fight against illegal immigration. Politicians like Arpaio and Trump use their cruel antics to attract attention, lavishing in the media frenzy that they’ve created from their brutality while sucking in adoration and donations from loyal followers.
Even though they can claim to be saving money with brutal incarceration, it is obvious they aren’t; lawsuits during Arpaios’ rule cost Maricopa County millions, yet voters will look the other way on literal torture because they are so inundated with white supremacist law and order propaganda. Tent City cost taxpayers over $4 million a year at its height, incurred a constant drain on funds from its legal fallout, and destroyed countless lives despite Arpaio’s claims that his cruel measures were saving taxpayer money. Major police departments receive maybe a couple dozen federal lawsuits every year but during Joe’s tenure Maricopa County racked up over 2,200, and more wrongful death suits than almost any other county; such as the $2 million case where a blind mentally ill man was taken in for shoplifting, beaten to the point of his intestines rupturing, then broke his neck “falling off the bed” after being offered food twice in 6 days and having his abdominal pain ignored.
Arpaio managed to capture such a large audience enthralled by suffering that he stayed in office for nearly three decades, surviving blatant entrapment violations, discrimination, and murder charges while enacting new programs like the ‘jail cam,’ a live stream ahead of its time that let white Americans tune in to watch the cruelty doled upon those they’d labelled as ‘other’ and deserving of punishment. (Jail cam was a massive violation of rights as it had cameras visible in the mens and womens bathrooms). There were at least 160 deaths on Arpaio’s watch and he obfuscated actual records so we will never know for sure, but rates of suicide at Tent City and his other facilities were up to 20% higher than national counterparts.
Those who have never experienced the brutality, the unjustness, the horror of America’s incarceral system are the only ones who will defend it as an average citizen. We’ve discussed Arizona and Louisiana’s deplorable conditions, along with the fact that in Texas human rights violations are being investigated within their penitentiary system. When questioned about the horrific conditions that inmates were facing, Texas Senator John Whitmire responded that as much as it’s brought up, “it’s not gonna change.” He then proceeded to say that,
“Prisons are hot. They’re uncomfortable. And the real solution is don’t commit a crime, and you stay at home and be cool. We’re not gonna air condition them. One, we don’t want to. Two, we couldn’t afford it if we wanted to.” Whitmire is a Democrat. If people don’t care about fixing a problem they won’t take any steps to even try for a solution, so as soon as politicians say this it is immediately evident that they won’t do a thing. Representatives elected to protect us don’t give a single fuck about our well being, for example with the previously discussed heat problems in Texas prisons, officials spent $700,000 installing centrally cooled units last year. The resulting use of brand new and cooled infrastructure? Housing pigs. When pressed about why so much was spent on this project officials defended themselves by saying it was for structures consistent with “any swine operation.” Instead of installing air conditioning for prisoners, Texas released a prison safety video to prevent heat stroke that included splashing water on the individual’s face and fanning them. Side note, fanning someone is against CDC guidelines when it comes to heat exhaustion above temperatures of 95 degrees because it’s blowing air hotter than body temperature.
Once inmates are liberated from their cell, they are never truly free from the trauma that haunts them, amplified by their experiences in prison. They get to see their tormentors live luxuriously and receive commendations from the president for their cruelty, while ex-prisoners are riddled with awful memories of being emasculated and tortured by people like Arpaio that get a sociopathic pleasure in subjecting humans to the worst conditions imaginable so that they can take advantage of modern day institutional slavery. If inmates survive their stay at prison, they are released into an extensive parole system that ensures populations targeted by the justice system are never outside of the state’s control, perpetuating their nightmarish reality.
We will discuss the horrors of the parole and probation systems in the next post, building up to our initial discussion of everyone’s favorite murderers in blue and most problematic institution in the country (besides the Federal Reserve); the police.
- “Arizona’s Concentration Camp, why was tent city kept open for 24 years?” Fernández, Valeria. 2017. The Guardian.
- Hayes, Tara, “Economic costs of the US criminal justice system.” 2020.
- Warren, William. 2016 Deense of Central Park 5 in the Guardian.
- The New Jim Crow. Alexander, Michelle. 2010.
- “Joe Arpaio: America’s favorite concentration camp operator,” Evans, Robert. 2021.
- Arizona’s Joe Arpaio ousted by voters, ending the 24 year run of ‘America’s toughest sheriff,” Guarino, Ben. 2016.
- “County to pay $2 million in death of jailed man,” Flatten, Mark. 2007. East Valley Tribune.
- “Sheriff Joe Arpaio Sex-crime scandal after five years; no one disciplined, report still unfinished,” Stern, Ray. 2013. Phoenix New Times.
- Prison Policy Initiative.
- “Inside one of America’s most notorious prisons,” Rosen, Miss. McCormick, Chandra and Calhoun, Keith. Inside Angola.
- “The Health and Health Care of US Prisoners: Results of a Nationwide Survey,” Andrew P. Wilper, MD, MPH, Steffie Woolhandler, MD, MPH, J. Wesley Boyd, MD, PhD, Karen E. Lasser, MD, MPH, Danny McCormick, MD, MPH, David H. Bor, MD, and David U. Himmelstein, MD. 2009. NCBI.
- Rich Thanks to Racism, Freeman, Jim. 2020.
- “Exploring gender differences in trauma exposure and the emergence of symptoms of PTSD among incarcerated men and women,” Irina Alexandrovna Komarovskaya, Ann Booker Loper, Janet Warren & Shelly Jackson, 2011. The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology.