Sadly, in the days since I wrote the first part of this blog, two more prison officials have died from the brutal prison attack last month. I watched a news segment on local stations where a former correctional guard bemoaned the fact that these deaths occurred, but he pointed out that such incidents are sometimes the aftermath of the prisoners having nothing to strive for. He revealed that “when you took away a prisoner’s promotions’ that he has no restraints to deter him from violence. By promotions, the former guard meant any incentives the prisoner may have been motivated to strive for as these would dramatically improve his chances for release. Any time a guard writes a prisoner up by issuing a disciplinary report against him, the prisoner faces serious sanctions that range from being locked up in segregation to losing his canteen privileges, or to forfeit good or gain time which tended to retard the prisoner’s release date.
Minus these incentives, there is no need whatever to obey the rules, and untrained guards are pitched into a dangerous maze where they are compelled to navigate their way through an inferno fraught with prisoner anger on the one hand, and institutional corruption on the other.
Despite all the sensationalized failures of the penal system, one of the things the penal system has been great at over the years is the brilliant disguises used to cover up the widespread and wholesale administrative corruption of prisons. In essence, the prison culture is rotten to the core and rife with corruption from the top to the bottom
I’ve been in prisons where the warden acted like a mafia don and where the guards were simply his goons, but I have also been in joints where the warden and all the staff were mild-mannered and laid back. Basically, in the overall scheme of prison life, each individual prison is a reflection of the warden’s personality where day-to-day affairs as well as any other social interactions are colored by that particular warden’s governing style.
In the exact same way that small, neighborhood churches morphed into the modern-day mega-churches of today. prisons followed a similar path. I hear my Christian friends complain about how their beloved church is a colossus that has no soul. I could understand. Not only in the transition did prison lose its soul, it also lost its sense of fundamental fairness. And suddenly, prisons, like the mega-churches, turned into big business.
In the federal system of the late 90s, many warden were nothing more than the scowling face of corporate America. Businesses, of all stripes, such as Hewlett-Packard, Victoria’s Secret, Texas Instruments, etc, competed for a piece of the economic pie that flowed from the slave labor of the Bureau of Prisons. Prisons were now sweatshops where the government procured million dollar contracts, paying prisoners a little over a dollar a hour!
Even Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist spoke out against this slave ring, insisting that it would lead to mass incarceration as prisons would need scores of bodies to grease the machinery of capitalism. Was it any surprise that from this scalding cauldron of corporate greed, stringent drugs laws became etched in stone.
With one stroke of the pen, “the pen” (prison) became the illegitimate bastard child of corporate America. During the initial evolutionary phase of prisons turning into “instruments of commerce”, courts began to impose fines upon prisoners such as restitution for attorney fees, restitution to the victims of the crime, and in some cases, the Bureau of Prisons even acted as a surrogate bitch for outside bill collectors who demanded that prisoners continue to pay child support. All of this was merely a ruse to extort prisoners, and to force them to work in the prison factory as the rules stated that a prisoner who owed money to anyone could not be released until his fine was paid in full. Therefore, prisoners had no choice but to labor in UNICOR.
Many of the more socially/politically conscious prisoners refused to work in the factory, and would work only in a job non-esssential to UNICOR. I was one such prisoner. I worked in the dormitory as a janitor for twenty dollars a month. In any event, to demonstrate just how much influence, corporate America had on prison policy, I recall an incident where a small gang-fight has gotten the entire population locked down. As a so-called security measure, we were locked in our cells 24 hours a day. We were fed cold sandwiches, and allowed to shower once a week. After ten days of this, the warden got a call and the word was that some corporate big-wig told him to open the prison back up. He didn’t give a damn about any violence that may have ensued. His primary concern was that he had a million dollar contract that he wanted finished, and there was no way the job could get done with the prisoners on lock-down and unable to work.
Now with the internal morality of the prisons in the hands of corporate-sponsored wardens, prisoners became a compliant workforce, but in an environment where danger lurked around every corner. When I got to the fed joint in Atlanta for the second time, the tension between the prisoners and the guards was so thick, it was suffocating. It was a menacing presence that could be felt. All the prisoners felt it and openly spoke of it, each fearing that any day now, the lid was going to blow off.
As mentioned earlier, the makeup and personality of the warden sets the standards for the running of the facility, and there were basically only two “traditional” types of warden. He was either a “guard’s warden, or he was a “convict’s warden. Trust me, it mattered. A convict warden is one who sympathizes with prisoners and keeps the guards in check. The other kind of warden lets the guards do what they damn well please.
Dig this. People in the free world think it is bad when say, a Republican replaces a Democrat in the White House, or vice versa. Oh, the agony. This is nothing compared to the stress of an incoming warden, especially if the outgoing warden was a convict warden and his replacement is the other sort. Anyway, this goes to say that the housecleaning or the ‘draining of the swamp’ can get nasty, especially when the warden and the head of the guards’ union operate from different ends of the spectrum.
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