kottke.org posts about prison
Reporter Shane Bauer went undercover as a guard in a Louisiana private prison for four months. Mother Jones devoted their entire recent issue to the story.
In class that day, we learn about the use of force. A middle-aged black instructor I’ll call Mr. Tucker comes into the classroom, his black fatigues tucked into shiny black boots. He’s the head of Winn’s Special Operations Response Team, or SORT, the prison’s SWAT-like tactical unit. “If an inmate was to spit in your face, what would you do?” he asks. Some cadets say they would write him up. One woman, who has worked here for 13 years and is doing her annual retraining, says, “I would want to hit him. Depending on where the camera is, he might would get hit.”
Mr. Tucker pauses to see if anyone else has a response. “If your personality if somebody spit on you is to knock the fuck out of him, you gonna knock the fuck out of him,” he says, pacing slowly. “If a inmate hit me, I’m go’ hit his ass right back. I don’t care if the camera’s rolling. If a inmate spit on me, he’s gonna have a very bad day.” Mr. Tucker says we should call for backup in any confrontation. “If a midget spit on you, guess what? You still supposed to call for backup. You don’t supposed to ever get into a one-on-one encounter with anybody. Period. Whether you can take him or not. Hell, if you got a problem with a midget, call me. I’ll help you. Me and you can whup the hell out of him.”
He asks us what we should do if we see two inmates stabbing each other.
“I’d probably call somebody,” a cadet offers.
“I’d sit there and holler ‘stop,’” says a veteran guard.
Mr. Tucker points at her. “Damn right. That’s it. If they don’t pay attention to you, hey, there ain’t nothing else you can do.”
He cups his hands around his mouth. “Stop fighting,” he says to some invisible prisoners. “I said, ‘Stop fighting.’” His voice is nonchalant. “Y’all ain’t go’ to stop, huh?” He makes like he’s backing out of a door and slams it shut. “Leave your ass in there!”
“Somebody’s go’ win. Somebody’s go’ lose. They both might lose, but hey, did you do your job? Hell yeah!” The classroom erupts in laughter.
Fusion has a summary of Bauer’s reporting, which you really should actually read in its entirety. America’s prison system is shameful; its reform is one of the biggest issues facing our nation in the future.
Albert Woodfox describes what it feels like to be on the outside after spending 43 years in solitary confinement.
You know, human beings are territorial, they feel more comfortable in areas they are secure. In a cell you have a routine, you pretty much know what is going to happen, when it’s going to happen, but in society it’s difficult, it’s looser. So there are moments when, yeah, I wish I was back in the security of a cell.
For the Captured project, prison inmates drew pictures of people they felt should be in jail instead, “the CEOs of companies destroying our environment, economy, and society”. All 1000 books have sold out with the proceeds going to Bernie Sanders’ campaign.
Prison Ramen is a cookbook of instant ramen recipes from prison inmates and celebrities (Samuel L. Jackson wrote the foreword).
Instant ramen is a ubiquitous food, beloved by anyone looking for a cheap, tasty bite-including prisoners, who buy it at the commissary and use it as the building block for all sorts of meals. Think of this as a unique cookbook of ramen hacks. Here’s Ramen Goulash. Black Bean Ramen. Onion Tortilla Ramen Soup. The Jailhouse Hole Burrito. Orange Porkies — chili ramen plus white rice plus 1/2 bag of pork skins plus orange-flavored punch. Ramen Nuggets. Slash’s J-Walking Ramen (with scallions, Sriracha hot sauce, and minced pork).
President Obama announces a ban on the use of solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons.
How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people? It doesn’t make us safer. It’s an affront to our common humanity.
Here’s Obama’s Op-Ed on the topic.
“It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.” That’s a quote on solitary from John McCain from an old New Yorker piece from Atul Gawande: Hellhole. (via nextdraft)
Recently, I was doing some research on food in prison, specifically prison spread. According to Urban Dictionary: “Typically spread is a Top Ramen base that can be augmented to a specific flavor by using chips, canned meat, or other foods that are also available in the prison store.” According to Prison Culture, it’s also a social ritual: “Spread provides inmates with an opportunity to ‘create community’ within the jail as they share their food with others.”
In this video, which features NSFW language, Chef Lemundo teaches viewers how to make his Five Animal Spread.
In related news, the State of New York will no longer be serving prisoners Nutraloaf, aka Disciplinary Loaf, as punishment.
“I would taste it and just throw it away,” said George Eng, 67, who served 36 years for murder and several stints in Special Housing Units, as solitary confinement is formally known. “You’d rather be without food than eat that.”
Ms. Murtagh called the loaf “a disgusting, torturous form of punishment that should have been banned a century ago.”
“Most people are appalled at using food as punishment,” she said, adding that many people believe “such behavior went out with the stocks, whips and shackling to the wall.”
Former convicts Roby So and Carlos Cervantes pick up inmates on the day they get released from prison to help ease their reentry into society.
By now, Carlos and Roby — officially, A.R.C.’s Ride Home Program — have done about three dozen pickups, either together or individually, waking up long before dawn and driving for hours toward prison towns deep in the desert or up the coast. Then they spend all day with the guy (so far they’ve picked up only men), taking him to eat, buying him some clothes, advising him, swapping stories, dialing his family on their cellphones or astonishing him by magically calling up Facebook pictures of nieces and nephews he’s never met — or just sitting quietly, to let him depressurize. The conversation with those shellshocked total strangers doesn’t always flow, Roby told me. It helps to have a wingman.
“The first day is everything,” Carlos says — a barrage of insignificant-seeming experiences with potentially big consequences. Consider, for example, a friend of his and Roby’s: Julio Acosta, who was paroled in 2013 after 23 years inside. Acosta describes stopping for breakfast near the prison that first morning as if it were a horrifying fever dream: He kept looking around the restaurant for a sniper, as in the chow hall in prison, and couldn’t stop gawking at the metal knives and forks, “like an Aztec looking at Cortez’s helmet,” he says. It wasn’t until he got up from the booth and walked to the men’s room, and a man came out the door and said, “How you doin’?” and Acosta said, “Fine,” that Acosta began to feel, even slightly, like a legitimate part of the environment around him. He’d accomplished something. He’d made a treacherous trip across an International House of Pancakes. He’d peed.
In 2008, Hossein Derakhshan was sentenced to 20 years in jail in Iran for blogging and championing the open web. Released and pardoned late last year, Derakhshan is now wondering why the web he went to jail for is dying and why no one is stopping it. Just as things changed in the real world while he was imprisoned:
Around me, I noticed a very different Tehran from the one I’d been used to. An influx of new, shamelessly luxurious condos had replaced the charming little houses I was familiar with. New roads, new highways, hordes of invasive SUVs. Large billboards with advertisements for Swiss-made watches and Korean flat screen TVs. Women in colorful scarves and manteaus, men with dyed hair and beards, and hundreds of charming cafes with hip western music and female staff. They were the kinds of changes that creep up on people; the kind you only really notice once normal life gets taken away from you.
…so too did the web:
The hyperlink was my currency six years ago. Stemming from the idea of the hypertext, the hyperlink provided a diversity and decentralisation that the real world lacked. The hyperlink represented the open, interconnected spirit of the world wide web — a vision that started with its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee. The hyperlink was a way to abandon centralization — all the links, lines and hierarchies - and replace them with something more distributed, a system of nodes and networks.
Blogs gave form to that spirit of decentralization: They were windows into lives you’d rarely know much about; bridges that connected different lives to each other and thereby changed them. Blogs were cafes where people exchanged diverse ideas on any and every topic you could possibly be interested in. They were Tehran’s taxicabs writ large.
Since I got out of jail, though, I’ve realized how much the hyperlink has been devalued, almost made obsolete.
About the time Katrina struck, New Orleans was the jail capital of America, incarcerating people at four times the national average. Since that time, the city has reduced its local inmate population by 67%. What was the trick? First, they stopped treating jailing like a business. And second, they built a smaller jail. No really. That was a key factor. And get this; during the period New Orleans stopped jailing so many people, there has been an overall reduction in crime. Smaller jails. Less crime. Jazz hands.
[This item is syndicated from Nextdraft, but I had to add a little something about induced demand. Like building bigger roads resulting in more traffic (not less), building bigger jails means you want to fill them with criminals. Kudos to New Orleans for building a smaller jail and finding ways to adjust to the reduced supply of jail cells. -jkottke]
In Ferguson, for every 100 black women between the ages of 25 and 54, there are 60 black men. While Ferguson is extreme, it’s not exceptional. Across America, we see similar numbers. So the question arises: What happened to all the black men? The short answer to that question is incarceration and premature death. The longer answer is equally upsetting. From Upshot: 1.5 Million Missing Black Men.
Better out than in. That’s the unofficial motto of the Norwegian Correctional Service. And they seem to mean it. In Norway, there is no death penalty and there are no life sentences. NYT Magazine’s Jessica Benko visited Norway’s Halden Prison and experienced what she described as its radical humaneness:
Its modern, cheerful and well-appointed facilities, the relative freedom of movement it offers, its quiet and peaceful atmosphere — these qualities are so out of sync with the forms of imprisonment found in the United States that you could be forgiven for doubting whether Halden is a prison at all. It is, of course, but it is also something more: the physical expression of an entire national philosophy about the relative merits of punishment and forgiveness.
Even the food was good.
The best meal I had in Norway — spicy lasagna, garlic bread and a salad with sun-dried tomatoes — was made by an inmate who had spent almost half of his 40 years in prison.
There’s been a decline in crime in America. On the surface, it may seem like that drop is due to the fact that we’ve locked up so many people. But a new report suggests otherwise. From The Atlantic: The many causes of America’s decline in crime.
+ FiveThirtyEight: “Pick a stat, any stat. They all tell you the same thing: America is really good at putting people behind bars.” (There are some mind-boggling numbers and charts in this piece.)
+ The Marshall Project: 10 (not entirely crazy) theories explaining the great crime decline.
Pencil portraits of young men and women incarcerated on Rikers Island by Ricardo Cortés.
Cortés wrote an essay about the portraits and his experience at Rikers.
The grossest irony is that increasing levels of imprisonment may exacerbate the very problems it is intended to solve. Imagine a drug-dealer, a check forger, a prostitute or a burglar who comes to Rikers. They’re often leaving family behind, possibly as the primary breadwinner, breaking up a critical support network and causing measurable damage to spouses, siblings, parents and especially children. They’re losing a job during their incarceration, thus falling further behind in bills, rent, and ultimately housing. They’re being released after their stay with little treatment or prospects for a new job; their completed sentence may stain their record such that it’s even harder to find employment. And they’re back on the street with the same personal struggles of addiction, domestic abuse, health issues and difficulty in finding sustainable housing and legal employment. It’s not hard to guess what happens next.
Justine Sharrock asked prisoners incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison to describe the internet. The men had just taken part in a program to help them reintegrate into society, and though they hadn’t used the internet themselves, they had more of a theoretical understanding of it. Chrisfino Kenyatta Leal entered prison in 1994:
I envisioned the web to be like this infinite space filled with information about everything under the sun.
I was confused about how you got from one piece of info to the next and I was clueless in terms of the lingo used to describe it all…
The technical aspects of it make me go, Hmmmm? I realize everything is getting faster and moving toward mobile, so I often wonder about who’s doing all this stuff and where is it all taking place?
Sabine Heinlein follows several people through a post-prison jobs program to see how ex-convicts prepare for re-entry into the workforce.
In prison Angel thought that it wouldn’t be too hard to find a job once he got out. He believed he had come a long way. At eighteen he hadn’t been able to read or write. He wet his bed and suffered from uncontrollable outbursts of anger. At forty-seven he had studied at the college level. He told me he had read several thousand books. He earned numerous certificates while incarcerated — a Vocational Appliance Repair Certificate, a Certificate of Proficiency of Computer Operator, a Certificate in Library Training, an IPA (Inmate Program Assistant) II Training Certificate, and several welding certifications — but in the outside world these credentials counted for little.
“Irrelevant,” Angel said. “They might as well be toilet paper.”
This piece is the seventh chapter from Heinlein’s book, Among Murderers: Life After Prison.
In a piece published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, David Arenberg describes his experience as one of the very few Jews in the state prison in which he’s currently incarcerated.
I am always the last person to eat. It’s part of a compromise I worked out with the skinheads who run the western state prison complex where I am incarcerated. Under this compromise, I’m allowed to sit at the whites’ tables, but only after the “heads,” and then the “woods,” and then the “lames” have eaten. I am lower on the totem pole than all of them, the untouchable. I should feel lucky I’m allowed to eat at the whites’ tables at all.
Not that there’s anywhere else I could eat. The prison yard is broken down into five distinct racial categories and segregation is strictly enforced. There are the “woods” (short for peckerwoods) that encompass the whites, the “kinfolk” (blacks), the “Raza” (American-born people of Mexican descent), the “paisas” (Mexico-born Mexicans), and the “chiefs” (American Indians). Under the strict rules that govern interracial relations, different races are allowed to play on the same sports teams but not play individual games (e.g., chess) together; they may be in each others’ cubicles together if the situation warrants but not sit on each others’ beds or watch each others’ televisions. They may go to the same church services but not pray together. But if you accidentally break one of these rules, the consequences are usually pretty mild: you might get a talking to by one of the heads (who, of course, claims exemption from this rule himself), or at worst, a “chin check.”
Eating with another race, however, is a different story. It is an inviolate rule that different races may not break bread together under any circumstances. Violating this rule leads to harsh consequences. If you eat at the same table as another race, you’ll get beaten down. If you eat from the same tray as another race, you’ll be put in the hospital. And if you eat from the same food item as another race, that is, after another race has already taken a bite of it, you can get killed. This is one area where even the heads don’t have any play.
A wee bit of good news about American prisons for a change: after rising each year since the mid-1970s, the US incarceration rate has declined each of the past three years.
I hereby submit my nomination for the most underreported public policy story of the past year: The continuing decline in the number of Americans who are behind bars or on probation/parole. Both the change itself and low level of attention it has garnered are worthy of reflection.
At the time of President Obama’s inauguration, the incarceration rate in the United States had been rising every single year since the mid 1970s. The relentless growth in the proportion of Americans behind bars had persisted through good economic times and bad, Republican and Democratic Presidents, and countless changes in state and local politics around the country.
If a public policy trend with that much momentum had even slowed significantly, it would have been merited attention, but something far more remarkable occurred: The incarceration rate and the number of people under correctional supervision (i.e., including people on probation/parole) declined for three years in a row. At the end of 2011, the proportion of people under correctional supervision returned to a level not seen since the end of the Clinton Administration.
Commenters over at Marginal Revolution dug into the report a bit more and the decline may have a lot to do with things like state budget cuts and less to do with things like fewer/shorter prison sentences.
Lakhdar Boumediene was imprisoned in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp for seven years on no charge and with no trial.
On Wednesday, America’s detention camp at Guantanamo Bay will have been open for 10 years. For seven of them, I was held there without explanation or charge. During that time my daughters grew up without me. They were toddlers when I was imprisoned, and were never allowed to visit or speak to me by phone. Most of their letters were returned as “undeliverable,” and the few that I received were so thoroughly and thoughtlessly censored that their messages of love and support were lost.
This is deeply deeply shameful.
For the Stanford alumni magazine, Romesh Ratnesar interviewed some of the participants of the Stanford prison experiment for the 40th anniversary of the event. Here’s Philip Zimbardo, the leader of the study:
After the end of the first day, I said, “There’s nothing here. Nothing’s happening.” The guards had this antiauthority mentality. They felt awkward in their uniforms. They didn’t get into the guard mentality until the prisoners started to revolt. Throughout the experiment, there was this conspiracy of denial-everyone involved was in effect denying that this was an experiment and agreeing that this is a prison run by psychologists.
There was zero time for reflection. We had to feed the prisoners three meals a day, deal with the prisoner breakdowns, deal with their parents, run a parole board. By the third day I was sleeping in my office. I had become the superintendent of the Stanford county jail. That was who I was: I’m not the researcher at all. Even my posture changes-when I walk through the prison yard, I’m walking with my hands behind my back, which I never in my life do, the way generals walk when they’re inspecting troops.
This is a fascinating post made by a man who has just gotten out of prison after serving two years for armed robbery. This is a bit rough in spots, so reader beware.
I joked to my cell mate on the first day that at least the GFC [global financial crisis] couldn’t fuck us inside. He’d been done for assaulting a cop when his house got taken by the bank. But within months ‘GFC Nigger’ became the standard reply to any query as to how black market prices were suddenly going through the roof. The price of a deck of smokes tripled. There was an actual economic reason about this. I went away in Michigan, where a lot of people lost their houses, mostly poor people already. When they had to move away from the prison, it meant they couldn’t bring their loved ones as much contraband group, which meant the price of what there was sky rocketed. And the worse things got, the more the people who worked in the store would wonk and take home with them, which meant stocks ran low which fucked us even further.
Bet you didn’t read about that one in the Wall Street Journal.
Some over at MetaFilter think this is fake, so grain of salt and all that. (via waxy)
Robert King spent 29 years in prison in solitary confinement for a crime for which he was later cleared.
It was a dimly lit box, 9ft by 6ft, with bars at the front facing on to the bare cement walls of a long corridor. Inside was a narrow bed, a toilet, a fixed table and chair, and an air vent set into the back wall.
Some days I would pace up and down and from left to right for hours, counting to myself. I learned to know every inch of the cell. Maybe I looked crazy walking back and forth like some trapped animal, but I had no choice — I needed to feel in control of my space.
See also Atul Gawande’s piece about solitary from the New Yorker last year.
Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted of intentionally starting a fire that killed his three children, sentenced to death, and after many failed appeals, executed by lethal injection. Now it appears that the investigators who made determination of arson were acting more like forensic mystics than forensic scientists in making their decision. The state of Texas may have executed an innocent man.
In recent years, though, questions have mounted over whether the system is fail-safe. Since 1976, more than a hundred and thirty people on death row have been exonerated. DNA testing, which was developed in the eighties, saved seventeen of them, but the technique can be used only in rare instances. Barry Scheck, a co-founder of the Innocence Project, which has used DNA testing to exonerate prisoners, estimates that about eighty per cent of felonies do not involve biological evidence.
In 2000, after thirteen people on death row in Illinois were exonerated, George Ryan, who was then governor of the state, suspended the death penalty. Though he had been a longtime advocate of capital punishment, he declared that he could no longer support a system that has “come so close to the ultimate nightmare-the state’s taking of innocent life.” Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has said that the “execution of a legally and factually innocent person would be a constitutionally intolerable event.”
Update: John Jackson, the prosecutor in the Willingham case, has written an op-ed piece for the Cosicana Daily Sun in which he defends the court’s guilty verdict, despite what he calls an “undeniably flawed forensic report”.
The Willingham case was charged as a multiple child murder, and not an arson-murder to achieve capital status. I am convinced that in the absence of any arson testimony, the outcome of the trial would have been unchanged, a fact that did not escape the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
David Grann, the author of the New Yorker article referenced above, responds briefly to Jackson’s assertions.
But even if he refused to take a polygraph after he was arrested, polygraphs are notoriously unreliable, and are not admissible in a court of law. […] As a result, defense attorneys routinely do not let their clients take polygraphs. […] The idea that a lie-detector test (or the refusal to take one) could be considered evidence cuts to the core of the problems in the Willingham case: a reliance on unreliable and unsound scientific techniques.
Jackson’s belief that Willingham should have (whether he would have is another story) been convicted even in the absence of evidence of arson borders on parody and would be funny if it weren’t so obscene coming, as it does, from a sitting judge. If it’s not arson, how do you have a murder? If the fire killed the kids and he didn’t set the fire, how is he responsible? It’s fucking absurd.
Update: From the Texas Department of Criminal Justice web site, the last statement of Cameron Todd Willingham:
Yeah. The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man - convicted of a crime I did not commit. I have been persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do. From God’s dust I came and to dust I will return - so the earth shall become my throne. I gotta go, road dog. I love you Gabby. [Remaining portion of statement omitted due to profanity.]
Update: More evidence emerges of Willingham’s innocence: a jailhouse informant admits to lying on the stand in exchange for a reduced sentence and money.
Since Willingham was executed in 2004, officials have continued to defend the account of the informer, Johnny E. Webb, even as a series of scientific experts have discredited the forensic evidence that Willingham might have deliberately set the house fire in which his toddlers were killed.
But now new evidence has revived questions about Willingham’s guilt: In taped interviews, Webb, who has previously both recanted and affirmed his testimony, gives his first detailed account of how he lied on the witness stand in return for efforts by the former prosecutor, John H. Jackson, to reduce Webb’s prison sentence for robbery and to arrange thousands of dollars in support from a wealthy Corsicana rancher. Newly uncovered letters and court files show that Jackson worked diligently to intercede for Webb after his testimony and to coordinate with the rancher, Charles S. Pearce Jr., to keep the mercurial informer in line.
Atul Gawande branches out from his usual excellent writing on medicine and turns his attention to solitary confinement in America’s prison system. Gawande likens extended solitary time to torture.
This is the dark side of American exceptionalism. With little concern or demurral, we have consigned tens of thousands of our own citizens to conditions that horrified our highest court a century ago. Our willingness to discard these standards for American prisoners made it easy to discard the Geneva Conventions prohibiting similar treatment of foreign prisoners of war, to the detriment of America’s moral stature in the world. In much the same way that a previous generation of Americans countenanced legalized segregation, ours has countenanced legalized torture. And there is no clearer manifestation of this than our routine use of solitary confinement-on our own people, in our own communities, in a supermax prison, for example, that is a thirty-minute drive from my door.
This likely will not change until Americans start to believe that rehabilitation and not punishment is the primary goal of prisons. So, probably never.
From an article about a collection of businesses located near Riker’s Island, this tidbit: the inmates refer to the prison-issued orange sneakers as Air Giulianis. Also:
The food truck man, Mr. Samolis, said he often gives free food to inmates who are released from Rikers with no money.
“They get released at 6 in the morning with nothing but a $2 MetroCard the jail gives them,” he said. “So I’ll give them a coffee and an egg sandwich, on credit. I know they’re never going to pay it back, but I feel bad for them.”
In the US federal prison system, cans of mackerel have replaced outlawed cigarettes as the de facto form of currency.
“It’s the coin of the realm,” says Mark Bailey, who paid Mr. Levine in fish. Mr. Bailey was serving a two-year tax-fraud sentence in connection with a chain of strip clubs he owned. Mr. Levine was serving a nine-year term for drug dealing. Mr. Levine says he used his macks to get his beard trimmed, his clothes pressed and his shoes shined by other prisoners. “A haircut is two macks,” he says, as an expected tip for inmates who work in the prison barber shop.
See also the economics of POW camps.
How To Survive in Prison as an Innocent Man Convicted of a Sex Crime, written by an innocent man convicted of a sex crime. This is an odd article, at once full of good advice, hints of mental instability, and defensiveness. In a section outlining the importance of regular exercise, he suddenly switches gears to:
Not only do we prisoners have to stick together, but we men must also join forces in our fight against feminism.
Exercise regularly, keep healthy, stay away from drugs, and keep your mind sharp. And ps, down with the feminists!! (via cyn-c)
Why is the burglary rate in Austria so high? Perhaps because of the great minimum security prisons. The outside of one particular prison is all glass like an Apple Store, the furniture is nicely designed, and the sports facilities are top-notch.
Steve makes prison wine out of moldy bread, ketchup, grape juice, raisins, garbage bags, and tube socks. “It’s hard to believe this started out as a bag of fruit snacks and grape juice. Yet somehow these ingredients went from sweet and child-like to harsh and alcoholic quicker than Lindsay Lohan.”