Society reflects itself in the microcosm of prison. From a class-based, economically-driven, racially-motivated construct devolves life as a series of Chinese boxes-a set of boxes decreasing in size so that each box fits inside the next larger one. I am in the smallest box.
I am in Administrative Maximum (ADX) prison, the Federal government’s latest boondoggle to contain prisoners’ rebellion and dissent. I am in a “boxcar” cell. Picture a cage where top, bottom, sides, and back are concrete walls. The front is sliced by steel bars. Several feet beyond the bars is another wall. In this wall is a solid steel door. The term boxcar is derived from this configuration: a small, enclosed box that doesn’t move.
I am confined to the boxcar cell 157 hours of each 168 hour week. Eleven hours each week I’m allowed into the barren area adjacent to this cell. Each morning begins with the noisy rumble of the steel door opening. A guard steps to the bars and slides food through a small slot. Feeding time. The guard steps back and the door slaps shut with a vengeance.
The purpose of a boxcar cell is to gouge the prisoners’ senses by suppressing human sound, putting blinders about our eyes, and forbidding touch. Essential human needs are viewed with suspicion. Within the larger context of a control unit prison, the boxcar cell is designed to inflict physical and emotional isolation that wears down a prisoner’s will to resist. When this regimen undermines a prisoner’s health or distorts his/her personality, it’s considered the cost of doing business.
It seems endless. Each morning I look at the same gray door and hear the same rumbles followed by long silences. It is endless. Subjected to humiliations designed to buckle our knees, we are bent over, arms clamped behind our backs, pawed, prodded, cell-searched, strip-searched, commanded, marched distances of 50 feet, silenced, and hooked to a chain running through 1,500,000 prisoners. All this is enforced by a porcine abomination called the Goon Squad whose idea of combat is to jump on handcuffed and caged prisoners while applying boots, truncheons, and blasts of chemical agents to faces that are pushed into unforgiving concrete.
I’m deeply cornered in their prison. My sight is diminished, but I maintain my vision. I see their hand in the use of four-point “restraints” to spread-eagle prisoners, something inherently abusive regardless of the excuse. I see forced feedings, cell extractions, hassles, harassments, verbal barrages, mindfuck games, disciplinary reports, medical neglect, and the omnipresent threat of violence. Airborne bags of shit and gobs of spit become the response of the caged.
The minds of some prisoners are collapsing in on them. I don’t know what internal strife lies within them, but it isn’t mitigated here. One prisoner subjected to four point restraints (chains, actually) as shock therapy, had been chewing on his own flesh. Why is a prisoner who mutilates himself kept in ADX? Is he supposed to improve his outlook on life while stripped, chained and tormented by a squad of guards and prison functionaries?
Some prisoners rarely come out of their cells. Others never come out. I don’t know why. Meanwhile, psychologists with heads full of psycho-babble roam the tiers supposedly sniffing out pockets of mental instability.
I was in Tennessee’s Brushy Mountain penitentiary in 1970-71 when it was locked down. The media (finally!) did a shocking exposé demonstrating that up to one third of Brushy’s prisoners were mentally ill and didn’t belong there. Left unanswered was whether they arrived in that condition or whether Brushy drove them over the edge. It never will be answered because Brushy prisoners rebelled in a conflagration that claimed lives on both sides of the bars. Brushy Mountain is no more.
Authorities designed ADX the way corporations design schemes to poison the environment while avoiding responsibility for doing so. They cut into sight and sound with ubiquitous walls and boxes. We exercise in something resembling the deep end of a cement-lined pool. Every seam and crack is sealed so that not a solitary weed will penetrate this desolation. Smell and taste are reduced to staleness and sameness. Every guard functions as a spy, watching and listening with prying, voyeuristic eyes, cameras, and microphones. (“Intelligence gathering by the staff is critical.”1) When they’re done with us, we become someone else’s problem.
Television deserves special mention. Unlike other prisons, every ADX cell is equipped with a small black & white TV, compliments of the Bureau of Prisons (BoP) pacification program. Hollywood and Madison Avenue images are churned out through a barrage of talk shows, soaps, cartoons, and B movies to give us some vicarious social interaction. Feeling rebellious, lonely, angry, miserable, alienated, unskilled and uneducated? Turn on the face of Amerika. The administration replaces a broken TV quicker than fixing a toilet.
There are no jobs for those in boxcar cells. Like millions of others, we are punished with unemployment. Education is restricted to inadequate videos on the TVs. One such program featured “The Criminal Mind.” I was expecting some analysis of U.S. corporate criminals and politicians. Instead, we got a sketch of drug abusers stealing and cavorting in a landscape of dilapidated houses and abandoned factories. A school we had already been through.
Religious services are relegated to TV. Recently the prison chaplain presented his video analysis of the U.S.’s decline caused by homosexuality, AIDS, and women’s rights. Lifting this blight would “make America great again” (like in the good old days of land theft and chattel slavery). The chaplain said nothing about the scourge of poverty , racism, unemployment, or killer cops and their connection to the prison industry. The chaplain said nothing about the ADX visiting room where floor-to-ceiling partitions rub “family values” into our wounds. “Christianity” rules. There is no Imam for Muslim prisoners.
Every morning, I go through my own ablutions. Every morning there is a layer of chalky dust settled about the cell. It comes through the single air vent. It never stops. Each morning I busy myself with a wet rag mopping up all that is not in my lungs.
The government says we don’t have much common cause with humanity because we are “the worst of the worst”-an incessant BoP incantation which has become an effective soundbite. The government successfully monopolizes and manipulates information pertaining to crime and punishment. But was the government to be believed about Vietnam or the S&L rip-off? Was Nixon to be believed on Watergate? Was Reagan to be believed about the mass murder in Central America? Was Clinton to be believed concerning the human ashes in Waco? If they were, maybe you’ll buy a Brooklyn Bridge named ADX. The government has a major credibility problem, yet tax dollars continue to bleed into the sordid business of the world’s largest prison system.
Who are we? We are part of the chain gang: a human chain of one and a half million prisoners that runs from the “evil and unnatural construction”2 of impoverished communities to the evil, unnatural construction of children’s prisons, penitentiaries, control units, and death chambers. With each repressive step, the “troublemakers,” AKA “the worst of the worst” are removed, as if we spawned conditions in Roxbury, North Philly, East LA, and Appalachia.
We are men of no property, predominantly black and brown, and increasingly younger, who enter one of the few doors open to us: the penitentiary. We are too uppity, too rebellious, too subversive, and too quick to piss on prison policies. At times we are so outrageous that we destroy government property, and challenge the State’s authority to treat us like dogs. We are quick to defend ourselves, our rights, our religions, and our principles. Sure, there are some happy killers and heavy bulk dealers that cashed in on other people’s suffering, but they are a small minority. Most of those dealing in crimes against humanity remain on the street. No one in ADX left as many bodies in his wake as Reagan did in Central America. Not even close!
Who am I? I am one subjected to the collective punishment within the common ground of ADX. I was sent to prison for political offenses and I was placed in a control unit prison because the State maintains my radical political beliefs and associations warrant extreme measures. Recently I was cited with a disciplinary infraction for allegedly making a derogatory comment about an ADX administrator during a media interview. The constitutional expression of my views is considered conduct unbecoming within the master/chattel relationship.
“Worst of the worst” is where illusion clashes with reality. The illusion-that the criminalization of poverty and the isolation and degradation of prisoners provides an effective, humane response to social ills. The reality-that crimes begin at the top with predatory capitalists profiting grotesquely, while the results of their activities mire the rest of us in economic and social rot.In a 1993 commemoration of the Marion lockdown, I wrote that ADX (then under construction and slated to replace Marion) “awaits those who continue to refuse and resist.”3 Sure enough, ADX became the destination for those prisoners held responsible for the recent uprisings throughout the federal system. The best were sent to ADX after running gauntlets of gunshots, beatings, tear gas, and the destruction of their few personal belongings. A baptism into the ranks of resistance.
Other uprising participants were sent to Marion, still locked down since 1983. To the public, the BoP maintained that once ADX became operational, the lockdown would end. They lied. They doubled their control unit capacity by keeping both prisons locked down.
For years, prisoncrats raved about the deterrent effect of Marion. If it works so well, why hasn’t it put itself out of business? Marion/ADX didn’t deter the October uprisings, the most widespread and destructive in the Federal prison system’s history. They didn’t deter USP Atlanta from grabbing headlines with its high level of violence. They have not deterred prisoners transferred to other prisons or released to the streets from picking up new charges. Control unit prisons are not the solution, they are the problem.
Last year, a prisoner released from the isolation and brutality of California’s notorious control unit at Pelican Bay killed a cop before he got home and unpacked his bag. Apparently someone forgot to explain the finer points of deterrence to him.. The response of the state representative from the district including Pelican Bay was illuminating. He introduced legislation mandating that released Pelican Bay prisoners be transported directly to their destination, so that when the bodies drop it will be in some other bailiwick, and not stain the Department of Corrections. Prisoncrats, like politicians, are amazingly adept at shielding themselves from the consequences of their policies.
Where are the mental challenges, stimulations, education, recreation and socialization that are the building blocks of sound minds? The answer lies in the ADX “STEP” program-an insidious operation based on a carrot and stick approach to compliance.
We all begin in the boxcars. Beyond this initial STEP, prisoners must pass through three other steps for the ultimate award: transfer to a less degrading prison.
Each step beyond the boxcars provides greater mental and physical stimulation and less isolation. Each step provides for a bigger and tastier carrot. Be compliant, lucky, or necessary to fill a quota, and you will receive more privileges. Be non-compliant, unlucky, or present any resistance, and you will be buried in ADX until you’re released, or you find an innovative way to beat them, or die. That’s a lot of weight to carry.
Advancement in STEP involves pseudo debriefings by a review committee, which includes an ADX shrink. The committee expects at least a token degree of compliance, which can range from keeping one’s mouth shut to standard shuck and jive. Were I to tell the committee what I am now putting on paper, I would be rejected. The bottom line is the administrations’s power and agenda: no different really than outside.
Here, they advance who they want, when they want, and for whatever reason they want. They just as arbitrarily reject others. Or ignore their own “guidelines” whenever it suits their political or personal purpose. They toy with prisoners’ lives and compile reams of paper to create the fiction that the federal prison system, indeed, the country, is a better, safer place because of their efforts.
The final step is UNICOR-the factory. Prisoners are required to demonstrate their readiness to function in a less restrictive environment by laboring for 26 cents an hour (“to be treated in such a way as to exploit them to the highest possible extent at the lowest conceivable degree of expenditure.”4) Not quite slave labor, but close.
STEP/UNICOR is administration’s primary management and control mechanism, which it manipulates at will. They consider it something of a propaganda coup to have the system’s designated recalcitrants filling the slots. I say this in part because shortly after UNICOR became operational, the ADX segregation (boxcar) unit filled with incoming prisoners from the October uprisings. The irony of having one group of prisoners set up a primary component of a program which serves to entrap other prisoners entering ADX has not gone unnoticed. If we cannot counter the administration’s strategy of dangling each prisoner from his own rope, they will turn us into our own worst enemies.
Locked down prisons are no longer unique (or uncommon?). They have erupted across the country like malignant sores on a diseased organ. The entire prison gulag vies with gambling as the country’s fastest growing industry, with neither one producing anything of social value. Jails and prisons compete with fast food joints for the public appetite. Jails are scattered among churches. Prisons among cow pastures. Barges are converted into jails. Tents into cells. Military bases are converted into prisons. Schools are being looked at next. And it all bottoms out in control unit prisons.
Let’s not kid ourselves about the prevailing attitude among the political and corporate elite and much of the voting public: prisoners are human waste. The more forbidding the penitentiaries, the more like garbage they define us. As downsized laborers, outcasts, and outlaws, there is no room for us at the table. Exterminating us on a mass scale is not presently acceptable, so plan B is in effect: execute small numbers, corrupt some, co-opt others, drive others mad, and imprison millions. As prisoners, the only value we have is if they can turn a political campaign or a dollar on us.
So our bodies become commodities for someone else’s gain. Past recidivist rates documented a failed system. Today’s recidivist rates read like the Dow Jones Industrial Average: the higher the recidivism, the more various opportunists stand to gain.
The traffickers in bodies insure a steady supply by slashing at fundamental programs serving society’s poorest families. They demand more police, more children’s prisons and more youth incarceration. More bodies, younger bodies, with increased shelf life due to mandatory sentences. They legislate harsher conditions that make us leaner, meaner, and infinitely more recyclable.
Crowding the waste are parasites and scavengers that descend on misery like gulls at a landfill: prison guards, administrators, consultants, contractors, construction companies, maintenance personnel, concessionaires, realtors, social workers, paper shufflers, etc., ad nauseam. All of them opt for the government blue light sale rather than find respectable employment.
ADX guards say they are just doing their job, which they will gladly do for an annual entry level salary of $32,000, $50,000 with overtime. A nice benefits package and a bully pulpit to boot. Some do it with benign neglect, while others do it with perverse cruelty. In a Faustian contract with the government, they work the cages and in return get to send their kids to college and take Caribbean vacations.
Guards, like all enterprising citizens, can buy a piece of the action through tax exempt bonds that underwrite state prison construction. They can do it with the detached air of the post-modern fascist because such purchases do not hold them liable for anything that happens within the prison. No beating, injury, medical neglect or death will cut into their profit. In the burgeoning private prison industry, stock purchases are available through investment companies. Why not? General Motors invested in Nazi Germany.
There’s money to be made in fraud and the government is rife with it, but like most frauds there are a few who profit from prisons while many more are victimized. Taxpayers subsidize most prisons, and it is the citizens who pay through the nose. By any financial measure, statistic, or body count, the prison system is an abysmal failure. Very high cost, very little benefit.
There’s a parallel with the Vietnam War; the government takes your money and children for war while deceiving you into acquiescence. In return we get a divided society, more violence, and an abandonment of the War on Poverty. And as in those years, it appears that the present “silent majority” isn’t ready for a serious policy review until the cycle of violence drives its stake deeper into middle Amerika’s heart and their pockets have been more thoroughly picked.
We were the slaves in Pharaoh’s land
you and he and I,
And we were serfs to feudal hands
Now that time’s gone by.
‘Prentices in cities, prisoners for debt,
Hunted vagrants, parish poor, Our life is a lie.
We move, an invisible army……
-All of us Together, Southern Labor song of 1930s
The ruling class makes the laws, and there’s no shortage of sycophants to wield them like a club. Guards and administrators operate under color of prison law which ranges from court-granted “qualified immunity” to stark terror and murder. The United States Constitution’s 13th Amendment allows convict labor to be harnessed like slave labor. A Supreme Court mandate forbids prisoners from forming unions. Circulating a petition is a punishable offense. Interwoven through the letter of the law is 500 years of white supremacy. Twenty-five lashes. Twenty-five year sentence.
Penitentiaries turn out more violent, crime-prone, big-attitude men, women and children who have been told in no uncertain terms that their individual freedom and dignity are worth nothing, and that their futures are nil. The police cannot protect communities from the volatile rage this brings about. All the police do is step in after the fact to clean up some of the mess. The Better Business Bureau accepts no complaints about the criminal justice system’s grand fraud and toxic emissions.
Millions more in prison will not improve life on the street. It takes an investment in humanity that provides living wage jobs and other development opportunities to improve the quality of our lives and communities. America doesn’t lack the resources. It lacks the will.
The Attica rebellion and massacre demonstrated that the State can and will kill us, and that killing us is the ultimate sanction for militant resistance. Twenty-five years of subsequent litigation put the courts’ approval on that massacre. The government always approves its own slaughter. But the capacity to live in submission and have the lifeblood sucked out of us from one decade into the next has its limits. When we are strong, organized, and ready, we will transcend these limits-as only human beings can.
–Raymond Luc Levasseur, ADX, Florence, CO 81226
Originally published in North Coast Express, June-July 1996.