Posts Tagged ‘Prison Overcrowding’

I’ve worked with kids at-risk in and out of jail for over 25 years and they just don’t get it. They just don’t get that if you drop out of school, you can’t get a job; and if you hang out on the streets and drink forties the cops harass you 24/7. Get into a stolen car, let your man stash his drugs at your crib, you do jail time.

Experience aside (and some of it with disastrous results on them, on their families) kids just don’t understand that actions have consequences. But this blind spot isn’t limited to kids at-risk. We all have it. Maybe it’s the culture, maybe even the race.

This same blindness to consequences is happening in the Massachusetts prison system, as it is in many other overcrowded state prison systems. At issue is whether double-bunking at one of the state jails is the reason for an increase there in prison violence during the first 10 months of this year. (Boston Globe)

The Patrick administration along with the Department of Corrections argues that this spike in violence has nothing to do with making two inmates share a cell but rather with the type of prisoners—more assaultive and volatile—being moved.

The correction officers union along with various prisoner advocacy groups (at first glance, odd bedfellows, but often COs know, on a day-to-day level, that what’s “good” for inmates is sometimes “good” for them) are opposed to double-bunking and disagree with DOC’s conclusions. They point to the rage inmates feel at being forced to share a cell with another inmate, feeling that their own safety is in jeopardy. As one union official stated, double-bunking is “a tinderbox…the wrong statement to the wrong inmate is just going to make that place blow.

But nowhere in the discussion is anyone talking about the real issue. It goes back to the kid dropping out of school: Actions have consequences. The real issue in prison violence is that the conditions that inmates live in—can’t escape from—affect their behavior. It is, then, a much broader issue, one that goes beyond whether you stick two guys in the same cell.

Behavioral science textbooks are full of  studies that back up this premise. Put any creature (start with rats and work up the food chain) in a noisy, dirty, overcrowded, isolated, subjugated setting and the way that creature acts will reflect the conditions it’s forced to live in.

It’s pretty simple. Treat people like shit, and they’ll act like shit.

Jails are horrible places, whether they are minimum or maximum security, low- tech or high-tech. The conditions that inmates live in are subhuman: Locked away from their loved ones; stripped of their freedom, their power of choice, their privacy; the stench of their own bodies, and worse yet, of 39 other bodies living, farting, belching, crapping three feet away; the shouting and the cursing; the threats and accusations; the attacks or, maybe even worse, the constant fear of attack; the boredom, the feeling of total uselessness, the rage.

And these conditions don’t affect just the inmates. COs work in these same impoverished circumstances at least 8 hours, and all too often 16 hours a day (and who knows what those few hours of sleep that they grab are like)  absorbing, fighting off, defending against the anger prisoners, rightly or wrongly, deflect on them.

In the adult county lockup where I taught, fights were always breaking out between the kids I worked with. A student would disappear from class, and when I asked the CO or the other students where he or she was, I’d hear the latest about who beat up whom, and for what lame reason it all fell out.

In jail a fight means that the emergency response team—the goon squad—is called.  A fight means at least 30 days in “keep-locked,” 23 hour lockdown with one hour out for a shower and some rec.  Or if you’re a real badass, or had had one too many fights, or pissed the ERT off when they brought you down, you get 30 days or more of complete isolation in the special housing unit—the SHU.

Yet to the kids I taught, fights were just one more crappy condition they lived with. Besides, a fight was never your fault.

But I could never let it stop there. When a student returned to class I made a point of asking him or her what the fight was about.

“I was sick of that scumbag with no teeth stealing my banana.”

“I told him not to change the channel.”

“Yo, man, he looked at me.”

A banana? A TV station? A look?

“You mean, you got thrown into the SHU for a banana?” I’d push.

Beneath the bravado of blame, they certainly knew it wasn’t about a banana. Yet they were at a lost to tell me the real cause.  If they could, they’d have to acknowledge the deep rage and resentment they felt about the lives they were forced to live, both in jail and in their poverty ravaged neighborhoods; they’d have to acknowledge the sense of failure that they carried around about how they’d messed up their lives and how impotent they felt to change any of it. They’d have to put into words the truth—that people treated them like shit, so they acted like shit.

We’ve designed an entire prison system to rob people of what little dignity they have. Yet we still wonder why, when that system introduces something like double-bunking to save money, inmates strike back in the only way they know how, they strike back in the only way they see glorified in our culture: Might makes right.

We just don’t get it.