A violent Reality
Someone once asked me, “Why is there so much violence in the penitentiaries?” It was a good questions. one to which I didn’t have a clear answer. So, I pondered the question, searching beneath the surface of the cases of violence in the penitentiaries. My thoughts lead me down a rabbit hole with tunnels branching out in multiple directions.
The problem of violence in penitentiaries isn’t a black and white issue that can be solved with straight forward measures. It’s a multifaceted problem that has its roots deeply planted in many soils. Violence has always been part of prison life. Anyone who claims differently isn’t being honest with themselves. The reason violence in prison is so highlighted today is because of the civil and political activists who’ve fought to bring the issue to the public. But the violence of today , and its cause, is somewhat different than the violence from years ago.
In the early 1990s, the federal prison system housed approximately 90,000 prisoners. Nationally, state and federal, there were 400-450 thousand prisoners. Today, the federal system houses close to 190,000 people, and nationally there area about 2.2 million incarcerated.
Lost in the days of “way back’ is the original purpose for the federal system. The feds were reserved for the some of the more accomplished criminals: Bank robbers, Brinks Trucks, terrorists and true drug kingpins. The attitude, philosophy and quality of those men were different. Many of them were learned men, politically inclined and often exposed to more worldly experiences.
Honor and Respect were paramount to one’s survival in those times. You could get murdered just from looking at someone wrong. One would carry himself like a man, respecting the boundaries of others, minding his own business, never stealing without consequence and always paying debts. People sought out enlightenment and education.
But the violence was ferocious. The psychology of men in the those days was almost animalistic. Survival of the fittest. Rape was common. Many people had to fight to retain rectum integrity. If they couldn’t fend off the attacks, they lost their virginity in new ways
Commissary was as dangerous as a back alley in the dark. You could get your ass knocked out, and your commissary taken in the middle of the hallway. The fight for control of the drug trade inside was just as intense as it was outside. Any interference with one’s control was met with extreme violence. People possessed shanks the length of small swords. They didn’t simply cause puncture wounds, they were pushed in one side of your body and out the other side.
Control. Dominance. Power. These were the roots of most violence within the penitentiaries. Yet, honor and respect were deeply held values. When those values were violated, a heavy price was paid. The violence was so vicious it was as if it came from some primal rage rooted in long years of abuse and social and political oppression.
However honorable. However ugly. It was real.
Today, in prison, as out in the world, values have shifted, and those from the past seem to have lost their power, or have been redefined by the eye of the beholder. The federal prisons are no longer reserved for the most accomplished criminals. The over incarceration practices have seen the federal system filled with kids. Kingpin charges are being attached to street corner hustlers who’ve hardly ever seen outside the four corners of their block or neighborhoods. Drug quantities are being attributed to those kids through an accumulative system, rather than a practical real assessment. A kid who is nothing more than a corner crack dealer, a worker, can be hit with large quantities of drugs and never actually have ever seen such quantities in one place.
True kingpins, the ones who do have control over the vast quantities of drugs attributed to those lowly workers, are permitted to cooperate against their own workers (and others) for lesser sentences, which leaves those kids serving astronomical sentences.
Adding to this is the fact that the feds have over prosecuted gun cases. A gun charge that would once be a state offense is now in the feds.
I believe this to be a major contributor to the growth of the prison population. But I also believe this is relevant to the current violence issue. Thirty years ago people died everyday in prisons like Lewisburg or Leavenworth worth. But there were less people in prison back then. Today our prisons system is five time s larger. More people. More violence. And these kids today come in and they have non clue how the world really works let-alone how a society within prison should be managed. The practical honor and respect philosophy has given way to the petty childish impulses.
The drug trade still has a significant role in the cause of violence. Guys want to get high, but somehow “forget” to pay their debts. or gambling debts may get too large for someone, and so he finds himself in trouble. Debts like these can be paid in one of several ways: one can get run off the yard; one can pay it in blood; or someone will take it from the ass.
Yeah. That still happens.
I’ve seen violence during my time behind the wall. I watched as one MS 13 member attacked another. The attacker hacked away at his victim’s neck with a small shank trying to hit the artery. The victim had been sent to the S.H.U. (hole) by his people to deliver a package of drugs to the guys back there. But somehow, the package got “lost,” and the delivery was never made. His group didn’t buy that it was “lost,” so when he came out of the S.H.U., a hit was put on him. He got trashed.
I’ve witnessed a guy get butchered by one of those small “swords,” and heard the sound of the blade clank against the stone floor as it was pushed through the other side of the man’s body. I’ve watched gang wars flare up in front of me.
But, again, what is the cause?
As I said earlier, there’s no clear explanation. But the over crowding issue is certainly a contributor. Because of the astronomical growth of the prison population and the overcrowding problem, incarceration has become much more punitive and focused on security. We’re packed into the housing units like sardines; on top of each other like ants on a n anthill. Everyone can see everyone, and there’s no more privacy. People minding their own business is a rarity these days.
There’s an average of 120 guys on one housing unit, all competing for limited resources and space. This constant chaos and personalities clashing causes extreme stress. To further compound the problem, we spend an average of 75% of our day on the unit. Moves are so restricted here at USP Hazelton that we’re lucky to get 3 1/2 hours a day off the unit. And when we are off the unit, the activity areas are so packed with people that there is no reprieve from the chaos and congestion.
Under these conditions, constantly piled on top of each other, tightly limited movement and nothing to keep out minds focused on but each other, it’s no wonder we are exposed to such violence. We have nowhere to release our aggression and frustration but upon each other.
Then there’s the added stress caused by the treatment of inmates by staff. A large number of staff greet inmates with loathing and contempt. The administration does very little to curb this behavior. There are many kinds of emotional, mental and psychological abuses from staff. Keep in mind: these staff members are emotionally unstable, people who have problems at home, and no control over those problems. So when they come in here and put that blue or white shirt on, a switch is flipped within their minds, and we become the target of their rage and frustration from their own personal lives.
Physical abuse is also a real threat by staff. I know staff from this institution have already stated, “that doesn’t happen.” But it does. Anyone who wants to doubt the ferociousness of physical abuse by prison staff need only research the civil cases litigated in places like Marion or Lewisburg (S.M.U.).
The S.H.U. is a dangerous place. We’re isolated from the rest of the population. And although there are cameras, there are also blind spots. Staff have been know not only to beat inmates who are cuffed, but also kill them in the S.H.U., where no one can see. This gets covered up by the BOP. We know it to be true. Again. More stress. More pressure. Built up. Release as violence.
No. There’s no clear explanation for the violence in prison. But we have starting pints of discussion on what some of the causes may be. The question now is: Can the violence be managed, and if so, how?