Tag Archives: punishment

Prison Experiments

prison expA little over a decade ago, in one of my first psychology classes under the tutelage of Dr.Cook at Trinity Valley Community College, I came across the work of Stanford psychologist Dr. Phillip Zimbardo and was literally blown away by how closely Dr. Zimbaro’s had adequately reproduced the conditions of prison life with his Stafford Prison experiment.

This learned man-made be believe in the power of laboratory experiments to reproduce and study the conditions of everyday life and experience. Since first coming across his work more than a decade ago, I have been a huge fan of this great man who had so eloquently provided a voice to, over 2 million voiceless American prisoners scattered around the nation.

Although Dr. Zimbardo’s work is now several decades old I find it as chilling in its accuarcy today as it was when first published.

What follows is a short summary of his work that he prepared for the U.S House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary: Hearing On Prison Reform

The Psychological Power and Pathology of Imprisonment by Phillip G. Zimbaro:

In an attempt to understand just what it means psychologically to be a prisoner or a prison guard, we created our own prison. We carefully screened over 70 volunteers who answered an ad in the Palo Alto City newspaper and ended up with about two dozen young men who were selected to be part of this study.  They were mature, emotionally stable, normal, intelligent college students from middle class homes throughout the United States and Canada. They appeared to represent the “cream of the crop” of this generation. None had any criminal record and all were relatively homogeneous on many dimensions initially.

Half were arbitrarily designated as “prisoners” by a flip of a coin, the others as “guards.” These were the roles they were to play in our simulated prison. The guards were made aware of the potential seriousness and danger of the situation, and their own vulnerability. They made up their own formal rules for maintaining law, order, and respect, and were generally free to improvise new ones during their 8-hour, 3-man shifts. The prisoners were unexpectedly picked up at their homes by a City policeman in a squad car, searched, handcuffed, fingerprinted, booked at the Station House, and taken blindfolded to our jail. There they were stripped, deloused, put into a uniform, given a number, and put into a cell with two other prisoners where they expected to live for the next two weeks. The pay was good ($15 a day) and their motivation was to make money.

We observed and recorded on videotape the events that occurred in the prison, and we interviewed and tested the prisoners and guards at various points throughout the study. These data will be available to the committee in a forthcoming report. Some of the videotapes of the actual encounters between the prisoners and guards can be seen on the NBC news feature Chronolog, November 26, 1971.

In the short time available at this hearing, I can only outline the major results of ‘this experiment, and then briefly relate them to the “experiment” which our society is conducting using involuntary subjects.  Finally, I wish to suggest some modest  proposals to help make “real” prisons become more successful experiments.

At the end of only six days we had to close down our mock prison because what we saw was frightening. It was no longer apparent to us or most of the subjects where they ended and their roles began. The majority had indeed become “prisoners” or “guards,” no longer able to clearly differen­tiate between role-playing and self. There were dramatic changes in virtually every aspect of their behavior, thinking and feeling. In less than a week, the experience of imprison­ment undid (temporarily) a lifetime of learning; human values were suspended, self-concepts were challenged, and the ugliest, most base, pathological side of human nature surfaced.  We were horrified because we saw some boys (“guards”) treat other boys as if they were despicable animals, taking pleasure in cruelty, while other boys (“prisoners”) became servile, dehumanized robots who thought only of escape, of their own individual survival, and of their mounting hatred of the guards.

We had to release three “prisoners” in the first four days because they had such acute situational traumatic reactions as hysterical crying, confusion in thinking, and severe depres­sion. Others begged to be “paroled,” and all but three were willing to forfeit all the money they had earned if they could be “paroled.” By then, the fifth day, they had been so pro­grammed to think of themselves as “prisoners,” that when their request for “parole” was denied, they returned docilely to their cells. Now, had they been thinking as college students acting in an oppressive experiment, they would have quit once they no longer wanted the $15 a day we used as our only incentive. However, the reality was not “quitting an experiment,” but “being paroled by the parole board from the Stanford County Jail.” By the last days, the earlier solidarity among the prisoners (systematically broken by the guards) dissolved into “each man for himself.” Finally, when one of their fellows was put in solitary confinement (a small closet) for refusing to eat, the prisoners were given a choice by one of the guards:  give up their blankets and the “incorrigible prisoner” would be let out, or keep their blankets and he would be kept in all night. They voted to keep their blankets and to abandon their brother, a suffering prisoner.

About a third of the guards became tyrannical in their arbitrary use of power, in enjoying their control over other people.  They were corrupted by the power of their roles and became quite inventive in their techniques of breaking the spirit of the prisoners and making them feel they were worthless Some of the guards merely did their jobs as “tough but fair” correctional officers. Several were “good guards” from the prisoners’ point of view, since they did them small favors and were friendly. However, no “good guard” or any other one ever interfered with a command by any of the “bad guards”; they never intervened on the side of the prisoners, they never told the others to ease off because it was only an experiment, and they never even came to me as Prison Superintendent or Experimenter in charge to complain. In part, they were “good” because the others were “bad”; they needed the others to help establish their own egos in a positive light. In a sense, they perpetuated the prison more than the other guards because their own needs to be liked prevented them from disobeying or viola­ting the implicit guard’s code. At the same time, the act of befriending the prisoners created a social reality which made the prisoners less likely to rebel.

By the end of the week, the experiment had become a reality, as if it were a Pirandello play directed by Kafka that just keeps going after the audience has left. The Consultant for our prison, Carlo Prescott, an ex-con with 16 years imprisonment in California’s jails, would get so depressed and furious each time he visited our prison, because of its psychological similarity to his experiences, that he would have to leave. A Catholic priest, who was a former prison Chaplain in Washington, D.C., talked to our “prisoners” after four days and said they were just like the “first-timers” he had seen.

But in the end, I called off the experiment not because of the horror I saw out there in the prison yard, but because of the horror of realizing that ^ could have easily traded places with the most brutal guard, or become the weakest prisoner full of hate at being so powerless that I could not eat, sleep or go to the toilet without permission of the author­ities’.  I. could have become Galley at My Lai, George Jackson at San Quentin, one of the men at Attica, or the prisoner quoted at the beginning of this report.  I believe you could too.

Significance of these findings

(1)   Individual behavior is largely under the control of social forces and environmental contingencies rather than “personality traits,” “character,” “will power” or other empir­ically unvalidated constructs.  Thus we create an illusion of freedom by attributing more internal control to ourselves, to the individual, than actually exists.  We thus underestimate the power and pervasiveness of situational controls over behavior because:  (a) they are often non-obvious and subtle, (b) we often can avoid entering situations where we might be so controlled, (c) we label as “weak” or “deviant” people in those situations who do behave differently from how we believe we would.

Each of us carries around in our heads a favorable self-image in which we are essentially just, fair, ‘humane, understanding, etc.  For example, we could not imagine inflic­ting pain on others without much provocation, or hurting people who had done nothing to us, who in fact were even liked by us.  However, there is a growing body of social psychological research which underscores the conclusion derived from this prison study. Many people, perhaps the majority, can be made to do almost anything when put into psychologically compelling situations—regardless of their morals, ethics, values, attitudes, beliefs, or personal convictions. My colleague, Stanley Milgram, has shown that more than sixty percent of the popula­tion will deliver what they think is a series of painful electric shocks to another person even after the victim cries for mercy, begs them to stop, and then apparently passes out. The subjects complained that they did not want to hurt him more, but blindly obeyed the command of the authority figure (the experimenter) who said that they must go on.  In my research on violence, I have seen mild-mannered co-eds repea­tedly give “shocks” (which they thought were causing pain) to another girl, a stranger whom they had rated very favorably, simply by being made to feel anonymous and put in a situation where they were expected to engage in this activity.

Observers of these and similar experimental situations never predict their outcomes, and estimate that it is unlikely that they themselves would behave similarly. They can be so confident only when they are outside the situation, but since the majority of people in these studies do act in these “non-rational,” “non-obvious” ways, then it follows, that the majority of observers would also succumb to the social psycho­logical forces in the situation.

(2)   With regard to prisons, we can state that the mere act of assigning labels to people, such as “prisoners” and “guards,” and putting them into a situation where those labels acquire validity and meaning, is sufficient to elicit patholog­ical behavior. This pathology is not predictable from any available diagnostic indicators we have in the social sciences, and is extreme enough to modify in very significant ways fundamental attitudes and behavior. The prison situation, as presently arranged, is guaranteed to generate severe enough pathological reactions in both guards and prisoners as to debase their humanity, lower their feelings of self-worth, and make it difficult for them to be part of a society outside of their prison.

General Conclusions and Specific Recommendations for Reform

Prison is any situation in which one person’s freedom and liberty are denied by virtue of the arbitrary power exer­cised by another person or group. Thus our prisons of concrete and steel are only metaphors for the social prisons we create and maintain through enforced poverty, racism, sexism, and other forms of social injustice. They are also the physical symbol of the psychological prisons we create for others, by making even our loved ones feel inadequate or self-conscious, and, worst of all, the imprisonment we impose on our own minds and actions through neurotic fears.

The need for “prison reform” then is a cry not only to change the operating procedures of our penal institutions, but a more basic plea to change the conditions in our society which make us all prisoners, all less happy, less productive, less free to grow, and less concerned about our brothers than about our own survival.

Our national leaders for years have been pointing to the enemies of freedom, to the fascist or communist threat to the American way of life.  In so doing, they have overlooked the threat of social anarchy that is building within our own country without any outside agitation. As soon as a person comes to the realization that he is being “imprisoned” by his society or individuals in it, then, in the best American tradition, he demands liberty and rebels, accepting death as an alternative.

The third alternative, however, is to allow oneself to become a “good prisoner,” docile, cooperative, uncomplaining, confor­ming in thought and complying in deed.                                                                                             Our prison authorities now point to the “militant agitators” who are still vaguely part of some communist plot, as the irresponsible, “incorrigible” trouble-makers.  They imply that there would be no trouble, riots, hostages, or deaths if it weren’t for this small band of “bad prisoners.” In other words, if they could break these men, then everything would return to “normal” again in the life of our nation’s prisons.

The riots in prison are coming from within—from within every man and woman who refuses to let The System turn them into an object, a number, a thing, or a no-thing.  It is not communist-inspired, but inspired by the spirit of American freedom. No man wants to be enslaved. To be powerless, to be subject to the arbitrary exercise of power, to not be recognized as a human being is to be a slave.

To be a “militant prisoner” is to become aware that the physical jails are but more blatant extensions of the forms of social and psychological oppression experienced daily in the nation’s ghettos. They are trying to awaken the conscience of the nation to the ways in which the American ideals are being perverted in the name of “justice,” but actually under the banner of apathy, fear, and hatred, if we do not listen to the pleas of the prisoners at Attica to be treated like human beings, then we all have become brutalized by our priorities for property rights over human rights. The consequence will not only be more prison riots, but a loss of all those ideals on which this country was founded.

Recommendations:

1)                      Do not demand simple solutions for the complex problems of crime and law enforcement.

2)                      Do continue to search for solutions, to question all assumptions regarding the causes of crime, the nature of the criminal, and the function of prisons. Support research which might provide some answers to these issues, and continue to keep the legislature and the public informed about these issues.

3)                      Put the specific question of prison reform in the broader context of societal reforms and social injustice which may account for why many commit crimes in the first place.

4)                      Investigate the public’s latent attitudes about punishment and retribution, and then initiate programs to reeducate the public as to the rehabilitative purposes and goals of our correctional institutions.

5)                      Insist that Judges have a continuing interest in what happens to people they sentence.

6)                      Help make the public aware that they own the prisons, and that their business is failing. The seventy percent recid­ivism rate, and the escalation in severity of crimes committed by graduates of our prisons are evidence that current prisons fail to rehabilitate the inmates in any positive way. Rather,
they are breeding grounds for hatred of the establishment, a hatred that makes every citizen a target of violent assault. Prisons are a bad investment for us taxpayers. Until now we have not cared, we have turned over to wardens and prison “authorities” the unpleasant job of keeping people who threaten us out of our sight. Now we are shocked to learn that their management practices have failed to improve the product, and instead they are turning petty thieves into murderers. We must insist upon new management or improved operating procedures.

7)                      Remove the cloak of secrecy from the prisons. Prisoners claim they are brutalized by the guards, guards say it is a lie. Where is the impartial test of the truth in such a situation? Prison officials have forgotten that they work for us, that they are only public servants whose salaries are paid by our taxes.  They act as if it is their prison, like a child with a toy he won’t share. Neither lawyers, judges, the
legislature, nor the public are allowed into prisons to ascertain the truth unless the visit is sanctioned by “authorities” and until all is prepared for their visit. I was shocked to learn that my request to join this committee’s tour of San Quentin and Soledad was refused, as was that of the news media. However, after talking with convicts, it is apparent that such a guided tour would be the same kind an American
general would get in Moscow. Did this committee visit A section of the South Block, the upper floors of the adjustment center, B section, third tier, any floor above the bottom one in the hospital? It is likely they did not, because these are not part of the prison “show rooms” in San Quentin.

8)                      There should be an ombudsman in every prison, not under the pay or control of the prison authority, responsible only to the courts, state legislature and the public. Such a person could report on violations of constitutional and human rights.

9)                      Guards must be given better training than they now receive for the difficult job society imposes upon them. To be a prison guard as now constituted is to be put in a situation of constant threat from within the prison, with no social recognition from the society at large. As was shown graphically at Attica, prison guards are also prisoners of the system who can be sacrificed to the demands of the public to be punitive and the needs of politicians to preserve an image. Social scientists and business training personnel should be called upon to design and help carry out this training.

10)                  In line with this new human relations training, would be changes in the perceived role of the “guards.” They would instead be “teachers” or “counselors” and the “prisoners” would be “trainees.”  The reinforcement (bonus, advancement) for such a “teacher” would be contingent upon the “trainees” learning new social and technical skills which will enable them to leave the “training-rehabilitation” center as early as possible, and not: come back.

Positive reinforcement would replace coercion, threats and isolation as means of behavior management.  Most prisoners want to return to their community, to be capable of earning a living, to be socially responsible and to be needed by others. Many are in prison not because they don’t have a manual trade, but because of deficits in social training. Prisons should be constituted to provide the opportunity for such people to have positive social experiences, to be responsive to and responsible for others. This could be done by giving them training as psychiatric aides and social workers who must care for other disturbed prisoners. This “peer management” is the best way to build an individual’s sense of self-worth and a feeling of community. In addition, these skills are vitally needed in the communities to which the “trainees” will return. College students and professional social scientists could volunteer their services or be part of a Vista campaign to produce such training.

11)                  The relationship between the individual (who is sentenced by the courts to such a center) and his community must be maintained. How can a “prisoner” return to a dynam­ically changing society, that most of us cannot cope with, after being out of it for a number of years? There should be more community involvement in these rehabilitation centers, more ties encouraged and promoted between the trainees and
family and friends, more educational opportunities to prepare them for returning to their communities as more valuable members of it than they were before they left.

12)                  Once a trainee has finished the prescribed course and is judged ready to leave the institution, there should be no stigma attached to his training, no need to report to pros­pective employers that he/she was a “prisoner,” no need to be labeled an “ex-con.”

13)                  Finally, the main ingredient necessary to effect any change at all in prison reform, in the rehabilitation of a  single prisoner, or even in the optimal development of your own child, is caring. That is where all reform must start — with people caring about the well-being of others, especially people with power, like those on this committee, really caring about the most hardened, allegedly incorrigible prisoner in solitary confinement. Underneath the toughest, society-hating convict, rebel, or anarchist is a human being who wants his existence to be recognized by his fellows and who wants someone else to care about whether he lives or dies and to be sad if he lives imprisoned rather than lives free.

A Righteous Stand

Righteous standI stand unified with the MEN of Pelican Bay in support of the strong stand they have taken to secure what Thomas Jefferson called, “inalienable rights” by the holding of mass hunger strikes.

Beginning on July 8, 2013 over 3000 MEN currently held in the California Department of Corrections refused to eat for 9 consecutive days in a effort to receive improved conditions.

The focal point of this movement is the Pelican Bay Security housing unit where MEN are tortured psychologically 23 hours a da by being confined to their cells.

You see, as a incarcerated MAN myself, I know what the public don’t care to know. Which is that prisons are harsh, hostile places designed to completely crush the souls in their charge. Places where most men and women leave out worse than when they arrived. Someone once remarked that most people misunderstand the design and constructions of prisons; they think the fences and towers are strictly to keep inmates in, while never realizing they are equally there to keep the people out. Because much of what’s done couldn’t stand up under the harsh glare of public scrutiny.

This is the sad state of Corrections within America. It’s also noted even within the same state some prison are much, much worse others. Such is the case with Pelican Bay. The first time I ever heard of Pelican Bay was when the scandal broke involving several guards who were running a gladiator school at the prison by placing rival gang members in the same cells and forcing them to fight while the guards watched and took bets.

In a place with this type of history it didn’t surprise me that conditions at the facility are so deplorable that a group of MEN have declared, ”Give me liberty or death.” According to the United States Constitution the people have the right to petition the government for redress. But when these people happen to be incarcerated MEN, the powers that be have taken an adverse position that seeks to escalate rather than deescalate the situation simply by fixing the problems.

Bureaucracy being bureaucracy, they have refused to meet any of the inmates five reasonable demands:

*  Eliminate group punishments for individual rule violations.

*  Abolish the debriefing policy

*  Comply with the 2006 recommendations of the US Commission
on Safety and Abuse in Prisons

*  Provide Adequate food

*  Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges
for indefinite SHU inmates.

The California department of corrections response to these reasonable demands and calls for human rights has been to petition the Federal Courts for permission to force-feed the 70 remaining inmates still striking in a effort to keep them from starving themselves to death. Wow! And to think this is what’s going on while most people sit around the water cooler discussing the latest occurrence on hit TV Show Scandal or Under the Dome. Men are starving themselves to death to secure their human rights while politicians debate how to stop Bashir Assad in Syria from violating the human rights of his people. The old people use to say, that’s the pot calling the kettle black. How can we concern ourselves with human rights abuses around the world without concerning our­selves with the human rights abuses right here at home. The media will show you on every station several times a day what Bashir Assad is doing to his people but want show you what your tax dollars doing to your own people. But that’s what those fences and towers are for to keep you out.

When the supposed enemy combatants held at the military base in Cuba went on hunger strikes to protest their conditions, our governments response was to petition the courts to force-feed these men. Now the same thing that was done to supposedly enemy combatants is being done to United States citizens in California – and you don’t have a problem with that, but have one with what’s going on in Syria, Egypt or elsewhere in the world. Something’s severely wrong with that.

Russian writer Feodor Dostoevsky said, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

How civilized are we?

Same Old Soup

same old soupFor a brief moment try to imagine this. You are a poor Hispanic or African-American in any of the this nation’s high-crime, impoverished, predominately minority neighborhoods; Watts, South Central, 3rd Ward, Southside, Chicago, Brooklyn, New York. I’ll let you pick your own poison.

Now on top of being a poor racial minority let’s say you’re unemployed and like to hang around your neighborhood and maybe even smoke marijuana and drink alcohol to ease the pain of a constrained existence.

One day while hanging out at the local barbershop, corner store,  nightclub etc, a guy you kinda, sorta know-one of those friends of friend’s cousin’s baby-moma type of things. But this guy approaches you, it has been a while since you last saw this friend of a friend and by all appearances it looks like he’s doing well for himself. After shooting the breeze for a few, he asks you what you into, how you getting by. Since that’s all you doing is getting by, there really isn’t much to tell him. Before long he’s flashing his bankroll and telling you what he’s got going and asking if you’re interested. This is like asking a man lost in the middle of the Sahara desert in 115 degree temperatures if he would like some water. You think?

Still, this’ the streets so you got to keep your game face on. So you pretend to think about it for a while then say what the hell. Why not, you’re broke, unemployed with little future prospects – I mean what do you have to lose? And according to your new buddy from around the way he knows a guy who has a lick (robbery) set up. Supposedly there’s this cartel stash house with 20 to 30 kilos of cocaine plus a few hundred grand inside, but this friend of a friend’s friend needs some guys to do it. He can’t do it hisself because the people inside know him.

Wooed by the prospect of quick riches and a escape from the soul-killing poverty that has destroyed and is destroying nearly every person you know, you agree to go along. The only problem is you don’t have a gun, but your new friend waves you off, that’s no problem, and says he will hook you up with one, and since you don’t have a car he’ll even pick you up.

After a brief discussion a date and time is agreed upon and when the time comes, your new buddy who is going to help you get rich picks you up and drives you to the scene of the crime.

A few moments later you and your friend setting down the block from the alleged stash house supposedly casing it out. Eventually your friend reaches in the glove box and hands you a gun while asking you if you ready? You nod, never expecting that nod to cost you the next ten to twenty years of your life.

Before you can get out of the car large red-faced aggressive men in Dupont made Kevlar body armor welding American-made machine guns rush the car and snatch you out, “ATP”, they scream, while slamming you on the ground face first, “you’re under arrest.”

The scenario I just asked you to imagine might sound like a scene out of the latest Triple Crown urban novel, but it’s not. It’s a real life sting operation currently being conducted in these United States of America to unsuspecting potential criminals with the prospect of quick riches.

In these stings, the ATF who selects the alleged criminals to target begin the operation with a paid informant (the friend of friend flashing cash). This informer, paid snitch, legal criminal, introduces the target to an ATF agent who provides the transportation, weapons, along with the who, what, and where of the robbery. Nationwide more than 1,000 people have been duped by the federal government and subsequently incarcerated in these “stash-house” operations over the previous decade.

More likely than not this injustice would’ve continued to rob young minority men of their liberty and the general public would’ve been none the wiser, had US District judge Ruben Castillo not noticed a peculiar thing about all these cases. Of the 26 “stash-house” cases filed in the Chicago Federal courts, all of the defendants were either black or Hispanic.

Which is even more troubling when you consider how these cases begin. Unlike a normal criminal case that begins when a person breaks the law, with these cases the government selects the person, proposes the crime, and provides the means of carrying out the crime.

What they were doing was so blatant that it forces even a conservative Republican judge to conclude that the government was deliberately targeting blacks and Hispanics and to call for a full investigation.

So here it is once again in our supposedly best justice system in the world, in our post-racial no need for Affirmative Action, or voting laws society. Those entrusted with the power of life and death s well as liberty are caught red-anded breaking the laws they are sworn to uphold and targeting the most vulnerable among us .

“You tell me things have changed… and I say not enough.

You tell me justice for all… and I say all who can afford it.

But you tell me a Black man is President… and I say ride through the bedrocks of the ghetto and tell me what that has meant

No Justice…No Peace to me is evident

Upset you turn away…scream why can’t I see?

Oh but I do see that our ideals are myths

Myths propagated to make me behave…

and send me passively to my grave

Perhaps some would say even make me a slave”

While operation “stash-house” as reported in the USA Today, Friday August 2, 2013 edition might surprise some people. For most blacks and Hispanics living daily up under the heavy arm of the law, this story was nothing more than a mainstream expose of of their day to day reality.

What IS Black?

Is being black an act?

Is it a walk, or talk or, better yet, an attitude?

Maybe it’s the way you dress, or the car you drive?

Does being black equate a life of stress?

Is Clarence Thomas Black? What about Republican J.C. Watts?

What does being black mean?

Does being black meaning standing on the corner smoking marijuana?

Why or Why not?

Does it mean embracing the fictional American Dream?

A dream that was only intended for a few

Does it mean getting a so called good education?

To prepare you for a good job

Or getting the Clock and ski mask to rob?

Does being black mean dying young, or being strung out on crack?

How about doing time in jail?

Does it mean black women raising kids alone,

Or leading the country in rates of HIV?

Will someone please explain this to me

Or just answer the question…

What is Black?

 

Reprinted from “A Windowless Room” by Kenneth West, Trafford Press

Stolen Lives

One Million black men 

Not marching in D-C

Brought together by force,

legal farce

Victims of a common fate

Residents of America’s penal

institutions

Whitewashed plantations,

littered across the nation

No longer confined to the

South

Descendants of slaves

Confined to the big house

One million stolen lives

 

Reprinted from ”A Windowless Room” by Kenneth West, Trafford Press

43,800 Days

The judge gave me 43,800 days

1,140 Months

1,051,200 hours

63,072,200 minutes

To build a nation

His prison, My university

His punishment, My salvation

Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s house

Old Pharaoh still feeding Moses at his table today

He fed Malcolm, Huey, Geronimo Pratt, Eldridge Cleaver, George Jackson,

Big Tookie, Mumia Adu Jabar

And now Old Pharaoh feeding me

Yet I have the blood of Nat Turner in my veins

The brains of Booker T

The brashness of Muhammad Ali

What Old Pharaoh going to do with me?

Right now I am eating in the kitchen, growing strong

Tomorrow I will own the table

Time to rewrite this American fable…

 

Reprinted  from  “A Windowless Room”, Trafford Press

Slave Labor

WHAT FOLLOWS IS A PIECE I WROTE IN RESPONSE TO AN AD IN PRISON LEGAL NEWS FROM A WEB SITE, ORGANIZATION CALLED “OCCUPY OUR STORES” www.occupyourstories.com THAT WAS LOOKING FOR INMATES TO SHARE THEIR STORES ABOUT INCARCERATION AND PRISON LABOR.

Thirteen years ago, in October of 1999, I arrived in the penitentiary, 19 years old and scared shitless. Being my first rodeo as the old cons like to say, I was completely unprepared (if preparation is even possible) for the culture shock I was thrust into.

As the bus pulled up to the prison, it was like the land that time forgot. Picture a large cluster of orange brick buildings four stories high with small planes of glass that were almost completely broken out. My first thought was, “welcome to hell.” And I wouldn’t have been surprised if instead of the guard that met the bus, it would’ve been a small red demonic figure with a pitch fork.

With 4,500 men living in double occupancy misery, 1,400 of them serving life sentences, the Coffield unit in East Texas, once labeled the most violent prison in Texas, was ground zero. Hell on earth .

After pushing the very real fear of assault or bodily injury out of my mind as best as possible, I refocused my energy on dealing with the general gruffness and callousness of the guards along with the cold hard stares of the inmates.

Apart from the new arrival ritual which consisted of eyes probing you for any signs of weakness that could be exploited, the only thing they wanted to know was, “where you from?” and “who you run with?” Meaning were you in a gang.

My answer to the first question was, “Houston” and to the second, “I’m solo.” After this brief exchange, the conversations ended and the waiting began – waiting to see what type of dude you were and how you carried yourself.

Almost at once I began to learn the universal convict rules: mind your own business, do your own time, don’t accept things from people you don’t know, on the tier never look in another man’s cell, if someone challenges you for whatever reason, no matter how trivial, you have to rise to the occasion regardless of the consequences, don’t pop off at the mouth if you can’t or won’t back it up. Prison is a completely different world unlike anywhere out in society, so who you were out in society isn’t worth a Ramen noodle soup, the guards have absolute power and their word is the gospel – if they say you did it, then you did it, even if you didn’t, so piss them off or make enemies with them at your own risk, and so forth.

These were the rules I learned about doing time, but I also learned that many if not all prisons in the South – Texas, Louisiana, Georgia etc. – still operate under a slavery type of system and mentality. Evident by the many inmates here in Texas who still refer to correctional officers as “Bosses”. Another glaring example of this slave mentality is the field labor system found in Southern prisons.

Field labor consist of work crews of 40 to 75 inmates who go out into the surrounding countryside (you already know prisons are always out in the middle of nowhere to keep these houses of horror out of public view) with hoes and shovels to work the land. These field squads are supervised by two or more armed officers called “Cowboys”, who sit on horseback armed with pistols and shotguns. The men in these field squads line up in a straight line shoulder to shoulder and work in tandem in a process called ”four-stepping”.

Which consist of hitting a hoe on the bare ground four times then stepping forward and repeating the process. This is done while two inmates one called lead row, and the other tail row chant in cadence, “one, two, three, four, step”. Inmates in the hoe squads as they are called often clear a football sized field or more a day using this process.

The field squad was my first job in the penitentiary and it was the most ridiculous, outrageous, and degrading set-up I’ve ever witnessed. I found it hard to believe that in the 21st century, in the richest, supposedly most humane country in the civilized world, a system harkening back to the pre-civil war slavery days was being allowed to exist.

In the 14 years of my unjust detention, I’ve witnessed one hardship and constitutional violation after another, from mental health patients left untreated until they eventually hurt themselves or someone else, to healthy guys dying because they couldn’t get adequate medical care for minor illnesses. Staff assaults and the inevitable cover-ups, all the way to incarcerated men who begin to act and live like the animals that society says so many of us are, after having their rights and dignity trampled underfoot one too many times.

Although my personal journey through this house of horrors is far from over, as I continue to fight my unjust conviction, I often sit and wonder how I’ve made it? How I’ve been able to earn my GED, 3 college degrees and write 10 books, blog (KennethWest.org), stay out of Administrative Seg, prevent from getting hurt or being forced to hurt someone else to protect myself, or from picking up and new charge and compiling my misery.

While these may be meager accomplishments by some measures, if you had been the places I’ve been within this penal institution, or witnessed the things I’ve witnessed, then I’m sure you would agree with me when I say, “but for the grace of God, there I go.”

The Breaking Point

“WHEN NOBODY LISTENS TO A COMPLAINT THAT APPEARS TO BE LEGITIMATE, WHEN NOBODY TRIES TO RECTIFY A BAD SITUATION, A VIOLENT ACT IS PERHAPS THE ONLY WAY LEFT TO FOCUS ATTENTION ON THE WRONG, AND HELP SOMETHING GET DONE ABOUT IT” — John Langone

When 23 year old Mohamed Merah went on his bloody Jihadist rampage in the French city of Toulouse that left seven people senselessly dead, three of them children, I wondered if this was how he felt? As if his legitimate grievances and the grievances of his people were continuing to go unheard. Before dying in a hail of gun fire at the hands of French special forces soldiers the young terrorist told a negotiator, ”you kill my brothers, now I’m killing you.”

While it’s probably impossible to pinpoint the exact motives for his attacks, righteous indignation, hatred of French society, or just youthful frustration – I can tell you exactly what is driving the protest that have erupted all across the country in the wake of the Trayvon Martin killing in Sanford, Florida by 28 year old George Zimmerman the trigger happy neighborhood watch captain.

Trayvon who was 17 years old and unarmed when he was gunned down insides of a gated community was killed for being black in a nice neighborhood which in the eyes of George Zimmerman automatically made him suspect.

In America we have DWB (Driving While Black).

Which will get you stopped and possibly ticketed on GP (General Principle).

WWB (Walking while Black).

Which will get you Id’ed and frisked.

And plain old BB (Being Black).

Which in Trayvon’s case got him a bullet in the chest.

Same thing with Emmet Till, Rodney King, Sean Bell.

But as the protest that have rocked this nation from one side to the other following Trayvon’s senseless killing attest.

Black people have reached a breaking point.

We are tired of being murdered by police.

Tired of being murdered by the George Zimmerman’s and Joe Horns of the world.

And tired of being gun down senselessly by each other. Enough is enough.

Like Mohamed Merah in France, the African-American community has reached a breaking point. A point were the pain of doing nothing is far greater than the pain associated with change, meaningful change.

The abolitionist and ex-slave Fredrick Douglass said, “Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have the exact measure of injustice and wrong that will be imposed on them.”

For too long that’s what the black community has been guilty of quietly submitting. Quietly submitting to our sisters and brothers being railroaded by the criminal justice system on trumped up charges, the same justice system that allowed George Zimmerman to walk away after killing a unarmed defenseless black teenager. We quietly submit to the constant assault and killing of black men young and old at the hand of the police. Quietly submit to one form of injustice after another.

Until now, finally the community has reached a breaking point. A point to where all 13.5 million of our voices young and old are saying a COLLECTIVE NO MORE.

NO MORE TRAYVON’S, SEAN BELLS OR RODNEY KINGS. NO MORE ANTHONY GRAVES’.

NO MORE INJUSTICE.

Martin Luther King said, “an injustice against one is an injustice against all.”

Which makes us all Trayvon Martin.

A Gordon Spirit

The man in this 1863 picture is an escaped slave from the Mississippi Delta, named Gordon, whom I like to think of as a distant relative. Even if the connection we share isn’t of the molecular one composed of hydrogen, oxygen and carbon combined in the double helix better known as DNA that CSI NY has so many of us assuming we are familiar with, even if we failed high-school chemistry.

However, the connection that me and Prince Gordon share is a soulish one as we’ve both been victimized in the country of our Birth .

When you see the flesh of Gordon’s back cut open into a thousand pieces, what’s the first thing that jumps into your mind?

One person may wonder aloud, “what did he do to possibly deserve such vicious, inhumane treatment?” While another would protest vehemently that there was no offense that a man could commit that would warrant such treatment. Another person might bemoan the injustice of the entire American slave system and its aftermath that declared some men as masters and the others as beast of burden with absolutely no say so over their lives based solely on the color of their skin. Each would have a hold on a small fiber of the truth.

When I encountered the portrait of Gordon eight years ago, I was immediately drawn to the regal grace and kingliness of the man. And I saw the welts on his back representing not a source of shame but pride. A crown of splendid glory carved into his flesh as majestic as any that was ever worn by the Kings and Queens of Europe. For Gordon’s crown is emblematic of his quest to be a man, in a unjust soul-crushing system that refused to acknowledge him as such.

The more I studied the photo, the more mesmerized I became with who this man was and what he had endured in the name of manhood. It was then that I realized me and Gordon were kindred spirits and that the scars on his back represented the wounds of my very own soul.

Like a ghost from beyond the grave Gordon’s spirit was a light onto my feet. Showing me the way. The way of all those who refuse to turn back, lay down, let up, shut up, or give up come what may even the hated twin foes of bodily injury and death.

In essence, Gordon was telling me and all the world that yes, he was beaten, but he was UNBROKEN. That his head was bloodied, but UNBOWED.

From the seeds of Gordon’s courage came the inspiration for my publishing company UNBROKEN UNBOWED PRESS, with Gordon as the company’s figure head for his life represents the highest aspirations that UNBROKEN UNBOWED PRESS seeks to embody.

A publishing company for all the kindred souls who refuse to take no for an answer, who refuse to turn back in the face of adversity – for the outcast, social lepers, misfits, convicts, and all the men and women which a Gordon Spirit who retain their dignity, pride, hope, courage and grace even in the face of unimaginable hardships and adversity. UNBROKEN UNBOWED PRESS is for them and all the Gordons of the world.

At UNBROKEN UNBOWED PRESS, we agree with the eminent late black scholar Manning Marble who said, “KNOWLEDGE FROM THE VANTAGE POINT OF THE OPPRESSED, MUST NOT ONLY INFORM, BUT TRANSFORM THE REAL CONDITIONS OF DAILY LIFE IN WHICH PEOPLE LIVE.”

If you are anyone you knows has a Gordon Spirit check us out at http://www.wix.com/unbrokenunbowedpress/home as well as Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Unbroken-Unbowed-Press/365012860183016