Prison is an admission of failure.
When a society incarcerates an individual, it is stating that it has failed. It has failed the victim of his actions, it has failed both the family of the victim and perpetrator, and finally it has failed the individual himself.
By this standard, no country fails its citizens more than the United States of America. The US incarcerates more of its own, per capita, than any other country in the world. This leads to a lot of hand-wringing on both sides of the aisle. The truth is more subtle, and requires a trained eye.
I have worked in Corrections now for ten years. The complex I work in has four different security level institutions, from minimum to maximum. I have worked as an officer next to nearly every kind of inmate possible, and seen firsthand the difference in attitudes among the convicted. Recently I have read Teh-nesi Coates essay, the Black Family in the age of mass incarceration. It is interesting and thought provoking. I encourage anyone concerned or interested in the issue to read it here, but as for its conclusion, I reject it completely.
In order to justify that response, I feel that it is necessary to take a tour through a prison complex. From the least restrictive, to the most grueling institutions.
The barest of Minimums
Ever wonder where you go if you break a minor federal law? If you cheat on your taxes, or write a hot check? Chances are, you will go to a Federal Prison Camp.
Camps lack the window dressing commonly associated with a prison. There may not be a fence, for example, or a cell door. Inmates are sent out to cut grass on the prison grounds, or repair truck engines. What I am getting at is, if you’re sentenced to a camp, its really not that bad. Just don’t run off.
The Beginning or the End
A Low Security institution is the first sort of Federal Prison that actually looks like one.
You have to commit a decently serious crime to end up at a Low. Alternatively, you might be on the tail end of a long sentence, and have earned through good behavior enough freedoms that you are able to go there, before release.
If you look closely at a Low, you will see the beginnings of criminal behavior that takes place during incarceration. Inmates group themselves up by home state or area, in what they refer to as “cars”, or inmates simply join one of many prison gangs. For the most part, however, an inmate that is willing to rehabilitate himself, is able to at this level.
A Medium Security institution is mostly for inmates on the way up or down.
You might have committed a federal crime, say a drug offense, but you committed a fire arm violation as well. You might have committed a serious felony, but time and age has mellowed your sharper edges.
Still, a medium can be dangerous. Inmates at this level are liable to continue criminal activity- to sell drugs to each other, or kill each other over the same. Gangs are much more prevalent. And at this level, you arrive at the first instance of prison politics.
There is a simple, and rarely known, outside of corrections, formula that is given inside the wire. The ratio of inmates to staff. In almost every institution across the country, indeed if not in every single institution, the inmates greatly outnumber the corrections professionals. And what this means is, the inmates have a say, if not complete control, of who gets to be in that particular institution.
Keeping up with the politics as it where is mind boggling at times. A Mexican gang might be at odds with another Mexican gang, or it might be allied with a white or black gang. A certain member might be in one gang, or another. What this creates is a situation of tension and violence. This is not to say a prison cannot simply assign a single inmate, or a group of inmates, wherever it wishes.
The tension is the first thing you feel when you walk through the doors of a maximum security institution. The air seems to crackle with it, to the point where the running and the screaming seems like second nature, or something that belongs in the environment. The chances of being assaulted or killed are drastically higher in these institutions- for prisoners and staff alike.
One subject Mr. Coates brings up repeatedly in his essay is the human cost of incarceration. That is; the burden of having a relative who might otherwise contribute to the family, through companionship or income, become a complete liability. One might ask on reading this, why have a prison system at all? The answer is quite simple. Evil exists.
In 2016, after a report released of a questionable shooting in the city of Chicago, in which the media one-sidedly reported the perpetrator as an “unarmed black victim” the district attorney and the federal department of justice decided that they were going to launch an investigation. Let’s back up for a second, and try to realize that in every day police work, the district attorney’s office and the “feds” are used as tools to help officers make arrests and close cases. But in this case that relationship was bent. A foolish organization that will not be named, backed by a Mr. George Soros got involved. And everyday Peace Officers in the city of Chicago felt the pressure.
What they decided to do was not put themselves in positions where they could be subject to investigation or potential prosecution. There is the bare minimum of police standards, that is, answering the calls of emergency dispatchers. There is another, pro-active approach, popularized by the NYPD and then Mayor Giuliani in fighting crime, in which police actively engage in the neighborhoods they patrol, and attempt to stop suspicious individuals engaged in high-crime areas.
But with the media attention, and the Soros-backed protesters, such tactics had been called racially-biased. The protesters had several terms, and among them was the demand that the police vacate majority-minority neighborhoods. So they backed off. And as a result, 735 people were murdered in 2016 Chicago, more than New York City and Los Angeles combined in the same period.
A question. If all the arrested individuals, or detained and searched individuals in Chicago were simply innocent disenfranchised minority victims of a biased system, why did the murder rate skyrocket when the police eased up? Why did innocent women and children die, bleeding their lives out into asphalt gutters? The answer is simple. Evil exists. It exists in the minds of bored young men who idolize drug dealers and gang members. It is unleashed through their actions. And those young men who are not simply executed for their crimes, because we live in a benevolent western society, need somewhere to go, where they are not in a position to victimize others. This place is called prison.
The current administration would like to disavow the existence of evil. As would most intellectuals squatting in their penthouses on either side of the American coast, or in Europe. But when you come in contact with evil, it is impossible to ignore.
I leave you with a poem that was written during the Iraq war.
“Just tell the truth of what you see, without the slant or spin;
that most of us are OK and we’re coming home again.
And why not tell our folks back home about the good we’ve done,
how when they see Americans, the kids come at a run.”
You tell ’em what it means to folks here just to speak their mind,
without the fear that tyranny is just a step behind;
Describe the desert miles they walk in their first chance to vote,
or ask a soldier if he’s proud, I’m sure you’ll get a quote.”
He turned and slid the rifle in a drag bag thickly padded,
then looked again with eyes of steel as quietly he added;
“And maybe just remind the few, if ill of us they speak,
that we are all that stands between the monsters and the weak.”