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Commentary :: Education : Gender : GLBT/Queer : Race
Addressing Violence in Prison
11 Jun 2008
Usually when I talk about prisons I begin with a whole bunch of numbers and statistics. 2.4 million people in prison, 1 million Black people in prison, 1 in 9 Black men between the ages of 18 and 34 are in prison. Women of Color are the fastest growing population in prison. 25% of people in women’s prisons are raped during their sentence, 20% of people in men’s prisons are raped during their time. Nearly 100% of out queer and transgender people in men’s prisons experience some form of sexual assault. The numbers and statistics go on and on. I have pages and pages of them if you want. When we talk about systems of oppression it is often so much easier to talk about numbers rather than people. Whether we’re talking about the millions killed in war, the high percent of people losing their homes, or the rate at which people are losing access to food and water sources, we continuously use numbers to hide faces.

[Reposted Sermon from The Community Church of Boston at]
If we can depersonalize the prison industrial complex, if we can dehumanize the experience of suffering, then we can be patient in our struggle for abolition. When we don’t talk about real people or tell real stories it is easier to celebrate reformist changes that give the prison system more power and control. As we gather here, together, this morning, my friends Douglas, Ron, Randy, Kellie, Arnie, Bruce, Rosie, Marilyn, and so many others, Susan’s brother, John’s friends, are stuck behind steel doors, surrounded by walls and razor wire. The people behind the walls are real people with names, faces, feelings, and needs. Each morning they wake up in a place that thrives on trauma and torture. Each day they navigate their lives through concrete, bars, and steel. Are there other names you would like to call out?

Even amongst all the suffering so many of these people build friendships, develop incredible survival skills, educate themselves, maintain ties to family and friends outside the walls, and keep themselves going. While we’re talking about the violence perpetrated by the system, and the individuals in it, it is essential for us to remember the resiliency of the people on the inside.

The title of this talk is “Addressing Violence in Prisons.” We have already gone over the definitions of the prison industrial complex and abolition. Defining violence, however, is far more difficult. The dictionary on my laptop told me that violence is, “behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something.” I am not particularly satisfied with that definition. I think violence has many aspects to it. I think violence involves power over dynamics. For instance I am not sure I think it is violent when an abused partner fights back and injures or kills their abuser. I am not sure I think it is violent when marginalized people destroy property owned by corporations or the State. When I think of violence I think of systems. I think of capitalism and economic exploitation. I think of White supremacy. I think of patriarchy. I also think of interpersonal actions that use physical force with the intent to hurt, damage, or kill. However, I think many of these examples exist because oppression exists. When we are taught from day one of life that it is okay to have power over others I think we internalize those messages and cause harm to others without even thinking about their humanity. Violence is also more than just physical. In my experience it is without question that there is emotional harm, spiritual harm, environmental harm, mental harm, and financial harm. Training I have received by the Network/La Red, an LGBT anti-domestic violence organization, has taught me a lot about how violence manifests. While I do not have a solid definition of violence to offer this morning I hope what I have shared can spark some questions amongst us as I share with you about what I think of as violence and its impacts in prison.

My stay behind the walls was very short. I do not often talk about it, and have shared very little about it here. But today, I am going to use my story of being in prison to shape our conversation. I think it’s important to talk from my first hand experience so as not to misrepresent anyone else or tell stories that are not mine to tell. I will include aspects of other people’s stories in my talk but not tell anyone’s whole story.

It has been five years since I was locked up; August 8th marks five years since my release. My time inside was only 6 months, starting in county jails in Georgia and ending at the Federal Medical Center camp, Devens, here in Massachusetts. I do not regularly talk about my experience in prison because my experience is not the norm. As a White, class-privileged, man with lots of support on the outside, I had an incredibly privileged experience behind bars. For example, I received somewhere around 1000 letters in the six months I was in. I, essentially, chose to go to prison. I could have apologized for protesting on Ft. Benning and promised never to do it again and received probation for a year. I did not choose to do that. Instead I decided to exercise my rights and force the prosecution to make a case. Though I was denied the right to present any of the defenses I wanted to use, specifically the necessity defense, I wanted to make it clear, on the record, why I did what I did.

I came out as gay in my sentencing statement. I compared the U.S. and the School of the Americas to the bullies that beat me up in school. I compared the judge to the teachers that stood by and allowed kids to slam me into lockers and threaten my life. I spoke about the need for solidarity among marginalized people and the need for revolutionary change. After I finished talking, pontificating maybe, I was given the maximum sentence of 6-months. My case came up in February and because I planned on going back to school the following September I did not take the time to self-report at a later date to the federal prison camp. Thus I was shackled, ankles and wrists with a chain connecting them, and taken by the federal marshals to Muscogee County Jail.

My first night in Muscogee I was by myself, in a one-person cell, no blanket or pillow, all concrete. Comfy. The next day I was taken to a “special” unit in the prison, what was called the “homo-bin”. This was a section in the prison that the guards placed some of the gay and transgender people in. After I got out I spoke with the warden there and she told me that they put all “homosexuals and drag queens” together to keep us safe from the other prisoners. In a jail of 900 individuals there was only 24 people in the “homo-bin.” I can’t say I think they were looking to actually segregate all gay and transgender people, just the ones who were more outspoken and obvious. I would also suggest that there was no intention of keeping us safer either. The block was a perfect way for guards to act on their homophobia and transphobia. Guards would force us to do clothing changes in the middle of the day room, not giving us our clothes until we were all naked, something they didn’t do in any of the other sections of the jail. Our block was a fishbowl with other cell blocks around it, this was the guards game to humiliate us. Of the 24 people in the block I was one of two who was not HIV positive. Over and over again the nurses did not bring medication, gave the wrong medication, or demanded sexual favors for the medication. There was one woman (remember I said there are transgender people on this block) who traded sex with one of the other prisoners in order to get his help advocating for her to get her medication. When we talk about violence on the inside and the ways the prison industrial complex feeds off it, this is some of what we need to be thinking about. When the wardens don’t allow condoms into the jails even though they know people are having sex, consensual and not, that is violence. When health officials intentionally deny medication to prisoners or require favors to get needed medication, that is violence. When a prisoner coerces another prisoner into a sexual relationship in exchange for help, that is violence. When the jail sends a right wing, gay hating preacher into the “homo-bin” every Sunday morning for ex-gay proselytizing, that is violence.

During the first two months of my sentence I was transferred around to three different county jails in Georgia, one federal hold-over, and finally up to Ft. Devens. At each place I was strip-searched upon entering the buildings. Strip-searches are not about preventing the trafficking of drugs or the carrying of weapons by prisoners as is often said. Weapons and drugs are rampant within prison, mostly brought in by prison guards. Strip searches are about power, the power of guards to take the power of prisoners away. Strip searches are about dehumanizing prisoners. Regardless of what else happens a strip search is itself a form of sexualized violence. As one person forces another to remove their clothes under the threat of punishment that is violence. During what was supposed to be a routine strip search, where I took everything off opened my mouth, lifted my feet, squatted, spread my cheeks and coughed, a guard then forced me to masturbate in front of him. That is violence. According to the most recent Bureau of Justice Statistics report 60,500 out of 1.3 million prisoners surveyed reported experiencing sexual assault. Right now there are organizations working on what is called the Prison Rape Elimination Act. Ending sexual violence in prison is a necessity, but it cannot be done without an analysis of the entire system. Sexual violence is another tool the prison industrial complex uses to maintain control of prisoners. I know a man here in Massachusetts who has been intentionally placed in a cell with a known sexual predator by guards as a form of punishment when he speaks up for himself. If we do not maintain an abolitionist analysis as we try to protect prisoners from sexual violence we are simply going to increase the power of the PIC and hurt more people in the long term. We must be aware of the difference between reformist-reforms and nonreformist-reforms.

Just last weekend there was a conference in Philadelphia focused on shutting down all solitary confinement units and other segregated units in prisons throughout the U.S. I was not at that conference, but I have heard that exciting things will be coming from it. During my 6 month sentence I spent 45 days in solitary confinement. Mumia Abu-Jammal encourages people who want some perspective on what being in the “hole” is like to spend 24 hours in their bathroom. To really get the feel it is important to remember to take down your shower curtain, cover your mirror, block your window, and keep the light on all day and night. Forcing someone into a cell for 23 or 24 hours a day with no human contact and intentional sensory depravation is violence, some would even call it a form of torture. For myself after just 48 hours I started going crazy. I was sure that my parents were dead or something awful happened to them. I was terrified that I would never get out or that they would hold me there past my sentence and no one would be able to get me. I tried to be very creative with ways to distract myself. I would jog in place, do handstand push-ups (there wasn’t enough room for regular ones), pray, sing UU hymns and top 40 songs, and cry a lot. After just 48 hours I started losing my mind, imagine what must happened to people who spend a year, five years, twenty years, or more in the hole. The American Friends Service Committee is leading the campaign to shut down these solitary confinement units. It is something I would encourage everyone to look into.

While I was in Crisp County Jail I got myself into a little bit of trouble with another prisoner. There were twelve guys on the cellblock. I was one of three White guys. One of the other White guys slipped a pair of boxer shorts under my pillow. Generally that is a nice thing to do as boxer shorts are difficult to come by. However, this pair of shorts had a swastika drawn on them. Being the person I am I needed to make a statement about it. I brought the shorts into the day room, showed them to everyone, and handed them back to the guy who slipped them under my pillow and informed him that I was not a neo-Nazi or a White supremacist and he could keep his stuff to himself. This wasn’t exactly a jump-start to his and my friendship. A couple days later he got all up in my face, slammed me against a wall, bent my fingers back so far they hurt for a week, and told me that since he was doing 15 years he might as well kill me since he had nothing to look forward to anyhow.

Prisoner against prisoner violence is a reality. Understanding that the entire system thrives on violence cannot make us lose sight of the interpersonal violence. Interpersonal violence occurs alongside and in many ways because of and in support of the institutional violence. This example highlights the role of racism in the system. The heightened impact of societal oppressions is an important aspect of the prison industrial complex to understand. All forms of oppression that exist outside of prison, White supremacy, patriarchy, classism, xenophobia, Christocentrism, etc. are magnified 100 times on the inside. We cannot be reminded often enough that the 13th Amendment did not abolish slavery, but rather transferred the plantations into the prisons. Since the end of chattel slavery Black people have been grossly over represented in U.S. prisons. As I shared earlier, the most recent statistics show that one in nine Black men between the ages of 18 and 34 are locked up. This is not an accident, this is intentional violence directed against Communities of Color by the injustice system and the entire PIC. Prisons and jails thrive off the divide between White people and People of Color. As long as we are fighting each other we are unable to organize and take down the system that hurts so many and lifts up a few. In the book Ed spoke about last week, When the Prisoners Ran Walpole, Bobby Delello shares about the steps the prisoners had to take in order to get over their racial divide. Together with Ralph Hamm they got the far majority of the prisoners to unify as prisoners against guards. Any struggle against the prison industrial complex must be done with an anti-racist analysis or we will just continue to perpetuate the violence we think we’re working against.

There are so many examples of violence in my short six-month sentence. I was held longer in solitary confinement because I was writing letters with someone who was also in prison, more violence. The PIC tears families and communities apart. My friend Douglas recently had his phone “privileges” taken away for a year. His mother lives in Rhode Island while he is held in Massachusetts; it is not easy for her to visit. Even the language is violent. It is not a privilege to be in contact with one’s support system, it is a human need. Since the PIC has seemingly endless power it is able to frame the conversation about prisoners rights, privileges, and responsibilities. I remember my first visit with my Mom was on a phone with a glass plate separating us. No-contact visits are violent; they tear at the humanity of the prisoner and the person visiting. Many visitors get patted down and even strip-searched before visits. I remember getting patted down by a guard when I went to visit my friend Kellie at Walpole and it wasn’t even a contact visit. Being forced to buy basic necessities from the privately owned commissary (much of it owned by the Bush family) is violent. Feeding prisoners all sugar and starches is violent. Over medicating “problem” prisoners to subdue them is violent, and an intentional human rights abuse. Those prisoners I told you about who couldn’t get their HIV medication had no problem getting psych medication that would knock them out. Drugging up prisoners is a common tactic used by prison officials. Prisoners where I was called it “sleeping away your bid.” Here in Massachusetts we have had the highest rate of prisoner suicides ever documented in U.S. prison history. Many of these individuals sought out mental health services before they killed themselves, but were denied. We over medicate some and provide no services to others, more violence. We also have reason to believe the a number of the reported suicides were actually murders by prison guards. Susan Mortimer can share more with anyone about that. The work she has done and continues to do to address violence against prisoners, including her brother, is endless and vital.

So what do we do? What I have shared is just the tip of the iceberg. There are more and more examples of violence to be understood and organized against. We haven’t even really touched on the economic violence perpetrated by the PIC (though I believe we’ll hear a lot about that from our speaker next week). How do we go up against a system this big? For one thing, you cannot forget about the milk and chocolate. This work is hard, exhausting, and painful. If you do not remember to take care of yourself you will not last in the struggle. Self-care is revolutionary! Self-care is not an excuse to be lazy, it is a way of sustaining yourself for the long term. So many of you have been in struggles for justice for a long time, you must have your own coping mechanisms. Mine include internet television, vegan baking, and riding my bike.

We also need to build real strategy. We need to look at our goals, figure out what our targets (is it the new Commissioner of Corrections, is it the Executive office of Public Safety) are, establish a base-building plan (this work won’t happen with 25 or 50 people, we need to build a movement). We need to learn our history (there are things that have been done before and avenues that have already been laid out for us, we do not need to reinvent the wheel). We need to create a rising tactics plan (we aren’t going to start with storming the doors of Walpole because that is just not going to work, though it would probably be a lot of fun and feel incredibly fulfilling). Here in Boston there are lots of different groups working on different components of anti-prison work. Hopefully, soon, we will all communicate better about the work we are doing and coalition build where possible. This may be a role for the Community Church of Boston. Maybe we have the power to help bring folks together. It is up to us to figure out where we fit in this struggle.

I know that spirituality is not one of the primary tenants of our congregation. However, for me, I am able to do this work because I have unwavering faith that we will see the abolition of the prison industrial complex and the implementation of true restorative justice and community accountability. I have this faith because of my deep held belief in the interconnectedness of all existence. As suffering continues against even one, we all suffer. It is in the interest of all of us that we create something revolutionary. While Martin Luther says that all one needs is faith, not works, to be redeemed, we will never see our world redeemed from the systems of oppression that continue to operate if we do not step up our works and take some action. I have faith in our capacity as a community to take our share of responsibility and take necessary action to transform ourselves and our world. We are already doing it.
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