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Friday, March 03, 2006

Trip to a prison

CEDP's own Bryan McCann, a graduate student in Communication, is taking a class called "Prisons and Human Rights." He visited two prison units in Huntsville last week and wrote other CEDP members an amazing e-mail about his experience. We'd like to share it with you.
Hi all,

Since there won't be a formal meeting this week, I figured this was the best way to relate the experience I had on Friday. As some of you know, I'm currently taking a Public Affairs class called "Prisons and Human Rights." Yesterday, we spent the day in Huntsville visiting two prison units and meeting with Doug Dretke, Director of TDCJ's Correctional Institutions Division. I left the experience sad, humbled, outraged, and, mostly, all the more resolved that the work we do as abolitionists is absolutely indispensable.

We visited two facilities during the day. The first was the Wynne Unit, which houses a license plate, sticker, and mattress factory, as well as several trade programs including welding, truck driving, and computer repair. Once the initial shock of being inside a prison for the first time faded, I'll admit that this was as close to ideal as the TDCJ gets. While the prison system as it presently exists certainly needs to be dismantled, we do, in the meantime, need mechanisms for rehabilitation. Unfortunately, the present political and budgetary environment isn't likely to increase such programs. In fact, we're more likely to see less of them soon. While Texas is quick to spend money building prisons, it's all the more willing to cut corners in their maintenance and rehabilitative potential. I spoke with two prisoners at the Wynne Unit, as well. These two gentlemen were extremely friendly and talkative. However, knowing they were hand-picked to talk to us, and given that the warden was pacing back in forth in the room, it's unsurprising that both of them took a decidedly individualistic approach to answering our questions. They saw themselves as paying the logical price for their crimes and that while in prison one need only follow the rules and "be a man" as opposed to a "knucklehead." Whether they were afraid to truly speak their minds or genuinely believed what they were saying, I don't know. Either way, it became abundantly clear that the prison system is intent on reifying the logic of a hyper-individualistic capitalist culture, as there seemed to be no room for context in either of these black men's stories. My classmates who spoke with other inmates left with the same impression. Overall, while we walked out of Wynne feeling slightly more enlightened, we knew that we were receiving a very orchestrated and staff-intensive taste of the prison environment, forcing us to read between the lines and situate our experience within the framework of what we already knew from research on the current state of prisons.

The second facility we visited was the Estelle Unit. At Estelle, we had the heartbreaking experience of seeing Texas' dialysis unit and geriatric ward. Here we saw men who clearly no longer posed a meaningful threat to society (with the exception of one who had displayed some violent hostility toward other inmates) as they were all hunched over, slow moving, and often relying on walkers. I would say that these men should be released but, then again, I suspect they're getting better healthcare inside the prison walls than they would on the outside (though not likely by much).

In addition to seeing the wings that distinguished Wynne and Estell from other units in Huntsville, we also saw both prisons' segregation units. This is where men spend twenty-three hours of the day in solitary cages, allowed an hour of outdoor exercise in larger cages with basketball hoops and a bar for pull-ups. The traumatic potential of segregation is well documented and it's easy to see why. These units smelled awful and were filled with yelling prisoners. Everywhere we went, in fact, had its own distinctive and unpleasant smell, one of many reminders that the men and women incarcerated by the TDCJ are given on a daily basis of where they are and how subservient they must be to survive. There was nothing empowering or encouraging about this environment. Instead, it appeared specifically designed to ensure that they leave prison more broken and desperate than they entered. To be sure, there is a program designed at aiding these men in re-entry into the broader prison community or, if they are in segregation on the date of their release, society as a whole. However, there remains the lingering risk that such programs can be placed on the budgetary chopping block at any given moment, not to mention that such programs do nothing to change the unforgiving and unequal world that these men are walking into upon release.

Without a doubt, the most infuriating and, for us as abolitionists, most instructive point of the trip took place between the Wynne and Estell Units. Our lunch break took place at the administrative offices in Huntsville where we sat and ate with Doug Dretke, the Director of the Correctional Institutions Division. The entire session was a transparent PR push on his part, as he shamelessly and arrogantly sang the praises of criminal justice in Texas. He pointed to our state's low recidivism rates, but then admitted that prisoners are only tracked for such purposes for three years. Furthermore, he told us that Texas incarcerates approximately 151,000 individuals at any given point in time and releases 70,000 per year. In other words, the state continues to replace those it lets out, as the broader TDCJ seems utterly incompetent in reducing criminality.

Realizing that I had a rare opportunity in having the man responsible for managing Texas' prisons at my disposal, I couldn't resist asking him about the DRIVE Movement on Death Row in the Polunsky Unit. After I asked him to comment on the nonviolent protest, Dretke's sparkling facade broke for the first time during lunch as he paused for a second and then smugly looked at me, saying "I don't think their claims have any validity." He went on to rationalize the inhumane conditions on Death Row on the basis of these inmates being "dangerous individuals." Furthermore, both he and his colleague who was present insisted that their grievances had more to do with capital punishment in general than with any of the treatment they were receiving on Death Row (the issue of gassing, believe it or not, didn't come up). In general, they avoided all responsibility, relegating it instead to politics, arguing that DRIVE's grievances were better dealt with legislatively or by the other methods available to them. When I inquired as to exactly what those methods were, the colleague said, simply and as if it were completely obvious, "Society." The moral of the story, I guess, was that direct action aimed at challenging the most immediate representatives of the system that is both abusing and planning to kill you isn't appropriate and that going through the conventional political channels is the most appropriate route. Most importantly, however, was that these men, who exercise the most direct material control over the happenings within the Texas prison system, are not to be bothered with such disobedience (I guess the men of DRIVE would qualify as knuckleheads?) because they are powerless to do anything about it. To such a response, I find the words of our upright President instructive. As we marched into Iraq, Bush warned the soldiers of the Hussein regime that it was not enough to claim that they were "just following orders." Similar logic was used at Nuremburg and has become a guiding principle of human rights across the world.

The lesson of these meeting was abundantly clear to me. These people cannot be talked to or reasoned with. Across the political power structure of Texas, we are exposed to elites passing the buck on capital punishment. Dretke and his colleagues are merely doing their jobs by running prisons and carrying-out the will of elected officials. Elected officials such as Rick Perry consistently fall back on "the will of the people." The political climate of this state, as well as the rest of them, is laden with escape routes for unofficial participants in the gross injustices that are capital punishment and mass incarceration. If no level of government is willing to own up to these injustices, it becomes our duty to confront all of them, seizing every opportunity to oppose a system of injustice that produces and reproduces inequality. To an extent, as Katie commented when I talked to her earlier today, the cop-out answer of "society" constitutes marching orders for activists. If that is the desired mechanism for change, then we as abolitionists must exploit it for all its worth. I've left this experience with a renewed vigor in my determination to confront and ultimately dismantle the machinery of death in Texas and throughout the U.S., as well as the rest of the world. When we travel to Huntsville this spring break, we need to do it big and give them hell. I'm suggesting that we not only confront them at the death house, but also at their offices. I'm also suggesting that we not only do it once, but that we refuse to give them a moment's rest, using all the available tools of "society" to confront a group of elites who are utterly disinterested in our vision of a just society until they can no longer fall back on the letter of the law and are convinced that it can no longer be in their interest to ignore us.

On a positive not, I was not the only one in my class who had these sentiments. Consistently, when we had time apart from these officials, several of my classmates were mindful of how fabricated the experience was. In particular, they were unconvinced by the answer I received regarding Polunsky. We all agreed that this was a system invested in its reproduced, largely populated by individuals who had been steeped in the prevailing logic of crime and punishment for most of their lives (the warden at Wynne, for instance, began working as a prison guard at the age of 19). To quote on of my favorite bands, Propagandhi, "This system cannot be reformed!" Instead, it requires an intervention - a determined and broad movement stubbornly committed to the goals of abolition and genuine justice.




Blogger scotirish said...

As an individual who spent 17 1/2 years in over a dozen state and federal prisons throughout the midwest, let me say that I enjoyed and appreciated what you and your classmates accomplished. I have spoken before sociology classes in colleges in LA and Chicago. Do your professors invite ex-offenders in to the class and speak. You would definately get another view from those who spoke under threat of reprisal if they said anything against the system. ...john


2:23 PM  

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