Category Archives: Prison Conditions

California Prisoner Hunger Strikes Won’t Stop Until Authorities Listen

Wilbert Rideau, one of “America’s most reformed criminals,” recently wrote an op/ed piece for The New York Times. Rideau overcame the odds and eventually won his release from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, based on an unconstitutional all-white jury. Read more about Mr. Rideau in his great work In the Place of Justice. I was also lucky enough to have him guide a tour of the facility in 1999, as part of a Corrections criminal justice class at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, taught by a LA corrections expert and friend Burk Foster. Also, feel free to subscribe to the prison publication that Rideau helped revive and bring to national prominence, The Angolite, here.

Mr. Rideau discusses  a topic that I’ve always wanted to research and write more about: prisoner protest. He focuses on the current hunger strike taking place in California by more than 30,000 inmates who are refusing to eat. Their major complaints focus on conditions within the prison and the unbridled use of solitary confinement. He approaches questions that many outside of a prison’s walls might ask when observing these protests: why? What do these prisoners think they are going to accomplish? Do they think anyone cares about their issues?

What these people don’t realize is that there are people that do care about these prisoners’ conditions behind prison walls. Those people wear black robes and they head our nation’s highest courts, at the circuit court of appeals level and even at the Supreme Court. The constitution has, at numerous times in the past, provided the foundation for judges to declare conditions at certain prisons unconstitutional. At one point in our nation’s history, around thirty-five prisons, as well as the prison system of Puerto Rico, was under federal scrutiny. My research focuses on the courageous work of three federal court judges in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana in helping create constitutional prison farms during the 1960s and 1970s.

It was the work of the federal courts that helped create what Mr. Rideau considers to be one of the safest penitentiaries in the United States. This is quite a change from a prison that Collier’s once considered the nation’s bloodiest just a few decades earlier. Prisoners protest because they don’t feel like they have any other way to communicate their issues to authorities. Louisiana’s Department of Corrections has helped create a safer prison by giving prisoners a way to directly communicate to the warden to address their grievances. It’s human nature; when people are suffering, they want to be heard.

If prison authorities do not understand why thousands of inmates not directly affected by solitary confinement would join the protests, at great risk to themselves, they have only themselves to blame. They are victims of their own censorship.

If they were to listen to the inmates, they would understand that protests are almost always the product of what prisoners perceive to be officials’ abuse of arbitrary power. They are generally done by men made desperate by the lack of options to address their grievances. At the heart of the problem is a lack of open communications and freedom of expression.

Like Mr. Rideau states, these are reasonable requests. Often, these inmates simply want to be informed of why they are in solitary. They want to know when they will get out. They want to know what can be done to make their time in solitary end. They are not complaining because they want to live in the Hilton. They don’t want five-star room service. They simply want a prison experience that falls in line with the protections afforded them by the Eighth Amendment. Nothing more; nothing less.

The community outside of the prison walls also support the prisoners’ protest. Photo courtesy of the L.A. Times.

One can make interesting comparisons when studying the history of prisoners and prison protests when looking at the history of slaves and slave protests. When I think of some of the more popular prison protests, such as Attica, I simply don’t think those sort of protests would happen in the South the way they did then. I think the use of the prison farm in the South recreates the plantation style work system so much that prisoners in southern prison farms, such as Angola, would have to resort to those same sorts of protests slaves utilized during antebellum times: self-injuring to prevent work, breaking tools, resorting to laziness, playing sick, or simply trying to escape. Prisoners, like slaves, are constantly trying to carve out their own sphere within their prison environment. They can only do this by bucking the system, even in a way so trivial as breaking a tool. I hope to do a lot more research in this matter, but these are my thoughts right now. Angola prisoners have resorted to these sorts of protests, the most famous of which being some thirty inmates slashing their achilles’ tendons in 1951.

Sometimes, one resorts to the only tools of protest they have. These California protestors are doing the same. Until the authorities simply stop and listen, the protests will continue.

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The Tucker Telephone: Prison Abuse, Arkansas Style

Prison farms in the 1960s American South could easily be mistaken for the 1860s. Killing two birds with one stone, after Reconstruction southern legislatures purchased unused plantation land and placed inmates on this land to farm antebellum style. Not only did this provide new prisons to replace those destroyed after the Civil War, but it also allowed these states to reap in the profits from prison agriculture. Sadly, it did not take long for these prisons to resemble slave plantations of old. Southern legislators did not care much about the abuses at these prisons, especially since they supported themselves financially. Prisoners, especially black prisoners, did not deserve much attention from law-abiding white citizens, according to these lawmen. If these prisons re-introduced those paternalistic notions of the white planter classes before the Civil War, even better.

Photo courtesy of Cara Joy Clausen.

Photo courtesy of Cara Joy Clausen.

I am going to talk about these southern prison farms quite often in this blog, for it is my research specialty. Let’s look at the Cummins and Tucker Prison Farms in Arkansas. In particular, we will examine one torture implement: the Tucker Telephone. This large wooden box contained a small, crank-operated generator. It also had two cables with clamps coming from it. Prison trustees (armed prisoners that actually guarded other prisoners, we will discuss this in the future as well) would clamp these cables on two different portions of the prisoner. Their favorite places was usually a finger and the penis. Then, they would crank, sending volts of electricity through the prisoner’s body.

This mode of torture was utilized until the late 1960s. Yes, that is not a typo. 1960. Like, around fifty years ago. It is even custom today when in the office of the Cummins or Tucker Prison Farm warden’s office to ask him whether the phone on his desk is a Tucker Telephone. Eventually, the work of courageous lawyers and judges, especially federal Judge J. Smith Henley, would open up the avenues of prisoner compliant. For the first time ever, these prisoners issues would be heard. And eventually, Judge Henley would declare the whole prison system in Arkansas unconstitutional.

Click here to look at this photo at Cara Joy Clausen’s flickr page. She also has other awesome pictures from the Arkansas prison farm.

Mississippi Prisons Still Barbaric – No Matter Who Runs Them


MS_-_DOCA major portion of my PhD dissertation research involved the federal court reform of Parchman Prison Farm in Mississippi during the 1970s. I present the judicial history of Judge William Keady’s historic leadership role in the transformation of Mississippi’s prison farm toward constitutionality. The legislature provided the major roadblock.  Up until that time, state legislators did not have to provide funds for the prison, since the prison not only provided money for its own operation but also provided profits. Legislators in Mississippi did not want to take tax money from law-abiding citizens to run a constitutional prison. Ultimately, the work of Judge Keady and his court’s oversight created a constitutional prison farm (even though Parchman had to remain under federal court supervision for decades).

Fast forward to 2013. State officials merely built more prisons to deal with the overflow of their farms. Governments slowly moved these prisons, especially in states like Mississippi and Louisiana, to the private sector, helping create the prison industrial complex we have today. This was not a move in the name of humanity, however. For governments simply wanted a way to continue building more beds for prisoners and not revisit their crude and outdated sentencing laws. They could continue winning elections in red states by being “tough on crime.”

aclu

Looks like these private corporations running the prisons are having their own issues with the constitution. According to the Clarion-Ledger, a federal law suit from the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center claims that inmates at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility, near Meridian, MS, are experiencing “barbaric” conditions, where prison officials are not allowing the prisoners access to health and mental facilities. For an closer look at the prison, take a look at this blog written by someone with a loved one in EMCF. Interestingly, to settle a law suit, the ACLU agreed with prison officials moving mentally handicapped prisoners to EMCF in 2000 from the infamous Unit 32 of Parchman Farm.

The ACLU blog features a post of a letter written by an inmate at the EMCF who claims to have been raped in the prison. It’s a brutal, but all to common, read. Inmates held him hostage for several hours in his cell by knifepoint.

I was raped from 11:30pm @nite until 3:30am in the morning by one other prisoner. As he raped me continuously all I could do was cry because one false move and I knew this guy would take my life. After being a victim of rape by another male I am suffering still from anxiety, depression and stress issues because of this attack.

The inmate then writes about his reasons for being in jail, blaming himself at times for what happened.

I was hurt very badly and sometimes I feel like it’s my fault but at the end of the day I know it wasn’t.

We all know where the blame should be focused. While not being named a defendant in the suit, Management and Training Corporation of Centerville, Utah run the prison. MTC, according to their website, is the world’s third largest private operator of prisons. It remains to be seen how the MTC will be brought into this case. I will certainly be keeping up with the litigation, so stay tuned for more updates.