I’ve studied over a century of brutality at this prison farm in Sunflower County. I’ve realized that the only way this place will be made constitutional is to shut it down and start over. The reforms began by the federal courts in the 1970s are a memory of the past, as the state of Mississippi continues to neglect its prisons.
[The] Prison has always been violent,” he said. “It’s like walking into a zone with a bunch of time bombs waiting to explode. . . . If you’re being treated like you’re nothing, like you’re a dog, an animal, and you’re not getting the right amount of food, water, you don’t have no way to use the restroom, the frustration constantly builds.
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.
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.
Looking beyond any sort of moral issue one has towards mass incarceration, I’ve always wondered how the most conservative of lawmakers could align their “more beds, more prisoners” mentality with their fiscal principles. Richard A. Viguerie made his case for why conservatives should back the reform of incarceration in the United States in a recent op-ed post for the New York Times. Interestingly, Viguerie makes a case that prison reform has more to do with fiscal matters. Reforming prisons should also be about compassion. Compassion for prisoners and their families. Many conservative political ideologies, including support of the death penalty and mandatory life sentences without parole, do not give an air of compassion.
These three principles — public safety, compassion and controlled government spending — lie at the core of conservative philosophy. Politically speaking, conservatives will have more credibility than liberals in addressing prison reform.
I will be the first to say that liberals need to do more to help change the carceral situation in the United States. I don’t think, however, that it’s fair to give conservatives the higher moral ground in prison reform. Simply quoting a dip in incarceration rates during Reagan’s presidency doesn’t give any credence to that idea. Especially considering President Reagan’s “War on Drugs” slowly became responsible for filling up prisons like no other governmental-backed program in our nation’s history. Just because it took time after his eight years in the White House for this so-called War to gain steam doesn’t give conservatives a claim a moral victory. This problem goes beyond political ideology and party.
I think at the end of the day, there are more than fiscal issues that lead conservatives, who are by and large God-fearing Republicans, to support mass incarceration. When the federal courts began examining southern prison systems in the 1960s and declaring them unconstitutional, judges had the nearly impossible task of dealing with state legislatures who never had to allocate budget to state prisons. Legislators wondered why money should be diverted from law-abiding citizens when the pseudo-plantation prison farm supported itself? In addition, though many have much to gain in the increase in the prison industrial complex of the twenty-first century, I believe there’s more of a biblical reason behind incarceration. Repenting for sins. Keeping law-abiding society safe. People who rape and kill not only offend society, but they offend God. I believe at the end of the day, when a member of the Christian right has to choose between progressive reforms of prisons, which would save money and put less people in jail, and incarcerating criminals, the later will usually win. While we may not have a state established religion, it’s simply too hard for some to differentiate their religious beliefs from government.
Though, I do applaud outfits like Right on Crime in at least opening up a dialog on an issue that many conservatives have avoided for decades. Unfortunately, even with concerted political effort, reform of the system will take decades.
Read letters to the editor responding to the original op-ed post here.