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.