Hidden abuse in America’s gulags

Is it time to require prison guards to wear body cams?

In the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks by the police, public outcry has been loud and sustained, with calls to demilitarize and defund the police. In many cases, video footage of the brutality and killing — taken by bystanders or via the police officers’ own body cams — is what prevented a coverup and fueled the outrage. But what you don’t ever hear about is the same routine behavior — and often worse — among prison COs (correctional officers). That’s because in prison, no one witnesses their violence and dehumanization except other officers (who will never speak out against their comrades) and us inmates (who don’t count).

And although there are plenty of cameras, the COs typically commit their abuse out of view. If they’re caught, well, they control the footage. (It’s also not surprising to note that injuries and deaths due to excessive use of force in prison are not tracked. And what isn’t tracked and reported isn’t “seen” — unless there is video.)

Correctional-officer culture has the same racist, militaristic roots responsible for police brutality: It’s more about establishing dominance than maintaining safety and allowing rehabilitation. Most of the training COs receive reinforces an us-vs.-them mindset that treats the prison — our “home” — like a war zone.

As Steve Martin, the federal court monitor for litigation involving use of force at New York’s Rikers Island jails, wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed, “correctional officers routinely employ tasers, stun shields, pepper-ball and gas guns, restraint chairs, expandable batons, attack dogs and even their own fists and feet to subdue inmates. This results in bruises, lacerations, fractured limbs, chemical burns, perforated ear drums, severe concussions and injuries to internal organs. All too often these injuries result in needless death.”

The guard-on-inmate violence that makes it into the news is only a tiny fraction of what actually occurs.

USP Lewisburg may look bucolic, but it is known as one of the BOP’s “most horrific facilities

On top of the outright violence is blatant racism and humiliation. I can vividly remember waiting to be pulled out of my cell for outside rec in the Lewisburg (PA) Penitentiary Special Management Unit (a punitive “program,” in which inmates are locked down 23 hours a day) and hearing the COs* yell derisively, “I got my hoodie on for Trayvon,” or “Why the f**k do we have the flag flying half-mast today… I hope it ain’t for the death of that ni**a Mandela. Lift that goddamn flag back up.” It is this type of mentality that permeates the staff in penitentiaries all over America. Most of our prisons are in rural, white areas, and it is these populations from which corrections officers are hired to oversee the mostly black prisoner population.

And just as with police officers, it’s not just a case of a few bad apples among a mostly decent, well-intentioned group. It is cultural, because if it wasn’t, more officers would speak out and against this type of conduct by their peers instead of supporting their comrades by adhering to a code of silence.

I just received a letter from my friend Donzell McCauley, who shared a recent ordeal to which he was subjected in a Kentucky penitentiary: “It has been dark, stagnant days the past few weeks. I‘ve become accustomed to (COs’) frequent use of the ‘pause’ button on us with their methods of keeping us trapped behind the door (institutional lockdown, affecting the entire prison). But the present lockdown is designed to do more than just harass and discourage us. This is a concrete effort to break even the strongest individual. They kept us zip tied, lying face down in the mud and globs of goose shit for five hours in the rain, while they ransacked our cells. When I’m finally allowed back in my cell, covered in mud and goose shit (without being permitted a shower), I found a lot of my property missing [including his only copy of the first draft of a book he is writing with advice for young people]. Why were we subjected to this? Simply because a group of guys bucked behind the door [resisted by acting out, such as by flooding their cells]. They definitely made an example out of this unit to send a harsh message of what to expect when you challenge their authority.” This is how the staff maintains control: punishment and terror.

COs also beat inmates and shoot them with rubber pellets that release a burst of gas (a type of irritant) upon contact. I remember lying in my cell, reading my book, when I heard two COs at my next-door neighbor’s door. They opened the food slot and shot into his cell while yelling “stop fighting.” But it was just a cover-up for an act of retaliation. The guy later told me he was just sitting on his bunk talking to his cellmate when he looked up and was hit in the eye by a rubber bullet — permanently blinding him. The reason: He had filed a grievance against one of the officers.

Another incident I witnessed: A CO came to the cell of a guy who had argued with him a few days earlier. The CO ordered him to cuff up, saying he had a medical appointment. Once the CO and another officer got him to the end of the tier and out of sight of the camera, they beat him with batons and kicked him in his groin. All while shackled with his hands belly-chained to his waist. Sadly, the punishment did not end there. Still shackled, he was placed in an isolation cell for 24 hours to “calm down.” I suffered with him, as I heard him scream that his hands and feet were swelling and that he was freezing, because the officers left the window open in the middle of winter. He then was hit with a disciplinary report for assaulting an officer, when he was the one assaulted.

In Martin’s op-ed, he recounts a plaintiffs’ attorney saying this during a class action challenging the use of force in California’s prison system: “The question … is whether we, the people, are free to act lawlessly because the people we brutalize themselves have violated the law. The Constitution answers no. The rule of law enshrined in this country answers no. And in our claim to be a civilized people, we must all answer no.”

The trauma of our treatment scars most of us for the rest of our lives. I will never forget feeling helpless as I hear grown men cry, beg and plead to be released from mental or physical torture. It pains me to this day — so much so that I purposely avoided describing my own experience of abuse and torture in this post because I couldn’t bring myself to relive them.

All of this is wrapped in euphemisms: The worse abuse takes place in buildings called “special housing units” (SHUs) or “special management units” (SMUs). It’s time to open the door and let the light in.

We need body cams in prison

We must not leave these inmates defenseless, without any way to hold their overseers accountable. Most so-called grievance systems are the equivalent of telling a child to ask an abusive parent to call the police and report himself. It will never happen.

Gay Gardner, a senior advisor for Virginia for Interfaith Action for Human Rights, wrote in a letter to the Washington Post: “Accountability is essential, especially for government agents with the power to hurt people.” I would add that transparency is also essential. In most state prisons, for example, there is no way to compel review of security footage at prisoners’ disciplinary hearings or in support of complaints of excessive force.

It’s time to shine the light on prison operations. If not, the curtains will remain shut tight. And in darkness, inhumanity runs rampant.

A note about how this blog is possible: Incarcerated people have no access to the internet. Thus, I am partnering with journalist/storyteller Pam Bailey, who acts as my editor when needed and posts all of my updates. You may contact her at paminprogress@gmail.com.

Rob Barton has been incarcerated for 25 years. Pam Bailey is his collaborator/editor. Learn more at MoreThanOurCrimes.org

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