Let’s Be Honest: In America, Some Lives Matter More Than Others

This lesson is on clear display in the controversy at the D.C. jail

By Rob Barton (with Pam Bailey)

The conditions in the D.C. jail complex are these days, and I’m having a hard time wrapping my mind around it. Don’t get me wrong; I’m glad any time the conditions of incarceration finally get pubic attention. But the fact that this attention only came because of the complaints of a group of conservative whites thrown into jail for storming our Capitol is so…depressingly predictable.

Without a doubt, if a Black Lives Matter crowd had attacked our seat of democracy (the Capitol), while threatening congresspersons and bludgeoning the officers who tried to protect them, the National Guard would have been called out immediately and in force, and many of them probably would not have even made it to jail. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that dead bodies would have been strewn on the ground.

The 40-some white insurrectionists who ended up being arrested are being housed in the part of the jail complex known as the Correctional Treatment Facility (CTF). That’s the “better” part of the complex, for which I have fond memories because of the vast improvement it offered me over the conditions I’d been used to in the federal penitentiaries (D.C. doesn’t have its own prison, so sends its residents all over the country).

Yet now I read that one of the “J6”ers, Nathan DeGrave, to complain about the “inhumane” conditions. “Some inmates,” he said, “are even begging to be transferred to GUANTANAMO BAY, where even THEY have more acceptable standards.” (Say what? He clearly hasn’t read the .)

White privilege being what it is, his complaints prompted a team of deputy marshals to inspect the jail and even a congressperson — Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) — personally visited the complex, including what now has come to be known as the “patriot wing” (I have a hard time writing that without choking). “I’ve never seen human suffering like I witnessed last night,” she . “I’ll never forget hearing their screams.”

I first was confined to the D.C. jail when I was barely 16 years old, back in the ’90s. That’s how long there have been problems at the jail. Here’s what I remember:

We were fed slop daily, were offered no opportunity to participate in programs or go to school, and the cells were filthy. I recall being lifted off of my feet by my neck by an officer merely because I asked him why he was taking my stuff during a lockdown.

I was shackled and belly-chained after getting into a fight with another juvenile, then taken on the infamous elevator ride, during which I was severely beaten by the staff.

I used to bite my fingernails, and once I bit off a hangnail and the resulting infection caused my thumb to swell something crazy; every time my heart beat, I could feel excruciating pain shoot up my finger. Yet for two weeks, I received nothing but Motrin. I finally convinced a doctor to look at it and was sent immediately to the outside hospital. The infection had gotten so bad that I had to be placed on an IV for two weeks and I almost lost my finger.

Later, after a protest on the juvenile tier in which we flooded the block by overflowing our toilets, the officer cut off our water for an entire week and we were forced to defecate in bags.

We were really still just children. Yet where was the concern shown today to the white adults who tried to bring down our government? Clearly, we have two justice systems, one for white people and one for Blacks.

But what I find really astounding is that following its inspection, the U.S. Marshalls Service announced it plans to transfer about 400 people in federal custody out of the D.C. jail into the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg (PA), nearly 700 miles away. Those 400 people set to be transferred, by the way, are Black; they don’t include the J6ers. (As I write this, more than 135 already have been moved, including my own son.)

I’ve done some time in Lewisburg, and it surely is not a better place. I remember lying in my bed, trying to sleep to the sound of a fellow inmate screaming. He’d been placed in the restraint cell in belly chains and shackles after talking back to an officer. (For punishment, they first beat you up while you are restrained, then they place you in a special cell, cuffed so bone-tight your extremities swell up like gloves.) Because Lewisburg is an old facility, it has no air-conditioning or heat. They open the windows in the winter so you’ll freeze and close them in the summer so that you near suffocate. And when the lights turn on the in the morning, the bugs can be seen literally carpeting the floors.

Actually, if anyone should be moved to Lewisburg, it should be the white J6ers, who in the D.C. jail because they are “the ONLY WHITE REPUBLICANS” there. The Lewisburg officers are some of the most racist white people I have ever met in my life.

At Lewisburg, I heard the officers demand that the flag be raised back up after it was lowered in recognition of the death of Nelson Mandela. (One officer said, “I ain’t doing this for that nigga Mandela! Raise that God damn flag up!”). I heard officers laugh about “wearing a hoodie for Trayon” after the boy’s murder. I saw officers open a guy’s food slot and yell “stop fighting,” even though he wasn’t, and then shoot gas pellets and bombs into the cell, just to get back at him for saying something they didn’t like. (One guy lost his eye in an incident like this.) The insurrectionists would very protected among those officers.

I welcome attention for jails and prisons; it’s very needed. But let’s be honest. In America, some lives matter more than others.

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