Out of sight, out of mind — they think

A look inside ‘Misery Mountain’

From Pam Bailey, Rob’s editor/collaborator: In my last blog post, I reported that Rob had suddenly been moved out of his Virginia jail en route to the U.S. penitentiary in Florida where he had formerly been incarcerated. However, we’ve been rudely reminded once again of the Bureau of Prison’s arbitrary, secretive mode of operations. I check the online “inmate tracker” every day, seeking confirmation of Rob’s whereabouts. This week, he popped up in USP Hazelton — a notorious prison in West Virginia nicknamed Misery Mountain. We don’t yet know why he was moved there; he has not been allowed to call anyone. Our only communication so far is one, short, pencilled letter I received today. When we call the prison, we are told only that the institution is on lockdown — if anyone answers the phone at all.

Why is USP Hazelton called Misery Mountain? Read on.

“They are treating us badly. I have been in my cell since I got here, only out for a shower on Monday and Thursday for 10 minutes. I haven’t gotten a change of clothes, wash cloth, nothing. This place has always treated us inhumanely, but COVID has made it worse. I’ve had to put my Vietnam armor back on.”

Those were the words Rob scrawled in his first, necessarily short letter since his arrival at Hazelton — short because he reports that paper is a scarce commodity there without money.

Rob’s friend, Mike Plummer — also incarcerated as a teen, but recently released — explained to me why “Vietnam armor” is needed:

“[Hazelton] has a reputation for extreme violence. I wasn’t there personally, but I heard about it, and stayed in places like it. When you get there, you automatically have to go into gladiator mode. It’s about survival, preservation. It’s one of those places where you’ve got to be vigilant, because at the drop of a dime, shit’s happening. You have to either be on the offense or defense.”

In prison, however, helmets and shields are not provided.

In 2018, CBS-TV reported that long before notorious Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger was killed at the prison, lawmakers, advocates and even prison guards had begun sounding an alarm about dangerous conditions there. Bulger’s killing marked the third murder at the facility in the previous six months. Last year, the pattern continued, with a number of assaults on prison employees.

A toxic mixture

The uninitiated will likely quickly assume this violence is due to the “worst of the worst” who are imprisoned there. But that is far too simplistic a conclusion. As psychiatrist Christine Montross writes in Waiting for an Echo: the Madness of American Incarceration, “Jungle. War zone. Hellhole. Pit of despair. We have created houses of law enforcement that are shot through with lawlessness and a kind of guerrilla warfare. It’s all well and good to hypothesize that you and I would behave differently were we held within this world, but we can’t know that.”

Montross quotes one of the inmates as comparing the prison hierarchy to a marine ecosystem: “You’ve got minnows and you’ve got the killer whale. That’s how it is.” Correctional environments (a misnomer if I ever heard one) exacerbate and foster aggression rather than diminish it, she concludes.

Mike and another friend of Rob’s, Pete Petty (currently in the DC jail, scheduled for an early-release hearing on Monday), identify several factors that contribute to the toxic carceral environment, especially in “the feds” (where all DC residents go, since the District does not have its own prison).

One of those factors is not unique to Hazelton: Every DC person I’ve talked to who is currently or formerly incarcerated says District men are treated harshly by both other residents and COs. And because Hazelton is the closest federal penitentiary to DC, a lot of men from the District are sent there.

“People don’t understand that DC guys have a reputation that follows them everywhere,” says Pete. “Every place you go, there are gangs. But the DC guys, we stick together. So, (the others) seem to want to show you how tough they are.”

Black and incarcerated

Pete adds that another element in the mix is race, since more than 90% of DC inmates are Black.

“(At Hazelton) they call people the N-word on a regular basis. (The COs) look at you as an adversary, somebody to go up against. They’ll do stuff just to agitate you, like put you on bed restriction, when they take your bed at seven in the morning and don’t let you have it back until 10 at night. They take your recreation away, stuff like that. (Worse than that), they’re known for breaking wrists, killing guys. If you get sent to the hole (solitary confinement), there’s a good chance you’re going to die in the hole, because you can’t fight back.”

Sure, you can, at least theoretically, refuse to be provoked and stay away from troublemakers (people who “don’t know how to do time,” as Rob says). Mike explains, “I knew how to control myself and didn’t argue with the COs, even when one had had a bad day and wanted to start something with the inmates or something like that. But that doesn’t always work. Sometimes, you might not have anything to do with an incident, but because you’re from a certain city or state, you’re associated with the pack. So, they take it out on you anyway.”

He gives another example: “I might get into an argument with a staff member at breakfast, and at dinnertime he tells his buddy or his cousin the story. Then they take it upon themselves to strike back. So now I’m in the hole because of this buddy system.”

Mike adds that in Rob’s case, his reputation as someone who can defend himself proceeds him. “But the flip side of that is that because of his reputation, some people may want to try to knock him down…It’s sort of like stealing the crown jewel to get extra points.”

Likewise, reputation is everything — even survival — in prison. “Disrespect is nothing much to a person in society, but there’s so many different rules and cultures in prison,” notes Mike. “It’s kind of hard to navigate not getting a shot (disciplinary ticket).”

Just what is a ‘good’ prisoner?

Yet disciplinary track records are factors in determining who can be released before the end of their sentences. Do judges and parole examiners understand what it means to do time in American prisons?

“Rob has been sent to a place where violence is rampant and breeding rapidly,” observes Pete, who estimates he racked up about 16 shots during his prison tenure. “In a situation like that, you have to do everything possible to take care of yourself.”

Mike, who says that in 23 years of incarceration he got 18 shots, agrees: “Rob is in a pickle right now. The best thing might be to pray that the joint stays on lockdown.”

This is a “corrections” system? Confining people to places and environments that seem designed to provoke aggressive behavior, then punishing them when it’s successful? And all of this goes on invisibly behind walls, fences and sniper-manned watch towers — that is, until the aggression that’s triggered results in someone being killed. And then it’s a headline for a day or two. There seems to be no other oversight, no “bill of rights” to which the souls held inside can turn. Rob instead should be thankful to be restricted to his cell 23 or more hours a day.

I’ll close with these words from Rob’s girlfriend, Monica: “In prison, you have to put your heart in your pocket. The world you’re surrounded by in there is too disturbed, intrusive and dangerous to leave it exposed. Love can get you killed, all because the actions a person displays out of love make you appear weak in prison. What’s left is hate, hate that can seep deep inside and swallow you whole like a snake. Hate is what drives a person to kill. Hate for the guards, the other inmates, lockdown and having to sit and wait — forever. Hate is what you’re surrounded by. (The DC jail) was the first drink of freedom he’d ever had. Now he’s back to being a soldier in a cold world, where racism exists, where hell exists, where torture exists, where rape exists. Only the strong survive and control of your mind is one of God’s greatest gifts.”

Show Rob he is not forgotten. That he is “seen.” That we are all standing with him. Send him a postcard via Flikshop. His inmate number is 08909–007.

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

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