“Prisons are inescapably racist. Prisons use racism to govern and suppress their captives. Racism remains a strategic tool to ensure that prisoners distrust or attack each other rather than the institution itself.” Dan Berger
As protesters fill the streets for the 18th day, I echo Michelle Alexander, who wrote in The New York Times that she is inspired by seeing “what it looks like when people of all races, ethnicities, genders and backgrounds rise up together in solidarity for justice.” But what I fear the street demonstrations gloss over is multitude of systems that perpetuate racism in this country beyond policing — one of which is incarceration. At a time when legislation is being considered to defund the police and reallocate that money to social programs (better schooling, housing, jobs, etc.), we must ensure that decarceration is an integral element of this movement.
In a few weeks I expect to be shipped from the D.C. jail to my former Bureau of Prisons “home,” a U.S. penitentiary in Florida (the most recent of 14 different prisons to which I have been shuttled). When I arrive, I will walk into a time warp that will immediately take me back to the 1960s. In the mess hall, the whites and the Mexicans sit on one side, with the blacks on the other. When allowed to go outside for recreation, each group goes to “their” yards (separated by fences) or, if that is not possible, finds a spot away from the others. The races/ethnicities and their different subgroups (gangs, states, etc.) claim tables they “own” to play games or just hang out; nobody else is allowed to sit there. During league games, each group establishes its own teams. When watching television, we watch the games with our own people, even if the same program is on all of the TVs in the block (which happens often). And when it is time to go to sleep, each person goes into a cell with a person of his same race/ethnicity.
All of this is done without a second thought. It is prison politics, reinforced by the prison administration itself. A warden said during orientation one day that, “I see the whites sitting over there, the blacks right here, and all of the different gangs sitting together. But you know what, I don’t care about that. It helps me with the orderly running of my institution.”
The federal prison administration encourages racist operation, using it to “divide and conquer.” In a federal penitentiary, there are probably about 1,200 inmates and 200 officers and staff. As long as we are warring with each other, our focus is diverted from their behavior. Because we are so divided along demographic and racial lines, the administration knows we won’t come together to plan ways to advocate for better conditions. Racism and even the accompanying violence are allowed/encouraged so they can step in with punitive measures in the name of “security” (although such tactics often cement the discord) and lock the institution down. It makes their jobs easier.
For instance, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, inmates in federal institutions are only allowed out of their cells for one hour on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. There are only six phones and four computers that can be used for email per unit, but they let out 50–60 people at a time during that hour. How does this many people use the phone and computers in such a short time, when each call is the allowed 15 minutes and inmates can stay read/send email for the whole time if they choose? This is how the administration creates avoidable tensions. But, when someone is hurt as a result, they simply lock everyone down again.
Yes, the protests all over the world are beautiful because of their diversity. People are coming together and realizing we are more alike than different. Inside prisons, we must do the same! We need the same conversations in prisons — among both inmates and staff. I have seen white people enter prison without a racist bone in their bodies and leave with 88 (Heil Hitler) tattooed on their faces because of prison culture. They take this ideology back to society and share it to their kids, families and friends.
For my fellow inmates: If we truly want to better prison conditions, improve our chances of benefiting from the reforms on the brink of being realized, regain our freedom and end mass incarceration, we must play our part! As my comrade in the D.C. jail, G. Leaks, always says, “prison reform is community reform.” It starts with us!