The Kafkaesque World of Prison ‘Rehabilitation’

I can’t get treated for PTSD, much less enroll in a class that will enrich my mind.

By Askia A. Afrika-Ber

Maximum-Custody Education: “What societal interest is served by prisoner’s who remain illiterate? What social benefit is there in ignorance? How are people ‘corrected’ while imprisoned if education is outlawed? Who profits, other than the prison establishment itself, from stupid prisoners?” — Live from Death Row, Mumia Abu Jamal

While housed in the general population section of America’s federal Bureau of Prisons complex, I am permitted out of my cell, with a number of restrictions, for a pre-determined amount of time to get three meals a day in the cafeteria (a “privilege” that had been taken away during most of the pandemic), work my job if I have one, access the education and mental health departments, attend religious services, and visit the rec yard.

To those uninitiated into the plantation-reminiscent reality of life inside a U.S. federal penitentiary, it thus might seem that there are ample activities to productively occupy the idle hands and minds of its convicted residents.

Nothing could be further from the truth. If you could pull back the veil of secrecy and take a peek inside Housing Unit B-2 here at U.S. Penitentiary Big Sandy (located in Inez, Kentucky), you would be appalled by the crush of prisoners milling around the cell block at all hours of the day, standing in front of one of the six televisions, watching repeats of reality shows or ESPN sports reels, or aimlessly pacing in circles while rapping to the latest hip-hop lyrics downloaded via the paid Trulincs service onto their MP3 players.

Other prisoners are grouped by gang affiliation or geographic location (city or state), working out, playing basketball or handball, or engaging in some sort of board or card game to pass the time.

There is literally nothing else to do.

Idle hands, idle minds

I’d say maybe 80%, and that may be a serious underestimation, of prisoners in Housing Unit B-2 are unemployed, with no engagement in rehabilitative programming. There simply aren’t enough jobs to employ every prisoner and the few programs USP Big Sandy offers have waiting lists of six months to a year. You could say that the promotion of gangbanging, a nihilistic way of living centered around the belief that “it’s better to be feared than loved,” is the largest and most available “program” in the FBOP. That, and manufacturing shanks (knives).

By the time I had the misfortune of being claimed by the FBOP, the Clinton administration (supported by then Sen. Joseph Biden) had completely dismantled the prison system’s higher-education apparatus by eliminating Pell Grants via the 1994 Crime Bill. However, one program still offered at USP Big Sandy is the non-residential drug abuse program. My case manager enrolled me and I entered with an open mind, prepared to possibly learn something new about battling drug addiction. I had experimented with drugs off and on leading up to my incarceration, so I was game to listen to and sift through the information provided by the drug treatment specialist.

Lost in translation

Since the class started at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and the entire prison was on modified lockdown. We were allowed out of our cells for just an hour and a half three times a week — a total of 18 hours a month. I was grateful to be included in any program that allowed me out of my cell for an extra hour once or twice. But after about the fourth session, I began to notice that the drug treatment specialist who led the classes was out of her depths. The middle-aged white woman from rural Kentucky couldn’t effectively communicate with the young Black men in the group, most of whom were from the hip-hop generation and have their own slang to communicate. She shard that not even one African-American had attended her public schools when she was growing up. And before coming to work in the BOP, she had zero interactions with African-Americans. Not only was I becoming bored with it all, it also was becoming clear to me that the specialist’s only exposure to Black culture had come via Black-exploitation movies like Monster Ball, the Green Mile and White Chicks. She couldn’t relate to us; therefore, she could not teach. Her regurgitation of textbook analysis was useless in this prison setting, not to mention the fact her fondness for spouting Margaret Sanger-caliber eugenic theories regarding the offspring of parents who abused drugs:

“Drug addict parents beget drug addict children…If your mother or father wrestled with a drug addiction, it’s highly likely that if you use those same drugs, parts of your brain will light up like a Christmas tree and you’ll get higher faster, hooked faster and strung out longer. It’s going to be real hard for you to get off the drugs.”

I knew enough to realize she was cherry picking her statistics, and that rubbed me the wrong way.

I said, “Ma’am, I’ve been selling crack cocaine since I was 13 years old, and in my experience, if you took a blast of cocaine base, parts of your brain would light like up a Christmas tree and you’d be strung out no sooner then you exhaled.”

It was obvious to me and any other attentive, conscious prisoner that she was the wrong person to be at the helm of the non-residential drug abuse program.

The center of prison programming: the Challenge program

Then we have the creme da la creme of the psychology courses offered by the bureau, called the Challenge Program. This nine-month program’s day-to-day operations are overseen at USP Big Sandy by the prison’s head resident psychologist. For my personal safety, we will refer to the psychologist as Dr. Seuss. Of the 12 housing units on the prison compound, only one offers the Challenge Program. Unlike the rest of the bland, gray-and-tan colored, overcrowded housing units, the walls of this one are as colorful as a preschool classroom, with large, vibrant murals of prisoners huddled around camp fires and an assortment of motivational slogans painted on the wall’s. The program was allegedly designed to help prisoners in high-security facilities unlearn their self-destructive criminal value system and thought processes, assist them with kicking their drug addiction and keep them out of the SHU (special housing unit, or “hole”).

Unlike in a real treatment center in the free world that genuinely respects and cares for patients’ well-being, Dr. Seuss runs the program with an iron fist in a latex glove. If prisoners in the Challenge Program get caught just one time smoking a cigarette, they are booted out. If they are found in possession of a microdot of K2 (a synthetic form of marijuana), they are booted out and hauled off to the SHU. For narcotic-addicted and mentally unstable prisoners who seriously need the type of treatment that Dr. Seuss falsely advertises, there is very little margin for error or relapse.

Over the two years I’ve been at USP Big Sandy, I’ve seen more prisoners go to the SHU from the Challenge Program than graduate. Every prisoner I have interviewed regarding the quality of the program said that instead of teaching positive, critical thinking skills, Dr. Seuss prefers to push participants to do what the Challenge Program administrators call the “pull up.” A pull up is telling the staff member facilitating a group session something you observed another prisoner doing that violated a Challenge rule or could lead to risky criminal behavior. What she doesn’t seem to get is that snitching on another prisoner is a very dangerous act in prison — possibly leading to violence or even death.

I had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Seuss on two separate occasions in my effort to enroll in a PTSD program. I found her to be extremely biased and combative for a psychologist whose job description is to help incarcerated people identify their challenges and find solutions. For example:

One day, I stood on the top tier of the housing unit with my large, turquoise photo album, showing a friend pictures of me with my younger sister, who is a D.C. firefighter, and my grown children during better times. When Dr. Seuss walked into the unit, I caught her eye and she ordered me show her the photo album and my prison ID. She questioned who the photo album belonged to and what was inside, then proceeded to inspect every picture. I think she thought it would be full of smut pics. Once she concluded that the album did indeed belong to me, she returned it along with my prison ID.

Several days later, she saw me after my work detail, as I went into the chow hall to collect lunch trays for my work crew. She told me to step to the side, ordered me to remove my COVID-19 mask, inquired where I was coming from, then pat-searched me. When I told her what staff member I worked for, she finally sent me on my way.

A week later, I asked her to place my name on the list for the PTSD program. She responded dismissively, saying that everybody was trying to take the class to get First Step Act benefits. I told her, “Lady, I am trying to take the PTSD class because I grew up in hell, experienced violent prison demonstrations, and have been in numerous control units and long-term solitary. I need to take the class for mental-health reasons.”

The overall problem seems to be that staff members and administrators view prisoners as paychecks; they have a vested interest in keeping us in prison and our intellectual capacities low to maintain the status quo and thus their employment. They are more focused on enforcing repressive law-and-order policies than rehabilitating and transforming damaged lives.

It’s a classic example of killing two jailbirds with one stone.

“Improvement in diet, improvement in the quality of guards, more realistic rehabilitation programs, better education programs, freedom to engage in political activity and an end to censorship”… 1971 Attica Prison Demands

It’s now 2021, and more than 3 million prisoners across the country are seeking the same social-political redress that claimed the lives of 44 prisoners and 11 staff members at Attica 40 years ago.

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