by Keith Preston
Whenever the subjects of prisoners’ rights and jail and prison conditions arise, many people are tempted to ask, “Hey, why should I care about prisoners? After all, aren’t they all just a bunch of killers, rapists and thieves?”. Many people regard prisoners’ as undeserving of sympathy and are therefore indifferent to their mistreatment. But who are the people who are categorized under the collective label of “Inmates”? One does not have to be a serious predator who commits heinous crimes against others in order to find oneself incarcerated. In the state of Virginia, jailable offenses include drinking in public, oral sex between married adult heterosexuals (“sodomy”), driving on a suspended license, failure to pay traffic tickets and fines, sleeping in public, and countless other activities. Everyone reading this pamphlet has probably broken one or more such laws at some point in their life.
When many people consider the issue of crime and punishment, they are inclined to reflect on whatever sort of righteous revenge they would like to inflict on the perpetrator if they were the victim. However, a more nuanced approach would be to ask one’s self questions such as these:
1) If I were falsely accused of a crime, what rights would I want to bail, access to an attorney and to appeal?
2) If I were sent to jail or prison for a crime I did not commit, how would I want to be treated during my time of incarceration?
3) If my kid became addicted to drugs and wrote some bad checks to finance his habit, how would I want the situation to be handled?
4) If I were driving home late at night and a drunk stepped in front of my car and I found myself charged with involuntary manslaughter, what would I want to happen?
A wide variety of reasons exist as to why people find themselves behind bars. Many prisoners are incarcerated for engaging in cultural crimes (activities disapproved of by influential segments of society) such as drug use, drinking in public, sodomy, pornography, gambling, prostitution. Others are where they are because of their failure to consume in the marketplace. An example of this would include a homeless person jailed for sleeping in public (failing to be a consumer in the housing market). Many other people are imprisoned for economic crimes such as non-payment of taxes, child support or traffic tickets or vending without a license or for using their property for purposes considered aesthetically unappealing by elite socio-economic interests, such as having junk cars parked on the front lawn.
People can be jailed in some jurisdictions for having too many people living in their house or for having too many pets or for having grass that is too tall in the front yard. People can be imprisoned for extraordinarily long periods of time simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A Michigan grandmother was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for picking up a relative at the airport in her car who happened to be carrying a suitcase containing a kilo of cocaine. She was unaware of the relative’s involvement with drugs. No one should ever think that they or their friends and family are immune from falling into the clutches of the state’s treacherous and tyrannical legal system.
How are prisoners’ treated at the Richmond City Jail? What goes on behind the walls on Seventeenth Street? The jail is always filled way beyond capacity, sometimes containing nearly twice as many inmates as space was originally allocated for. Inmates frequently sleep on the floor, often in unsanitary conditions. An epidemic of skin infections occurred among inmates during the fall of 1999 because of such conditions. Most of the jail lacks air conditioning or even proper ventilation so that inmates sometimes find themselves locked into attic-like conditions during the summer months. Proper medical care is often denied to inmates with serious medical conditions. A fifty-three year old man who was arrested for murder after killing someone in self defense suffered paralysis after being denied access to his necessary kidney dialysis. Heroin addicts and alcoholics are forced to undergo withdrawal without any medical supervision whatsoever. Inmates suspected of having suicidal inclinations are stripped naked and locked into solitary cells without blankets or sheets.
Carte blanche denial of privileges is often used as a punishment for breaking even the pettiest of jail rules. If a single inmate is “too loud” while going to meals, for example, an entire tier can have television and telephone and even visitation privileges revoked for days. No exceptions are made even in cases of family emergency. Inmates are not allowed to talk to inmates of the opposite gender when they encounter one another. Any infraction by even one inmate can cost an entire tier its privileges.
Jail food frequently fails to meet even the most elementary nutritional standards. Female inmates are fed particularly poorly. Usually they are given an excess of cheap, starch-heavy foods, leading to chronic problems of excessive weight gain and obesity among female inmates. Inmates often go fifteen hours or more without food. Inmates without someone to send them money from the outside are denied access to the most basic toiletries and hygiene products. Inmates may not receive underwear from the outside and are required to purchase it from the jail commissary. Female brassieres are often confiscated by jail guards upon incarceration and substitutes are not sold in the commissary.
Money sent to inmates is frequently stolen by jail guards. Inmates may not receive reading materials unless it is sent directly from a publisher. Inmates may not receive mail contain- ing paper clips, staples or Polaroid snapshots on the grounds that these items are “dangerous weapons”. Inmates cannot sleep in unmade beds during the daytime. Smoking is not allowed either. It is clear that such petty regulations are an example of the use of bureaucratic overkill as a means of aggravating and harassing inmates and as a form of psychological torture. Inmates are no longer allowed to receive a change of clothes before going to court. Perhaps most egregiously of all, persons arrested on Thursdays or Fridays usually have to wait in jail until Monday or Tuesday until a bond hearing is set even though constitutional law requires that accused persons receive a bond hearing within forty-eight hours.
Unfortunately, such conditions are not limited to the city jail. Virginia’s state prisons have become increasingly abusive of inmates in recent years. Inmates who cannot work because of illness are stripped of “good time”, thereby lengthening their sentence. Inmates are sometimes required to participate in experimental “behavior modification” programs designed to create conflict, hostility and potential violence among prisoners. Some prisoners are incarcerated in “boot camps”(pseudo-military concentration camps) where they are subjected to all sorts of dehumanization and torture and used as slave labor.
The United States now has more than two million people behind bars. The U. S. contains five percent of the world’s population and has twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners. Most of these people are imprisoned for victimless cultural crimes or for minor economic or property offenses. Only about five percent of U.S. prisoners conform to the stereotype of the violent psychopath. The U. S. has created a massive “prison-industrial complex” which generates billions of dollars annually for all sorts of businesses and industries that profit from this mass incarceration. Prison labor is being used to undermine the interests of working people nationwide as more companies are forgoing payment of market-value wages to workers in favor of extraordinarily cheap, and sometimes state-subsidized, prison labor.
The United States of the 2000’s is following the same route as Germany of the 1930’s. The Nazi regime used all of the same familar tactics including the scapegoating of unpopular social groups, youth curfews and other assaults on young people, school uniforms, slave labor, pseudo-military prisons, terroristic police practices, arbitray legal decrees,attacks on the poor and marginal, creating hysteria over crime and blight and all the other things going on in America today. The American ruling class is creating a massive police and prison state with the total subjugation of those without wealth or status as its aim. Resistance is more essential now than ever.
The goal must be to shut down the state’s apparatus of repression euphemistically referred to as the “criminal justice system”. What would an alternative system look like? State-controlled police bureaucracies and penitentiary systems are a relatively new invention. They rarely existed prior to the nineteenth century and were originally created, in their modern forms, by the European military dictatorships of Napolean Bonaparte and Otto von Bismarck. In traditional societies, most disputes, including those of a criminal nature, were settled by village assemblies or by councils of village elders. Protection against crime was the responsibility of individuals, families, communities and voluntary associations.
Such a model would serve contemporary Richmond quite well. Each of the city’s culturally distinct neighborhoods should take responsibility for their own collective self-defense. This might include the formation or expansion of neighborhood watch programs, a volunteer citizen militia or the hiring of private protection services accountable to the community at large. Criminal or civil disputes should be resolved through a process of mediation, negotiation and arbitration presided over by community assemblies or neighborhood councils with both the victim and accused, their families and their respective neighborhoods and peer groups being represented. Such issues as community protection, the collection of taxes to finance community activities, the care and support of children from broken homes and community rejuvenation and beautification programs should all be the perogative of the community itself without any interference by government whatsoever. Persons who do minor harms to others should be required to compensate victims in some way with community-imposed social and economic sanctions as an enforcement mechanism. Persons who commit heinous acts against others should be banished from the community to some secure, segregated geographical area where they are still allowed to live characteristically human lives and care for themselves.
Such a system is no more utopian than the abolition of witch hunts, heresy trials, slavery or racial segregation. The American criminal justice system needs to go the same way as the divine right of kings, absolute monarchy, the established church, primogeniture and the star chamber. In Richmond, we might begin by sending Jerry Oliver, Michele Mitchell, David Hicks and cohorts to the unemployment line.
Lockdown America, by Christian Parenti
The Perpetual Prisoner Machine, by Joel Dyer
Drug Warriors and Their Prey: From Police Power to Police State, by Richard Lawrence Miller
Nazi Justiz: Law of the Holocaust, by Richard Lawrence Miller
Ain’t Nobody’s Business If You Do, by Peter McWilliams
Kind and Usual Punishment, by Jessica Mitford
People Without Government: An Anthropology of Anarchy, by Harold Barclay
The Libertarian Reader, The Libertarian Alternative, both edited by Tibor Machan “The Arrest and Punishment of Criminals: Justifications and Limitations” by J. Roger Lee
Copyright 2000. American Revolutionary Vanguard. All rights reserved.