by Sasha Abramsky
Toward Freedom magazine, October/November 2001
There is a prevalent image in the US of a violent lumpen underclass,
what the Victorian journalist Thomas Wright, describing 19th century
London's slum-dwellers, termed "The Great Unwashed,"
controllable only by punishment. It is an image that influential
conservative criminologists such as James Q. Wilson, urging a
far more expansive recourse to imprisonment, pandered to back
in the 1970s and 80s, when the groundwork for today's massive
prison system was laid.
And, to a degree, its true: The country does have a phenomenal
number of murders and murderers, gangsters, mercenary drug pushers,
kidnappers, rapists, and armed robbers. Arguably, since the very
birth of the nation-complete with the roving gangs of brigands
in Appalachia and privateers off the Atlantic seaboard-it always
has had. And, like all things American, violence here, whether
it be the gang violence associated with illegal drugs, or the
urban upheavals of the rioting poor, happens on an epic scale.
At the height of the crack wars of the 80s, more than 25,000 people
were being killed annually. Parts of inner-city Los Angeles, Washington,
Detroit, New Orleans, New York, Chicago, and several other cities,
are, indeed, virtual war zones.
No two ways about it, but there are an awful lot of angry,
brutal, and trigger-happy men in the US. And there are an awful
lot of weapons available to these people to carve out their twisted
realities on the national landscape.
Super-maximum-security prisons such as the notorious Pelican
Bay-nestled in the coastal Redwood forests of California's northernmost
county, surrounded by two high razor-wire fences and a lethal
electronic harrier, and more escape proof than the island of Alcatraz
in the San Francisco Bay- house thousands of men, many of them
mass murderers, rapists, kidnappers, and other seriously disturbed
But no matter the hysteria, there aren't nearly enough US
psychopaths, enough real-life Hannibal Lecters, to justify a prison
and jail population that now hovers in the two million range,
incarcerated in hundreds of facilities across the 50 states.
In fact, for the first time in history, most US prisoners-over
a million people-have been convicted of nonviolent, often victimless
offenses, just as marijuana possession, that hurt nobody but
the person arrested. Hundreds of thousands are now serving ten-,
15, and 20 year terms for crimes that in Europe or Canada would
generally result in noncustodial sentences and commitment into
drug rehab programs. And so, in addition to housing the violent
menaces that they were intended to incarcerate, maximum-security
prisons have seen an increasing number of nonviolent inmates pass
through their phenomenally secure gates. Meanwhile, in many cases,
the big-time criminals go free: trading information, snitching
on subordinates, hiring million-dollar attorneys who will do anything
possible to limit the years their clients spend in jail. The land
of the free has become a place where rural backwaters-catapulted
into economic collapse by deindustrialization and the oft-vaunted
global market -now bid for the privilege of building new hightech
prisons to incarcerate the urban unemployed, and the urban addicted.
People like Lillie Blevins.
Lillie Blevins is a diabetic in her mid-50s. She has chronic
high blood pressure, back problems, knee problems. A couple of
years ago her appendix ruptured. She is scheduled to spend the
rest of her life in Carswell Federal Medical Center, inside the
Forth Worth army base, just outside Dallas, Texas.
Her crime was conspiracy to sell crack cocaine, allegedly
head of a family operation involving three of her sons and her
brother. The evidence against her the word of a snitch who was
friends with her drug-dealing sons, along with three grams of
crack cocaine found in her Mobile, Alabama house by federal agents.
her status is a nonviolent, minimum security federal inmate, no
prior time served in prison, no money, and hence no lawyer working
on her case; at the time of her sentencing, her husband was in
jail on an unrelated charge.
An African American woman born in Selma, Blevins was pulled
out of school in the third grade to look after her seven brothers
and sisters. Her father had just died. Her mother, Pearlie, was
in the fields all day, picking cotton. Lillie had her first child,
a boy, when she was 14, and moved south to Mobile, on the hot,
sultry Gulf Coast, shortly after. Over the next decade and a half;
six more sons followed. Lillie was an active member of the Shallow
Baptist Church. But in a world of grinding poverty and limited
horizons, no amount of religion could prevent some of her boys,
and at times herself; from being tempted by drugs.
In the early 80s, the police arrested her for growing what
she terms a "reefer bush" in her garden. Later on, she
was hauled in for possession of crack. Neither arrest resulted
in prison time. Then, in 1990, three of the Blevins boys, now
living in an apartment away from Lillie, were caught up in a federal
drug sweep turned in by a friend who bartered 25 names to federal
agents in exchange for probation. For good measure, the friend,
who had once lived clown the road from Lillie, added her name
to the list. One morning, when Lillie was at home, the agents
knocked on her front door. She opened it, and they stormed into
her house. They found three grams of crack-and carted the 42-year-old
woman off to jail. The snitch said she was in charge of the family
operation. Her sons denied she had any knowledge of their actions.
Their denials counted for little: Blevins was sentenced to life
imprisonment in a federal prison.
As of summer 2000, 144,750 people were serving time in federal
prisons-convicted in the federal courts for crimes ranging from
the murder of a federal employee to drug trafficking across state
lines to simple drug dealing in a place where the state police
passed the arrest on to federal agents. The latter had become
common practice, because federal law allowed for the local police
to keep a high percentage of any moneys or assets confiscated
from drug suspects in federal busts.
As long as the courts judged a law enforcement officer's suspicions
to be justifiable, you didn't even have to gain a criminal conviction
in order to seize a person's car or cash or even, on occasion,
their other property and bank accounts. And, as a result, agencies
had fallen over themselves trying to take advantage of their easy
new source of revenue. Asset forfeiture was proving such a bonanza
that even the Bureau of Land Management had set up their own anti-drug
SWAT team. Six in ten of these inmates were serving sentences
for drug crimes. Fully 56,238 were African American.
The sentences handed down by the federal courts are staggering:
33,168 have bought five-to-ten; 21,439 are serving ten-to-15;
10,057 are doing 15-to-20; and 10,731 are locked up for over 20
years. According to the Rand Drug Policy Research Center, these
sentences "reduce cocaine consumption less per million taxpayer
dollars spent than spending the same amount on enforcement under
the previous sentencing regime. And either enforcement approach
reduces drug consumption less than putting heavy users through
Warehousing millions of people for petty crimes has become
the number one US Public Works program, what the radical sociologist
Mike Davis calls "carceral Keynesianism." The reference
is to the economist who urged governments to spend their way out
of the Great Depression, through throwing vast sums of money into
public works programs and providing the unemployed with enough
spending money to rejuvenate depressed local economies. Now, Davis
argues, instead of dams, roads, and great public buildings, instead
of rural electrification programs and hospitals, the public works
of our age are the sprawling concrete prisons. Nowhere is this
more true than in California.
California's incarceration industry is big business. Super-hi-tech
prisons are sprouting up across the state, no money spared. Take
a drive down any rural highway and you will pass a new prison.
Local newspapers advertise job fairs at which these institutions
seek out the local talent and local politicians trumpet their
achievements in bringing such employment into the district. Each
prison costs hundreds of millions to build, and guards, represented
by the politically powerful California Correctional Peace Officers
Association, are attracted to the industry by the relatively high
salaries. Says Bruce Gomez, the community resource manager at
the 1.7 million-square-foot super-maximum security Corcoran prison
(home to, along others, Charles Manson and Bobby Kennedy's assassin,
Sirhan B. Sirhan) "a correctional officer, with a high school
education's starting salary is $2,500 a month. Their counterparts
round here [in a remote agricultural region in the Central Valley]
make $1,200 to $1,600 a month outside. So it's a real sought-after
Behind the razor-wire fences, the deadly electronic barrier
(covered with netting to stop the birds from flying into a nasty
surprise), the computer-operated gates, and the watchtowers, a
vast complex is laid out. Low-lying under the immense blue California
sky, concrete blocks-each one housing hundreds of prisoners, each
either confined to a private cell or double-bunked with another
inmate- lead onto large exercise yards, watched over by gunners
ready at the first hint of trouble to set the red alarms off.
Deep inside the complex, a series of "pods" contain
the Secure Housing Unit inmates - men, like Charles Manson, who
are segregated from the general population and kept in conditions
of near isolation. Even deeper inside are the workshops-a dairy,
a metal-working unit, a furniture shop. There is a medical facility
and a mental unit, convenience stores, and a gym-currently being
used to house overflow prisoners. In a real sense, this is a town,
albeit a highly autocratic, violent sort of town, unto itself:
California s Department of Corrections estimated in the late
90s that the state's prison numbers might hit 300,00() in the
not-too-distant future; although recently the state's prison population
has given some signs of stabilizing, and possibly even declining
slightly. Since it costs over $20,000 per year to incarcerate
one person, $35,000 to incarcerate them in solitary confinement,
and over $60,()()0 to incarcerate and provide medical care to
elderly inmates, the Rand corporation and other researchers have
concluded that over the next 2() years, California's investment
in its once-vaunted public universities will dramatically wither
away as the state struggles to find money to pay for new prisons
and staff existing ones. Already, the state s elementary school
system is in such disarray, partly as a result of two decades
of spending cuts, that its fourth graders scored second to bottom
in the country in a recent study of reading ability.
Over the past two decades, California's Department of Corrections,
along with those of Texas, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and handful
of other states, and the federal prison system s facility at Florence,
Colorado, have perfected the panopticon, a control mechanism dreamt
up by 18th century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham. The panopticon
was a space in which a person in a central room could see into
every nook and cranny of the institution, thus denying inmates
even the barest modicum of privacy. California s computerized
prisons, built as a series of bleak concrete cell "pods"
radiating out from central control rooms, watched over by gunners,
surrounded by razor-wire fences and lethal electric barriers,
offer up as little chance of escape as Nazi concentration camps.
New "level four" institutions at Corcoran, Pelican Bay,
and High Desert-a prison deep within the mountainous landscape
north of the preternaturally blue Lake Tahoe-have been built specifically
to house the worst of the worst, according to Pelican Bay's Deputy
Warden Joe McGrath; to isolate predatory, dangerous prisoners,
people ''who preyed upon other prisoners and were assaultive."
Since the new prisons were created ten years ago, violence within
the prison system as a whole has indeed declined.
In Pelican Bay, a huge camp in the rainy north, just south
of the Oregon border, on ground that used to be lumber land, 40
percent of the 3242 inmates are lifers. At any one time, between
1300 and 1500-those deemed a threat to other inmates, those with
known gang affiliations -are housed in a Secure Housing Unit (SHU).
There, behind perforated orange metal doors, they remain isolated
in their cells, eight feet by ten feet, approximately 23 hours
per day. When they receive visits-which is rare, since Los Angeles,
where most of the prisoners are from, is a 16-hour drive to the
south-they visit through a bulletproof glass window. Anybody from
the outside admitted onto the SHU has to don a bulletproof vest
to guard against sharpened debris being launched through the perforated
Most inmates are there for an "indeterminate sentence,"
often for years on end. They eat and they shit in their cells.
They exercise, alone, in barren concrete yards ten by 20 feet.
In some SHUs in the US, even the showers are built inside the
barren cells. This is, says Lieutellant Ben Grundy, an African
American and an ex-marine, no picnic. We don't want to make this
a fun place for them."
Although the prison now has an extensive mental health program
-a safety valve that is noticeably missing in Texas's enormous
supermax prisons such as Huntsville-senior psychologist Dr. David
Archamballlt says that at least one person a month has some sort
of psychotic collapse inside the SHU. When the mental health unit
first opened, more than 100 prisoners were removed from the SHU
with severe mental disturbances. Many isolated prisoners routinely
self-mutilate as an expression of impotent rage at their confinement,
slashing at veins and arteries until the spurting blood has covered
the walls of their cells in a spectacular mosaic of deep red slime.
Oftentimes, inmates "gas" guards through their doors
with a pungent mixture of urine and feces. Violence feed on violence
here, and the guards themselves have been known to abuse inmates
In Corcoran in the mid-90s, guards routinely organized "gladiatorial"
combats between rival gang members in the small triangular exercise
yards. The guards would then proceed to shoot the antagonists
apart. First rouncd, wooden bullets. Second round, for those who
didn't stop fast enough, high-impact explosive bullets. Seven
inmates were killed and numerous others injured over the years
before the practice was eventually exposed, and the prison's administration
was overhauled. Yet, despite grainy black-and-white videotapes
of' the incidents that were captured by the security cameras,
juries in California refilsed to find any of the of ficers responsible
for the deaths of these inmates.
In Pelican Bay, an African American inmate who had gone mad
in isolation and had covered his body in shit, was dropped by
guards into a tub of scalding water, and held down in it until
the skin boiled off his legs. "Nigger, we're going to scrub
you until you're white," the guards were quoted as telling
Few Californians know about Pelican Bay and, according to
McGrath, even if they did, hard time stories generally wouldn't
concern them. "The average person out there in society isn't
very concerned about the criminal," he asserts. "They
just want to he able to conduct their life without becoming a
victim." Somewhat pensively for a prison official, McGrath
goes on to say that "the things, like family, that have held
us together as a society are breaking down, and we now expect
prisons to socialize people. There're a lot of things we need
to be working on as a society and a culture to treat the illness
rather than just the symptoms."
But, 21st century US is showing no signs of a new War on Poverty.
And so, the prison numbers continue to rise. How many prisoners
is too many in a supposedly free society? "I guess I'd have
to ask the question: what is the alternative?" McGrath answers
slowly. ''I'm somewhat of a utilitarian on this. I'd weigh the
cost and I'd weigh the benefit. I'm a civil servant and I'm here
to serve the state. If that's what the people want, I'm here to
Sasha Abramsky, a TF contributing writer, is currently a media
fellow of the Open Society Institute's Center on Crime, Communitie.s
and Culture. This article i.s an edited excerpt from his upcoming
book, Hard Time Blues: How Politics Built a Prison Nation, to
be published by St. Martin s Press in January, 2002.