Get Informed

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.

Close Newsletter Signup

‘Just Let Him Kick’

Lawsuits allege that a private Tennessee prison neglected diabetic prisoners, contributing to at least one death.

Illustration by Michelle Mildenberg

‘Just Let Him Kick’

Lawsuits allege that a private Tennessee prison neglected diabetic prisoners, contributing to at least one death.

Ashley Dixon first met Jonathan Salada when he was kicking his cell door.

It was spring of 2017 and Dixon had just started working as a correctional officer at CoreCivic’s Trousdale Turner Correctional Center in Tennessee. It was her first, and would be her last, job in corrections.

“What’s wrong with him?” Dixon asked the officer who was training her.

The officer told her “he wanted his insulin but they haven’t called for insulin yet,” Dixon recalled in a recent interview with The Appeal. The officer’s response? “Just let him kick.”

He continued kicking for two more hours. Dixon kept asking the officer what they could do. Finally, she told Dixon to call the infirmary if she wanted to. Dixon did and learned that people with insulin-dependent diabetes had already been called out of their cells to receive insulin injections hours earlier. They let Salada out to receive his shot.

From then on, Dixon said, she tried to make sure Salada received his insulin when she was working.

About a month later, on May 24, 2017, she heard an emergency medical call for Salada over the prison radio.   

According to an incident report Dixon later submitted to a captain at the prison, Salada “was in extreme pain and screaming for help.” The nurses initially refused to enter his cell; when they finally did, they checked his vitals and left. “I just can’t figure out what his game is,” one of the nurses said to a lieutenant, according to Dixon’s incident report.

Three days later, Salada would be pronounced dead.  

The Appeal requested but has not yet received his autopsy report. His official cause of death, according to a local media report, was an overdose of buprenorphine, a prescription opioid painkiller, with diabetes listed as a contributing factor.

Spotty, erratic, and dangerous

We all need insulin to survive, and most people produce it regularly on their own. But in Type 1 diabetics like Salada, the body doesn’t produce insulin. To stay healthy, Type 1 diabetics and some Type 2 diabetics must check their blood sugar with a finger prick and receive insulin via injection or an insulin pump multiple times a day, carefully timed with the consumption of carbohydrates.

Missing even a single dose of insulin can be harmful, explained Sarah Fech-Baughman, director of litigation for government affairs and advocacy at the American Diabetes Association (ADA). “If a patient goes without insulin for hours to days, he or she could develop a condition called diabetic ketoacidosis—which is life-threatening.” If a patient receives inadequate insulin and has chronically high blood glucose for a sustained period of time, she added, it can also cause serious complications like blindness and cardiovascular disease.

The legal advocacy program at the ADA receives roughly 200 requests per year from incarcerated people who are receiving inadequate medical care, according to Fech-Baughman. The care of people with diabetes held in Trousdale is the subject of a class-action lawsuit by the ADA against CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America) and the Tennessee Department of Correction. There are at least 60 Type 1 diabetics or Type 2 diabetics incarcerated at Trousdale who require insulin injections, according to the ADA’s complaint.

[T]hey did not bring me any insulin for two days and I got really sick. ... I could not stop throwing up. Douglas Dodson, plaintiff in ADA suit

According to the lawsuit, blood sugar checks and the delivery of insulin—both of which should be coordinated with meals—are sporadic, erratic, and at times nonexistent.  Meals, blood sugar checks, and insulin injections are given at irregular times during the prison’s frequent lockdowns, the suit explains, forcing diabetic prisoners to choose between their health and their hunger. “Such unconscionable delay in receiving basic diabetes care is the functional equivalent of receiving no care at all,” the lawsuit alleges.

Firsthand accounts from prisoners with diabetes inside Trousdale detail their own metaphorical kicks at the door for insulin:

“[T]hey did not bring me any insulin for two days and I got really sick,” Douglas Dodson wrote in a handwritten note submitted as an exhibit in the ADA suit. “I could not stop throwing up.”

Another note from Dodson included with the ADA suit refers to a day he didn’t get any insulin until two hours after he had already eaten breakfast: “[M]y blood sugar was 476 at this time and we are still lock down.” (A normal blood sugar reading for an adult diabetic is between 80 and 130 before a meal, and less than 180 one to two hours after a meal begins.)

“I haven’t got any insulin at all today. It’s almost 1 pm,” Tazarius Leach writes in a grievance attached to his pro se complaint against the prison. “I’m not trying to cause a problem but its my health … I’m getting force to miss shots I have no control over.”

Central to the ADA’s lawsuit is the claim that CoreCivic prioritizes profits over care. This, ACLU of Tennessee executive director Hedy Weinberg explains, is precisely why the ACLU opposes prison privatization.

“Handing control over to private prison companies is clearly a recipe for abuse and neglect,” said Weinberg. “A private prison is most concerned about their stockholders.”

Both CoreCivic and Correct Care Solutions, LLC, which handles all medical care at Trousdale, deny all wrongdoing. In response to a request for an interview, Steven Owen, managing director of communications for CoreCivic wrote in an email, “While we can’t speak to the specifics of pending litigation beyond our court filings, CoreCivic is committed to providing high-quality healthcare to those entrusted to our care.” The Tennessee Department of Correction did not respond to a request for comment.

Beyond Trousdale

Negligent medical care isn’t confined to for-profit prisons, notes Gabriel Eber, senior staff counsel with the ACLU National Prison Project. “I’ve seen bad care in state-run prisons,” he said. “I’ve seen bad care in private prisons.”

People with diabetes suffer in local jails and immigration detention facilities too—reflecting a broader inhumanity that snakes through the U.S. prison system.

In 2013, Carlos Mercado died of diabetic ketoacidosis about 15 hours after being taken to Rikers Island in New York. While at the jail, he carried around a bag of his own vomit and requested his insulin, which had been confiscated. Guards reportedly thought he was “dope sick.”

Also, in 2013, in Oklahoma’s McClain County jail, Kory Dane Wilson was not given insulin for three days—reportedly despite pleas from family, friends, and cellmates—and died of diabetic ketoacidosis.

Prison is punishment. But the punishment is the taking away of the liberty. It's nothing more. It shouldn’t be a death sentence.Gabriel Eber, ACLU National Prison Project

In 2014, William Joel Dixon died after going without insulin for a week while in jail in George County, Mississippi. The day of his death, Dixon passed out in the shower. When a jailer asked the nurse to help him, she reportedly said she didn’t have time.  

“Prison is punishment,” said Eber. “But the punishment is the taking away of the liberty. It’s nothing more. It shouldn’t be a death sentence.”

Maintaining a healthy blood sugar is a daily challenge for people with diabetes even on the outside. In a prison healthcare system that may oversee thousands of patients, diabetics far too often fall through the cracks, said Eber.

At Trousdale, for instance, the medical staff consists of just four nurses and two nurse practitioners, according to a March 2018 filing in the ADA’s suit. As of July 5, 2017, 2,483 people were incarcerated at Trousdale.

“There is a sense of anger when I speak with insulin-dependent diabetics because they’re being wronged in a way that they know is going to affect their health,” Eber added. “And it’s not if or maybe. It’s certain.”

Type 1 diabetics are often well-versed in their own care—their lives depend on it, Eber explained. But their expertise, he said, can clash with the views of prison medical staff.

Brenda Menjivar Guardado, a 22-year-old Type 1 diabetic who had fallen into a diabetic coma at 13, knew to bring her insulin with her when she came to the United States seeking asylum from El Salvador. But when she was placed in ICE custody, her insulin was confiscated.

While Guardado was detained at CoreCivic’s T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Texas in 2017, she was provided with a different type of insulin than the one she had brought, causing her blood sugar to spike.

“They were giving Ms. Guardado what they were told was the best insulin treatment available, what most diabetic patients would want to receive,” said Robert Painter, director of pro bono programs and communications at American Gateways, which represented Guardado. “They were not hearing her when she was saying this type of insulin would not be effective for her.”

Eventually, Guardado was pushed into accepting the deportation, Painter told The Appeal. “Ultimately that was the only way she thought she could get the care she needed.”

ICE declined to address Guardado’s case specifically. In a statement to The Appeal, Nina Pruneda, a spokesperson for the agency said, “ICE is committed to ensuring the welfare of all those in the agency’s custody, including providing access to necessary and appropriate medical care.”

Salada’s final days

On the morning of May 25—two days before Jonathan Salada would be found unconscious in his cell—Dixon asked a nurse how Salada was doing; he had been admitted to the infirmary overnight. The nurse reported he was “sleeping like a baby” and that he was “likely doing this for attention,” Dixon wrote in her incident report. But a medical officer told Dixon that Salada had been “screaming in pain all night long.”

While it’s still unclear exactly what caused that pain, that morning a physician ordered Salada to be removed from the infirmary and returned to his cell, according to a lawsuit filed by Salada’s father. Salada’s father’s attorney stated via email that he prefers not to comment on active cases.

“[H]e continued to complain of pain and suffering and continued to request medical care but said requests were ignored and no further medical care or treatment was provided,” reads the complaint.

After his death, I was really haunted that my relationship had just been that of a guard and a prisoner, that I didn't get to know him.Ashley Dixon, former correctional officer, Trousdale Turner Correctional Center

On the night of May 26, Salada was “still in horrible pain,” Dixon wrote in her incident report. The following morning he was “shaking and moaning in pain.”

That morning, May 27, the nurse did not bring insulin for Salada, Dixon said, despite her pleas. At the end of her shift, at about 8 a.m., she went to the infirmary to report that Salada had still not received his insulin.

“Well, we will get to it when we get to it,” one of the nurses told her, according to Dixon’s incident report.

At about 8:40 a.m., Salada was found unconscious in his cell. His blood sugar was 587, more than three times what it should have been. He was pronounced dead at 9:34 a.m. at Trousdale County Medical Center. He was 25. He had been at Trousdale less than a year.

“After his death, I was really haunted that my relationship had just been that of a guard and a prisoner, that I didn’t get to know him,” said Dixon. “I went to his funeral and saw pictures of his childhood trips and saw him as a person, which is something we’re not able to do working in the prison.”

Dixon said regardless of what caused his death, his health was neglected. She wishes she could have done more for him. “I wish I could have held his hand or done something that was more comforting than being there,” she said, “being a witness to his suffering, not being able to do anything.”

If you or a loved one with Type 1 diabetes have experienced difficulties with care while incarcerated or if you have worked in a prison and witnessed such issues, please contact the author through Twitter at @elizabethweill.

The Appeal Podcast: Against Innocence

With Appeal contributor Zoé Samudzi.

Nia Wilson

The Appeal Podcast: Against Innocence

With Appeal contributor Zoé Samudzi.

“He was a straight-A student,” “a loving husband,” “she worked 60 hours a week”—we often hear that victims of police and white supremacist violence didn’t deserve to be killed because they were good people, not simply because they were people. Our guest, Appeal contributor Zoé Samudzi, argues that the notion of “innocence” as a condition for empathy is an outdated, puritan mode of thinking that implies those with messy, so-called “criminal pasts” are somehow not deserving of our compassion.

The Appeal is available on iTunesSoundcloud and LibSyn RSS. You can also check us out on Twitter.


Adam Johnson: Hi, welcome to The Appeal Podcast. I’m your host Adam Johnson. This is a podcast on criminal justice, abolition and everything in between. Remember, you can follow us on social media, Twitter @TheAppealPod or go to Facebook and see The Appeal magazine’s general Facebook where our show posts there and of course you can always subscribe to us on iTunes. He was a straight A student, a loving husband. She worked 60 hours a week. We often hear about how the victims of police and white supremacist violence didn’t quote unquote “deserve to be killed,” that somehow their past conduct is evidence that their death was that much more of a tragedy, but what if this is the totally wrong approach to discussing violence that’s visited upon oppressed communities? Our guest, Appeal contributor Zoe Samudzi, argues that the notion of innocence, the notion of the deserving and the undeserving victim is an outdated puritan mode of thinking that implicitly suggests that those who have messy or sometimes criminal pasts somehow deserved what came to them. Today we’re going to discuss the pitfalls and traps of trying to argue innocence in lieu of a non negotiable, unconditional intrinsic humanity.

[Begin Clip]

Zoé Samudzi: When we start talking about whether or not someone deserves to die we’re implicitly stating that someone else does, regardless of whether or not we say that and I don’t think that that’s a fair way of understanding violence or of understanding the value of human life or human life for human life’s sake or empathy for empathy’s sake. I don’t think that our empathy and solidarity need to be things that are that are transactional and conditional like this.

[End Clip]

Adam: Thank you so much for coming on the show Zoé.

Zoé Samudzi: Thank you so much for having me.

Adam: So you wrote a piece for The Appeal that touched on a theme that we’ve mentioned tangentially on the show. We haven’t really dived into it, so I’m excited to do it. Called “Against Innocence” on August 8, 2018 in which you use the murder of Nia Wilson in Oakland on the BART system, she was killed by a white man on July 22 of this year. You use her murder and the stabbing of her older sister who ended up surviving as a springboard to talk about a broader issue which you refer to as white approved notions of innocence and respectability and how we cover victims. Something that we’ll sort of broadly call the kind of perfect victim problem, whereby which we litigate the deservingness of life after an African American, typically an African American is killed by white supremacists or the police. Can you talk about problems in this framing as you see it and why this kind of habit even among some proverbial well meaning liberal and what the kind of problems with that instinct is?

Zoé Samudzi:  Yeah. Um, so I first encountered that concept in this essay by Jackie Wang in a collection of essays called LIES, which is this journal of materialist feminism. And she laid out so perfectly something that I hadn’t quite been able to put words on, but was something that was a currency that had obviously been dealing in for such a long time and doing all of these different hashtags and trying to, you know, when someone is killed trying to fight with people who are like, well they did drugs or they were once a domestic abuser or they actually did get into a fight with the police and I was finding myself getting caught up in the semantics of whether or not, because of the conditions of their life, whether or not they were “deserving” quote unquote, of our empathy and of our solidarity and whether their families should be supported in all of that. And you know, reading her piece, you know, forced me to, to, to fundamentally reconstruct our entire frame. Right? Because by our adjudication of who is innocent and who is not innocent, we are still reproducing the kind of carceral violence that we claim to be in opposition to. And I find it really heartbreaking when, you know, when Jordan Edwards was killed earlier this year I think? I can’t, I can’t keep it, I can’t keep all of it straight anymore. Um, but when he was killed and people were like, ‘he was a straight A student. He wasn’t a thug, you know, he was a great teammate. He was a young man with all of this ambition. He didn’t deserve to die.’ And when we start talking about whether or not someone deserves to die, we’re implicitly stating that someone else does, regardless of whether or not we say that.

Adam: Yes.

Zoé Samudzi: And I don’t think that that’s a fair way of understanding violence or of understanding the value of human life or human life for human life’s sake or empathy for empathy’s sake. I don’t think that our empathy and solidarity need to be things that are, that are transactional and conditional like this.

Adam: Right. Jackie Wang writes “Against Innocence,” which I believe is the name of the essay writes quote, “bodies that arouse feelings of fear, disgust, rage, guilt, or even discomfort must be made disposable and targeted for removal in order to secure a sense of safety for whites.” Which I, um, I really liked that sentence. It really popped. And then you went onto say, “Violence that occurs in those spaces is unintelligible, and even necessary for the maintenance of white safety and order. Like Oscar Grant, who was also murdered in a BART station (but by a BART police officer Johannes Mehserle), Nia Wilson’s murder occurred in a space frequented by white people.” We talked about this issue of white spaces as it pertains to innocence and sort of cleanliness. Can you expound on that a little bit and what, what, what you think the sort of the kind of maintenance and purification of white spaces means vis-à-vis both our perception of innocence and also the carceral state in general?

Zoé Samudzi: Yeah, I mean, I think all of these processes of social cleansing are related to one another. The school to prison pipeline gentrification, um, it’s this idea and this continuation of state enclosure that kind of delineates that some space, well not some spaces, all spaces should be spaces that are accessible to white people and that any occupants, no matter how long they’ve been in those spaces, should no longer be in those spaces, and that any, um, attempts to remain in those spaces is making those spaces less and less and less and less safe for the white people who deserve to be there. So, uh, in gentrification we see families that have been in neighborhoods for generations being cleared out for capital to come into the neighborhood. We see, you know, these different like coffee shop economies and you know, historically coffee shops have signaled the collection of, of wealth to converge in the space, you know, that’s been the history of coffee shops in like 16th, 17th centuries in Europe. And so with the emergence of these new coffee shops in these spaces, we have spaces being primed for new kinds of policing. And then there of course are spaces for containment. And so, I mean, Foucault gets on my nerves kind of, but we have these clinical spaces, we have carceral spaces, um, the prison, um, we have these spaces that are supposed to not only be spaces for containment but for um, for disciplining. So within the prison you are subjected to violence because you have this, this body, this identity that needs to be molded into something better that needs to be punished to become something better. And so we see Nia Wilson’s, the site of Nia Wilson’s murder, of Oscar Grant’s murder because they happen in places that are frequented, that are not off limits to white imagination. The same with Trayvon Martin’s murder in this gated community, which is intelligible, but these, when we hear about murders in Chicago, right? We have no, generally, no concept of what actually goes on in the Southside of Chicago. And so our imagination starts to run wild. We start to use these memes of black on black violence because we have no sense of materiality of empathy of people have, of how people live their everyday lives. And so there is not space for the same kind of empathy for the same kind of imagining.

Adam: So on the issue of the perfect victim or the sort of, what we’ll call the kind of posthumous litigation of morality, right? The sort of, someone dies and then we say, okay, well did they deserve it? Then if they meet a kind of bourgeois notion of success, right? Good schools, working hard, the kind of bootstrap mentality that then our heart bleeds. But if they don’t, they’re sort of cast aside. One of the most egregious examples, and I’ve done media criticism for some time now, a few years, and I to this day, haven’t seen anything worse than the example in The New York Daily News St. Patrick’s Day of 2017, a gentleman by the name of Timothy Caughman was killed by a white supremacist named James Harris Jackson. He was stabbed with a 26 inch Katana sword in the chest. The white supremacist had driven up from Baltimore for the express purpose of killing an African American to ended up stabbing a 66 year old African American. And then The New York Daily News felt the need to point out the victim, his eleven prior arrests. They say, quote “[Caughman] has 11 prior arrests, including for marijuana, resisting arrest and menacing.” The guy walked into the police station and admitted to a hate crime. It wasn’t even sort of ambiguous. And then The Daily News feels the need to go around and not litigate the, the, the history of the person who committed the white supremacist attack, who, uh, who murdered the, the African American, The New York Post would join and also mentioned the quote, “11 prior arrests.” And then they said that, uh, the victim quote, “walked for about a block after the stabbing and staggered into a midtown precinct. Police sources said the career criminal was refusing to talk to police about the incident and acting combative before his death.” Unquote. So here you have someone who was stabbed and now it’s being criticized in the media for being combative. This to me highlights, I think, a pretty egregious example of what we would sort of call the fact that, that African Americans, when they’re subject to violence, either white supremacists or state violence, though those are often interchangeable, um, that they have to sort of be pristine and perfect. You mentioned in your piece, “Michael Brown was no angel,” you know, we have the murder on skid row of “Charlie Africa” in 2015 where they put his mug shots up and talked about previous crimes. Can we talk about this sort of instinct in the media to sort of immediately start to put on trial African Americans in a way that I don’t think it’s really the case for others?

Zoé Samudzi: Yeah. I think that the whole notion of deservingness is not only prevalent but like foundational to capitalism’s ethos, right?

Adam: Right.

Zoé Samudzi: Like we understand capitalist success as being for people who have worked hard and quote unquote “deserve” to have the nice things that happen to them. Nevermind the fact that like such a large fraction of wealth is actually like generational and nevermind that people who are entrepreneurs and pull themselves up by their bootstraps form like a minority or like not nearly as many of this hyper successful billionaire people that we celebrate on a regular basis. Nevermind that the whole concept of meritocracy is actually a myth. It’s this like Protestant ethic and individualism that really drives how much we interact with capital and with one another and so we can’t help but extend that when we’re talking about crime and criminality. You know, it’s like this conversation when people are, um, are nervous about surveillance and folks are like, ‘well, if you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to be worried about.’ It’s like, well no, I’m, I’m worried about this thing for the sake of this thing. And not necessarily because I am someone who’s guilty but this quote unquote “guilty.” But it’s this idea of guilt in this idea of deservingness is, is so central to how we understand people and so central to how we understand black people because black people are always already guilty. And so if anything, it’s like the creation of these hashtags is something of an anomaly because we’ve collectively decided that this particular individual, as opposed to being guilty per their identity, we have decided that this particular individual is worth our solidarity, is worth our empathy. And it’s like in life, black people are struggling to be understood as human and in death people are struggling for the humanization on their behalf and, and this, you know, like you said this, you know, this posthumous, posthumous character assassination. It’s as much a defense of the person as, as it is a kind of self defense when it is something that’s happening from black folks. When black folks are saying, well they didn’t deserve this and it’s outside of this intellectualization of it. For me personally, it just really feels like this, this collective agreement that black people deserve to die unless proven and argued otherwise.

Adam: Yeah. It seems like there’s a, there’s a burden there. Right? The African American victim has the burden to prove innocence. Whereas its the default position for others as we’ve-

Zoé Samudzi: And it’s like, you know, a whole man is like, I am driving to the city with the expressed purpose of killing a person who is not white and everyone is just like, where was he radicalized? How? I don’t understand the motivations for like, I’ve seen photographs of people in whole Klan regalia and, and the media is just like, how can we understand this crime? And I was like, well, he told us basically, um, and, and there’s just this, this refusal, this refusal to let go of the idea that whiteness is ever anything other than innocent, despite the fact that we have literal centuries of demonstrations of this racialized pathology of this violent pathology of colonization and genocide and all of these things. So if anything, it should be flipped, right? Like when I see white men walk into small spaces, I’m just like, I’m glad this is not an open carry state. Well, actually, California is now an open carry state because of that Ninth Circuit decision that happened recently.

Adam: Well, that’s been sanitized through sort of civilized mission logic. But yeah, one thing I forgot to mention actually is that to your point, that The New York Daily News referred to the white supremacist killer as “dapper” when they described his, uh, when they described, in fact, I think it’s the only thing they used to describe him.

Zoé Samudzi: Good god.

Adam: Yeah. No, they just, for posterity sake, I will note that they got a lot of negative feedback and ended up changing it. And they, uh, I think they maybe even issued a semi apology vis-a-vis one of their columnists, Shaun King, this notion of delineating good and deserving victims and non-deserving victims is something that I know that abolitionists have struggled with, which is, you know, the Dream Act is framed along the lines as the deserving and undeserving, uh, the sort of, the people who came here through quote, “no fault of their own,” the kind of good and bad immigrants. Now I know that there’s some movement in the immigrant community to stop doing that, to stop using terms like so and so came through the country through no fault of their own, um, implying that their parents are somehow criminals.

Zoé Samudzi: Yeah, um, my parents are both immigrants and you know, in talking to people about how my parents came to the United States and there’s something like romantic, I guess, about the fact that they left when they were in their late teens, early twenties, and they left a colony and came here and did well for themselves. And, and, um, and I also tell them about my other cousin who actually won the visa lottery. Um, and so while it took my mom, I don’t know, she came in 1977 and she got her citizenship in 2004. While it took my mom a really long time to become a citizen I think my cousin got her citizenship like very, very quickly and someone was telling me about how that wasn’t fair. Um, and I was like, well, I guess it isn’t fair depending on what you understand American citizenship to be. If you understand American citizenship to be this thing that people are rewarded after they prove themselves worthy of having citizenship, then I guess it isn’t quote unquote “fair,” but if you believe that, you know, people have a right to move and people have a right to be able to attempt to access, um, greater economic mobility and economic opportunity then, you know, who cares how long it takes for someone to get their, to get status, to get papers in the United States? Um, and so there’s a lot of understanding of, again, deserving this and respectability around getting American citizenship because we understand that as being something that’s zero sum. If I get my papers and my citizenship through these means and I worked for 30 years to get it and someone gets it in in a week and a half then it necessarily cheapens my own.

Adam: Right.

Zoé Samudzi: As opposed to understanding that, well, first of all, this country’s no type of shit, um, and second of all, of what consequence is it to you how someone else, I mean, it sounds super cliche, but like how someone else is living their life as long as it is not harming you and as long as their attainment of status does not affect yours because there’s some kind of like total. Um, I think that we were really comfortable with this idea of like good and bad immigrants until we found out that they were also coming for naturalized citizens. And I think that’s going to make the conversation a little bit, it’s going to trouble it a little bit more.

Adam: Well right because they’re taking the mask off and they’re just openly white supremacists now. There’s not even the pretext of like, oh, we have to follow the law. This was the Lou Dobbs line, right? For 2007, 2008, you know,  like that undocumented immigrants are not following the law and I’m all about law and order. And now you have the Tucker Carlson white nationalist variety hour where he just comes out and says, ‘oh yeah, no, we need to go after Latino immigrants who are legal’ so that the whole pretense of legality is now thrown out the window.

Zoé Samudzi: Yeah. And now we’re now we’re really getting to the heart of what is the United States?

Adam: Indeed.

Zoé Samudzi: What is the function of the United States? And what is the function of citizenship? Beyond, you know, let’s, let’s not pretend that it’s about, it’s just about like traveling and borders also, what is the whole premise of borders? And so the fact that they’re going after naturalized citizens under the guise of fraud or whatever they’re pretending it’s about, um, I think that is going to, I hope that people’s responses to that isn’t to kind of double down in this respectable immigrant thing and be like, ‘well, they deserve to be here, they have their citizenship’ and instead of just like, no, this is naked ethno nationalism and let’s figure out what it means to kind of, to combat that and to and if they’re going to try to go after the Constitution, how they’re going to try to litigate this and all of that. That’s what we need to be talking about now and talking about like border imperialism and the enforcement of, of kind of carceral regimes like through this claiming of land and claiming of dominion over land that nation states do.

Adam: Right. One place that the perfect victim pops up quite a bit of course is in prison abolitionist work in prison strikes. You wrote quote, “we must be sure to offer the same energy and solidarity to incarcerated people as we do activist energies like the Women’s March.” Now, the Women’s March, while it had quite a few radicals amongst it that spoke and were kind of part of the party, it was sort of generally seen as being kind of bourgeois and sort of largely friendly, sort of, you know, aligned with George Soros and aligned with the Democratic Party and the kind of general left everyone at work can agree on. Now how do we, how could you possibly get the amount of energy and effort and solidarity with that crowd than you would, let’s say people in prison, who are striking? There was a strike recently, a few weeks ago on August 21. Can we talk about how hard it is for, for people in the activist space to get people to care about that, which is people incarcerated?

Zoé Samudzi: Well, I mean I have to say that I’m relatively new, not so much to kind of thinking through abolitionist stuff, but thinking specifically around prisons. In learning about how prison strikes function, you know, reading through like Shadowproof stuff and reading through, um, the Jailhouse Lawyers stuff and I think that there’s something for me that’s really remarkable about the way that they organize. Not to like exceptionalize them, but I think that there’s, there’s something that’s really incredible about withholding your labor and refusing to participate incarcerality while you are incarcerated. I think that there are a lot of lessons that we have to learn about the way that folks who are incarcerated are organizing and through these strikes the way that they’re self organizing, the way that they’re organizing across groups and tendencies, the ways that they’re making, um, particular kinds of material demands. And, and I think it’s hard in the conversations that I’ve tried to have with folks who are not just onboard with abolitionist everything, why we owe them our support, you know, in trying to connect, for example, family separation to the kind of abolition of structure, um, that it is not a success to have families together in detention.

Adam: Yeah. That one was interesting, the whole family detention thing because it’s obviously wrong to tear families apart, but then the sort of solution for a lot of people is just to put families together in prison, which if you talk to any kind of late Soviet apologists, they’ll tell you that that was the logic behind Gulags. That’s the reason why they sent entire families to prison was because it was more humane to have the whole family in prison than it was to separate them, which I found a weird irony. And obviously there are, there are differences, but uh, yeah, the idea of incarcerating entire families as a kind of liberal compromise struck me as a little odd.

Zoé Samudzi: Yeah. And so to go from there to, you know, people are like, well we need to abolish ICE. And I was like, oh, this is mainstream. Okay. And so then now I’m like, yes, we need to abolish ICE. In order to abolish ICE, we have to abolish the carceral structure because ICE does not exist in a vacuum and ICE cannot function the way that it functions and DHS can’t function the way that it functions without the participation of local law enforcement.

Adam: Yeah, and of course, you know, you get into the weeds about what some people meant about abolish ICE-

Zoé Samudzi: And we hear Kamala Harris who was a Fed being like we need to get rid of ICE and we need to replace it with something that’s more humane and it’s just like there’s no such thing as a humane carceral system. There’s no such thing as a humane structure of, of border regulation of land claims.

Adam: Yeah. I mean I’m somewhat sympathetic of temporary relief. Right? Getting rid of the ICE strikeforce as a sort of temporary stop gap. But yeah, it does strike me as odd when you get into the weeds about what people mean when they say abolish ICE it’s oftentimes either extremely vague or basically just saying let’s just get rid of it and then come up with a committee to replace it without any indication as to like what the nature of that replacement body would be, whether or not you’re just rebranding it.

Zoé Samudzi: And the thing that really made me nervous was, you know, when all of this antipathy against ICE started to kind of grow was how much people were focusing on children.

Adam: Yeah. This is the ultimate perfect victim.

Zoé Samudzi: Yeah. And it’s like, of course we need to focus on children. Of course we need to talk about how these kids are getting, they lost, how many kids? Like these kids are getting sent to these foster systems and being drugged and abused and like, I’m not saying don’t talk about children because like there are some pretty horrific violations that are happening to these children who ultimately have maybe less recourse because they’re minors and they have to have guardianship and people speaking on their behalf, you know. But yeah, like that is the ultimate innocent victim and that is the perfect foil to the person who was incarcerated. And it is a very hard kind of logical leap to go from these innocent children to the rights of incarcerated people who are in prison because they quote unquote “deserve” to be there.

Adam: Yeah. And I think this really gets to the core of the issue with the perfect victim is, and I want your thoughts on this, which is that people who try to move the needle on these spaces, they ultimately, you know, we’re a country that’s 68, 70 percent white, a third is white men who probably have, you know, 90 percent of the power, uh, maybe not 95. Um, that sort of win political gains for, for just pure, pure empirical reasons, you have to sort of appeal to a kind of middle class white like outrage. And so we sort of start to package ourselves and package our narratives and package our victims to sort of appeal to that. The kind of oftentimes white liberals and that comes with it I think certain sacrifices and certain certain myopia, right? You sort of, to win a little bit, right? To free up some dreamers, you reinforce the narrative that there’s criminal immigrants, right? Um, and I’m sympathetic to that. I guess what I want to ask you is how do you kind of balance that? I mean you have to understand that people are trying to like triage as they’re taking water out of the boat. Uh, and so they say things like, okay, well let’s just stop detaining children. Uh, how do you balance the kind of myopia of the perfect victim that can kind of win a few news cycles and raise some money and get people caring a little bit with the broader problem of not reinforcing these problematic notions of good and bad victims?

Zoé Samudzi: Yeah, I think, I mean, part of it is what you touched on, right? This, this idea of the news cycle. And I think part of the reason that we package our politics is because we’re hoping that yeah, we can get an hour and a half or a week’s worth of media attention. Um, I don’t know. I talk about this a lot in kind of movement spaces and about what it means to try to create our own media and to create our own narratives and to form relationships with journalists that we learn to trust to steadily put forth our politics as opposed to being reactive. Right? To waiting until someone is murdered. To be like, ‘actually this is not okay,’ or like ‘actually we need to talk about this,’ um, and kind of capitalizing on death in particular ways. Um, as much as they become opportunistic for us to put forth our narrative, then we become dependent on these cycles of these structures of violence for us to put forth our own better politics in response. Um, and this is something that I know that I’m not impervious to and I do understand that my radicalism is a lot more palatable than other people’s radicalisms because I’m a Ph.D. student and because I’m not a scary black person in the same way. And that’s something that I really capitalize on and it’s hard and and I’m trying to think about how we do this, but I, I do know that in my writing as much as possible, I try not to enable any space for that kind of compromise making. And I try to make connections. And I actually, it’s funny in the piece, the “Against Innocence” piece, someone actually sent me a DM being like, ‘well, we know that Mike Brown attacked Darren Wilson and Nia got murdered. So like, why are you even making a comparison between the two of them?’ And this was a black person.

Adam: Wow.

Zoé Samudzi: And I was just like, I mean, okay, uh, but even if he did attack a police officer, is that a capital crime? Maybe it is, but also why? But, um, it’s hard because I think we are so deeply invested in this idea of innocence and this idea of good and bad victims because if that goes away and we all become the same, um, what do we have? You know, we have these respectability politics that taught us to do this for such a long time. And, and our whole notion of success hinges on that. And as much as we want it to go away, like it can’t go away because then what do we have?

Adam: Well yeah. There’s a puritan moral order in this country that I think you’ve really touched on what the immigration thing, where it’s like, what difference does it make if someone skips the line, who cares? Um, there’s a kind of like OCD, like, ‘no, that’s the way it is.’ In a way that I think is, it exists in all cultures, but I do think it’s a little more intense in the United States.

Zoé Samudzi: I think so.

Adam: I think there’s a, you know, it’s like the whole ‘I’m in line at the store and someone uses food stamps to get like something I can’t afford.’ It’s like you’re not any more poor because they’re using food stamps or WIC. Like you’re, you know, you were going to be poor regardless like they’re not the ones taking your money from you. And this is something, I don’t know, people in the United States especially like people, they have a real sense that like we’re, we’re fighting the bottom rung of the ladder and that if I’m  down a notch it’s because of the other person on the bottom rung and it’s like, no, there’s this guy up top that’s controlling the ladder and (chuckles) –

Zoé Samudzi: And he’s cutting the rungs.  

Adam: Right. And it’s like, I don’t know, there’s this, there’s this very strong sense of self righteousness that I find interesting.

Zoé Samudzi: Yeah. The food stamps conversation is like particularly horrific.

Adam: Oh, that’s the ultimate perfect victim because you have to drug test, you got to be squeaky clean, you got, yeah, you got to be-

Zoé Samudzi: Like you can’t get steak or shrimp and da da da and that’s just like so poor people don’t deserve nice things basically because being poor is a material punishment for some kind of moral shortcoming.

Adam: I think the ultimate perfect victim American example, there’s a sign at Subway where it says you can get a cold sandwich because that’s covered by, you can use WIC to get that, but they can’t toast it because once they heat it, it’s no longer covered by SNAP and by WIC.

Zoé Samudzi: Okay.

Adam: So the very act of toasting a sandwich, they don’t want you to have hot food, right? You have to have the bare minimum.

Zoé Samudzi: It elevates you up a strata.

Adam: Yeah, to middle class indulgence. Putting something in a toaster is a middle class indulgence. And if, if he did that, then you would be, you would therefore be taking from those who worked hard.

Zoé Samudzi: Who worked hard for that extra dollar and a half that they’re spending on a sandwich. That is, wow, that’s a lot.

Adam: No. Yeah, that’s, that’s peak. It doesn’t get more puritan and more obsessed with deserving and undeserving than that I think. Uh, so before you go, can we talk about in your circles like what activists that you know of are doing, whether it’s immigration activists or Black Lives Matter or anything related to prison abolition people, things people are doing to try to change that good versus bad, deserving versus undeserving dynamic either in terms of language or how they approach it or there general internal propaganda. Can you give us a sense of anyone trying to flip the script on that one?

Zoé Samudzi: Yeah. Um, I mean, I always talk about her work, but the work of Miriame Kaba has been really, deeply influential to me and I know so, so, so, so, so many other people. And she makes abolition something that is actionable in that she doesn’t imagine it as like, we’re going to work real hard and all of a sudden everything is going to collapse and we’ll be done. She talks about it and engages it in ways that are about like everyday interactions and attitudes. And it forces this macro massive political project into something that also is about like individual self improvement and community improvement and um, that frame, this deeply, care work focused, emotional labor heavy, black feminist frame has been really, really, really just indescribably helpful. So her work is really great and I think the work of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee [IWOC] has been really, really good in connecting organizers on the outside with folks who are organizing and folks who just are on the inside and their work has been very valuable to me and as well as the Jailhouse Lawyers and Shadowproof and there’s, there’s this abolitionist network that is growing, um, and putting people in touch and putting actions together and supporting people in these material ways that I think is really important and really inspiring to me.

Adam: Yeah the work of the IWOC, I think its run through the IWW [Industrial Workers of the World], they do incredible work with prison strikes, which are super hard to do. Very, very hard to do and we’re probably, we’re going to do an episode on that at some point because I think that’s really fascinating. Well, thank you so much for coming on The Appeal Podcast. This was really great.

Zoé Samudzi: Thank you so much for having me.

Adam: That was Zoé Samudzi, contributor to The Appeal. This has been The Appeal Podcast. Remember, you can follow us on Twitter @TheAppealPod, you can subscribe to us on iTunes. The show is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Production assistant Trendel Lightburn. The executive producer is Sarah Leonard. I’m your host Adam Johnson. Thank you so much. We’ll see you next week.


More in Explainers

The success of the 2018 prison strike will depend on us

The success of the 2018 prison strike will depend on us

What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: The success of the 2018 prison strike will depend on us

  • Did prosecutors use a ‘cheat sheet’ to strike black jurors in North Carolina death penalty case?

  • The endless punishment of civil commitment

  • Pennsylvania prosecutors pursue charges for people who fall behind on rent-to-own payments

  • Boston DA candidate who vowed to work to end mass incarceration wins primary

  • Murder trial of Chicago police officer who killed Laquan McDonald begins today

  • Ninth Circuit rules that arrests for sleeping on the street are unconstitutional

  • ‘I Love You, Phillip Morris’ didn’t show what 22 hours in solitary does to you

In the Spotlight

The success of the 2018 prison strike depends on us keeping our eyes on prisons

For the last two weeks, incarcerated people around the country have engaged in a coordinated strike, spanning federal, state, and immigration prisons in multiple states. The strike includes work stoppages, commissary boycotts, hunger strikes, and sit-ins. It began on Aug. 21 and is scheduled to end this Sunday, Sept. 9. The start date corresponds with the anniversary of the death of George Jackson, the Black Panther and prison organizer, and the end date is the anniversary of the 1971 Attica uprising. Organizing for the strike has been led by people in prison with support from outside organizers. [Raven Rakia / The Appeal]

The call for the strike came after a prison riot at Lee County Correctional Institution in South Carolina in April left seven incarcerated people dead. It was the highest death toll from prison violence in more than a quarter century and was sparked by overcrowding, unbearable conditions, and guards fanning tensions between gangs. Guards waited hours to intervene, allowing the death toll to mount. The group Jailhouse Lawyers Speak and other organizers had been planning to call for a strike but moved the timeline up after the violence at Lee. A statement issued by the group said, “Seven comrades lost their lives during a senseless uprising that could have been avoided had the prison not been so overcrowded from the greed wrought by mass incarceration, and a lack of respect for human life that is embedded in our nation’s penal ideology.” [Natasha Lennard / The Intercept]

The strikers’ list of 10 demands includes an end to prison labor that pays little or nothing and amounts to “prison slavery,” improvements to prison conditions, the end of “death in prison” sentences, rescinding the Prison Litigation Reform Act, and an end to gang enhancement laws. [Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee] Cole Dorsey, a formerly incarcerated person who played a key role in helping to organize the strike from outside the prisons, described it as “really a declaration of humanity. The humanity of imprisoned men and women.” [Interview with Cole Dorsey, Amani Sawari, and Heather Ann Thompson / Democracy Now]

Strikers and organizers know that their fight will have to continue long after the strike ends. A zine distributed by the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee says, “Most of the demands are not actionable items that prison authorities are able to grant. … The goal is not to hold out and win negotiations with officials, but to last those 19 days and punch the issue to the top of the political consciousness and agenda.” [Toussaint Losier / Jacobin]

In this larger fight, people in prison will rely on the support of those of us who live outside prison walls. As Dorsey put it, “the only way their voices are going to be heard is through us on the outside amplifying their voices.” Amani Sawari, one of the prison strike organizers, shared ways to support the strike in the interview with Democracy Now, pointing to a list of solidarity actions available online and the purchasing power consumers have to boycott industries that use prison labor. [Interview with Cole Dorsey, Amani Sawari, and Heather Ann Thompson / Democracy Now]

It is because information on what goes on inside prisons is so difficult to obtain, and because the narratives are so heavily controlled by corrections officials, that it takes a weeks-long, national strike— organized and engaged in at enormous personal risk and with great sacrificesto bring sustained attention to this fight. The riot at Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina was a clear example of the wide gap between the accounts of corrections officials and those of incarcerated people. Corrections officials described the fight as one over “territory, contraband and cell phones” and immediately promised to jam contraband cell phones in prisons. Yet because of contraband cell phones, incarcerated people were able to get out messages about the violence, the authorities’ hours-long delay in responding, and the conditions that had set the stage for the violence. [Heather Ann Thompson / New York Times]

Even with heightened media scrutiny, corrections departments deny the existence of strike actions in the facilities they control. But the scope of the strike has made those denials harder to credit. [Mitch Smith / New York Times]

Organizers of the prison strike this year see it is a success because there has been wide and sympathetic coverage of its aims outside traditionally left-leaning outlets, which is necessary for reaching the broader public. Writing in Truthout, James Kilgore said, “When the 2016 U.S. prison strike kicked off, the media barely whispered … an action that ultimately involved thousands of people in two dozen states drew virtual silence from mainstream media.” Amani Sawari, a prison strike organizer, noted how the tactics in this strike differ from those in 2016, with even people in prison who don’t hold jobs finding ways to participate through sit-ins, boycotts, and hunger strikes. A week into the strike she told Truthout that strike actions had been confirmed in 11 facilities and solidarity actions in 21 different cities. Because prison officials restrict communication to suppress information about strike actions, she said she expected to learn of actions in more prisons once the strike is over. [James Kilgore / Truthout]

Stories From The Appeal

Illustration by Richard A. Chance

Did Prosecutors Use a ‘Cheat Sheet’ to Strike Black Jurors in North Carolina Death Penalty Case? A single training document uncovered in a prosecutor’s files could save Russell William Tucker’s life. [Jacob Biba]

The Endless Punishment of Civil Commitment. Prosecutors can subject those convicted of sexual offenses to an indefinite period of civil punishment at the end of their criminal sentence. [Guy Hamilton-Smith]

Pennsylvania Prosecutors Pursue Charges for People Who Fall Behind on Rent-to-Own Payments. The state’s ‘theft of leased property’ statute allows prosecutors to seek felony charges for Pennsylvanians who miss payments on rental items. [Joshua Vaughn]

Stories From Around the Country

Boston DA candidate who vowed to work to end mass incarceration wins primary: In perhaps the most significant of yesterday’s District Attorney primaries in Massachusetts, Rachel Rollins won the Democratic primary for Suffolk County district attorney, becoming the first Black woman nominated for DA. If she wins the November general election she will be the first woman to lead the office, which covers Boston and neighboring towns. Rollins, a former federal prosecutor, ran on a promise to work to end mass incarceration and after her victory, committed herself to “true criminal justice reform…that decriminalizes poverty, substance use disorder, and mental illness.” DA races have historically been low-profile affairs but this year’s primaries were different. An ACLU volunteer told the Boston Globe that, “In my neighborhood, this race is clearly very important. I’ve never seen more yard signs for the DA.” [Maria Cramer / Boston Globe] See also Subscribe to The Appeal: Political Report for more information on specific races and the local politics of mass incarceration. Visit an updated database for more results from the Sept. 4 elections.

Chicago police officer goes on trial today for murder of Laquan McDonald: Jury selection begins today in the murder trial of Officer Jason Van Dyke. Van Dyke shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times in 2014 in a killing that rocked Chicago and, according to the New York Times, “laid bare decades of distrust over Chicago police officers’ treatment of black residents and over City Hall’s lack of transparency.” The city and Mayor Rahm Emanuel refused to release the dashboard camera video of Laquan’s killing for more than a year, until forced to do so by a court order. That video showed Van Dyke opening fire only seconds after exiting his car, as Laquan walked away from officers, holding a knife, and continuing to shoot well after Laquan collapsed to the ground. Van Dyke maintains that he acted in self-defense. Emanuel, who resisted calls to resign in 2015, announced yesterday that he will not seek re-election as mayor. [Mitch Smith / New York Times]

Ninth Circuit rules that arrests for sleeping on the street are unconstitutional: The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that arresting people for sleeping on the street when they have nowhere else to go constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. The decision came in a case brought by six homeless individuals in 2009 challenging an ordinance in Boise, Idaho, that banned sleeping in public places. At that time, lawyers for the plaintiffs said that 4,500 people in the city did not have a place to sleep and homeless shelters could only accommodate 700 people at a time. Writing for a three-judge panel, Judge Marsha Berzon wrote that, “just as the state may not criminalize the state of being ‘homeless in public places,’ the state may not ‘criminalize conduct that is an unavoidable consequence of being homeless—namely sitting, lying, or sleeping on the streets.’” The case is expected to have implications for policies in other cities with high rates of homelessness. [Rebecca Boone / Idaho Statesman]

‘I Love You, Phillip Morris’ didn’t show what 22 hours in solitary does to you: Steven Jay Russell, whose life as a con artist and multiple prison escapes to rejoin the man he loved were chronicled in I Love You, Phillip Morris, writes about the part of his life that the film didn’t cover: the grim toll of decades in solitary confinement. Russell was brought back to prison in Texas after his fourth escape attempt, in 1998. He has been in solitary confinement ever since, subject to its “slow maltreatment of the body and mind.” Russell has known 21 men in prison who died by suicide and has “witnessed hundreds of self-mutilations.” Despite the support he received after the movie, he has “not been immune to the effects of 22-plus years of solitary,” and was diagnosed four years ago with recurrent major depression. Being restricted to a 6-by-9 foot cell for more than 22 hours a day has left his body so damaged that he can only leave in a wheelchair. [Steven Jay Russell / Huffington Post]

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you tomorrow.

Have a tip for The Appeal? Write to us at A good tip is a clear description of newsworthy information that is supported by documented evidence.

More in Podcasts