Speaking Out About Prison Conditions Is Risky. Incarcerated People Do It Anyway.
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In April, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a report on conditions in Alabama state prisons, detailing the findings of a more than two year investigation. The DOJ found “overcrowding, dismal conditions, a lack of staff, and deliberate indifference from prison officials contributed to rampant unchecked violence, sexual abuse, and extortion,” reported Raven Rakia for The Appeal. The DOJ report elaborated on what had come to national attention that month, when more than 2,000 photographs were smuggled out of one notorious Alabama prison and published in various outlets, including the New York Times and Splinter. The pictures, believed to have been shared by a corrections officer at the St. Clair Correctional Facility, showed rampant violence and bloodshed, abysmal medical care, and untreated mental health issues.
The revelations were not new to people in Alabama’s prisons who, Rakia wrote, “have tried to expose this reality for years.”
But as Melissa Brown of the Montgomery Advertiser points out in an article this week, incarcerated people’s own accounts of life inside these places has rarely been sought out or heard in a way that matches their importance. “All too often,” she wrote, “the voices of the people directly affected by the Alabama prison system are not heard.” In fact, “Nearly every day, accounts released by state officials are reported without verification, despite the fact multiple federal institutions have found that [the Alabama Department of Corrections’] own employees have lied in their record-keeping and under-counted violent incidents as severe as murder.”
Brown shares the accounts of multiple men incarcerated in Alabama prisons who spoke up about the degrading, violent conditions in prison. “I have found myself living in hell,” said Wendell Roberts. Another man described the elderly men incarcerated decades after their convictions. “What threat are they to society? I’m talking about people in their 80s. Some of them in here are blind. They have to put their hand on another person’s shoulder to go to the chow hall or the store.”
The men describe a situation in which the state has abdicated any responsibility for the people it imprisons. They speak out at what they assume will be significant risk to themselves.
The impeachment hearings underway in Washington are a reminder that in times of crisis, we rely on people who speak up, sometimes at great personal risk, to alert us to grave danger and wrongdoing. The horror of our criminal legal system—its racism and violence, the millions of years taken from millions of lives, the indifference to human suffering and disregard for human potential—will never command the coverage of a presidential impeachment proceeding. Incarcerated people who share their experiences from our prisons—taxpayer-funded institutions, Brown points out—may never be hailed as heroes.
But the risk they run in speaking out is real. In today’s Washington Post, Jessica L. Adler looks at how people in prison have spoken out for decades but “even as legal precedents and criminal justice policies have changed,” people “have been consistently and flagrantly intimidated, discredited and worse, with far-reaching consequences.” She mentions the example from 1975 of one woman who told a federal judge “that she was placed in solitary confinement for 54 days and beaten after making her dissatisfaction with prison administrators known, in part by publicly singing ‘We Shall Overcome.’”
In the April article, Rakia reported on alleged state retaliation against people in Alabama prisons who said they were being punished for trying to improve conditions and reduce violence. Members of the Free Alabama Movement and Convicts Against Violence alleged that they were transferred and placed in solitary confinement because of their organizing work inside prison. One man described the conditions they found themselves in after the transfers to The Appeal: “They were just put in the cell with no soap, no toiletries, no toothbrush, no nothing—nothing but a mattress. Some of them didn’t even have a sheet or blanket. They were transferred from St. Clair to Holman with nothing. The COs [corrections officers] took all their property. They were left in there for about a week, I think, before DOC even gave them any tissue.”
During the 2018 national prison strike, Rakia reported on how the organizers of the strike had “decided to remain anonymous in their interactions with the public to try to prevent the type of retaliation” experienced by previous prison strike organizers.
What they feared was violence by corrections officers. “Several guards beat alleged strike leader Terrance Dean unconscious” after a 2010 Georgia strike,” wrote Rakia. ““The system is not a game to be played with,” one organizer told her. “The one thing [strike organizers] always said was don’t put your face out there, don’t put your name out there under any circumstances because if we’re doing five or 10 years [in a] supermax, there’s nothing [the public] can do” to prevent reprisals.”
“Correctional officers who retaliate … cannot be regarded as rogue actors,” wrote James E. Robertson in a 2009 law review article. “They act within the norm.” That norm is the product of the “surplus power” of prison staff, the gaping power differential state policymakers create between the incarcerated and guards. “The cell door symbolizes surplus power,” Robertson wrote, since it is the officers, not the people in the cells, who decide when the door is opened or closed. That power differential builds off the unchecked latitude handed to officers, “rule enforcement powers that readily mask retaliatory intent” because of “the frequent vagueness of disciplinary rules,” which give them “ample leeway in deciding when and where to enforce these rules.” They have the power to write disciplinary tickets backed up by little or no evidence and the power to throw someone in an isolation cell.
In New York, the suspicious death of a man in one of the state’s most notorious prisons would not have come to light but for the efforts of incarcerated people to speak about it, despite these risks. Last month, Jan Ransom of the New York Times wrote about the January death of 67-year-old John McMillon, billed as a heart attack by department officials but described as the result of a brutal beating by nine men incarcerated with McMillon who said they witnessed what happened. In a follow-up piece, Ransom described how her reporting was driven by the willingness of people in prison to talk to her, in some cases even allowing her to use names.
The reasons they gave for talking to her were strikingly similar to what men in Alabama told Melissa Brown: feelings of fear, vulnerability, fellowship, and responsibility. In New York, Ricardo Rosado told Ransom, “If it had happened to me, I would want someone to do the same thing.”
In Alabama, one man told Brown, “If I die in here, I don’t want it to be a waste. Maybe what I’m saying will save somebody.”