Abolish Prison! The US Incarceration System Is Broken and Needs to Be Replaced
Prisons are terrible, torturous places where people—who are usually poor and disproportionately of color—are subjected daily to crimes more horrific than the ones that probably sent them there. The vast majority of individuals behind bars are there for nonviolent drug and property offenses. Now, which is worse, do you think: Stealing a late-90s Honda or putting someone in a cage for years where we know they will be physically and emotionally abused? We ask whether criminals can be reformed, when we think of them as people at all, but maybe we should stop to consider whether the idea of prisons and jails can be rehabilitated in the wake of all the injustice they have wrought.
Perhaps the evils of incarceration outweigh the good. Maybe the goal shouldn’t be reform, as welcome as that may be, but something more radical: release.
I Spent Six Months in Lebanon’s Most Notorious Prison
VICE: Hi Khodr. What were the reasons for your detention?
Khodr: It was related to my activities and connections with members of the Free Syrian Army, particularly from al-Zabadani [a city in south-western Syria, close to the Lebanese border], who were probably under surveillance. They were buying weapons from Palestinian militias in Ain el-Hilweh [the Palestinian refugee camp in the southern city of Saida] and others, including Shia groups who supported Assad but wanted the money.
And they thought you were involved?
They suspected me of being part of Free Syrian Army logistics, not a fighter. I denied any connection to the people they mentioned in my interrogation, but they found their numbers and names in my phone, as well as on my Facebook and Skype. In the military court they accused me of obtaining a counterfeit visa and activities assaulting the security of the Lebanese state. At that moment, I realized the seriousness of the situation.
What were the first couple of weeks like inside Roumieh?
It was really hard to adapt. I suddenly found myself in this incredibly shady place, surrounded by hardened criminals and drug abuse. I’d never been in a place like that. I was very depressed and scared.
How rampant was the drug abuse?
I’d say 90 percent, or higher, of the inmates were using. It stretched from prescription drugs, like benzocaine and Tramol, to hashish, cocaine, and heroin. Everything is available: benzocaine being the cheapest, with heroin and cocaine the most expensive. There is no chance of rehabilitation. I remember one inmate saying to me, “The only thing they have imprisoned here is my dick.”
Read the whole interview
Barrett Brown Is Bored Out of His Mind in Jail
Earlier today, Barrett Brown’s legal counsel sent us this letter on behalf of their imprisoned client. They’ve told us to expect more writing from Barrett Brown in the near future.
Like a lot of pompous, insufferable people, I didn’t watch television when I was previously “out in the world,” as my fellow inmates say. And if I were being held in a regular federal facility like a normal detainee, I wouldn’t be exposed to it while incarcerated if I preferred to avoid it. This is because federal prisons (along with holding facilities where inmates await trial) are relatively humane affairs equipped with separate areas for various activities—for instance, sleeping and watching television are done in distinctly different rooms. The problem is that all the federal facilities here in the Northern District of Texas were filled up with inmates awaiting trial or sentencing when I became incarcerated. This isn’t simply because Texans are an inherently criminal bunch—although of course they are—but rather because, in addition to prosecuting actual crimes against property and persons, the federal government is also in a great big contest with the Chinese to see who can imprison the most people for bullshit non-crimes like selling drugs.
At the same time, Congress has decided that the best way of dealing with illegal immigrants from Mexico who threaten to increase our GDP is to imprison them at great expense to the public. There are other factors at play here, all of which point to the ongoing degeneracy of the American people. Suffice to say, because of Texas’ booming incarceration industry, I was not one of those lucky-ducky federal inmates who got to kick back in a real live federal facility—because these babies are filled to the brim. Rather, I’m “housed,” as they call it, in a privately-run city facility used for government overflow. And this place is filled up, too. Nor was it built to house people for more than a few days or perhaps weeks; until a couple of years ago, it functioned as a lock-up for area arrestees while they awaited transit elsewhere. As such, my fellow inmates and I spend our time in cramped eight-man cells opening on to a day room the size of the cheapest Manhattan apartment that’s shared by 24 men. A few times a week we get to go outside onto a caged concrete strip and walk back and forth for an hour. This comprises our world, and is where I’ve spent most of the past year.
MOTHERBOARD: So your report is essentially more data backing up the idea that seizing drugs doesn’t work, correct?
Evan Wood: You’re right. The price of cannabis has really bottomed out over the last few years and the potency has increased. The same thing seems to be happening to heroin and cocaine, which was seen as the success story the United States was touting in the War on Drugs. When you look at the data though, it’s essentially neutral. There’s been no gains there in the past two decades. The patterns of supply go up and down but they’re not related to anything the government is implementing.
In popular media, seizures are presented as officers with guns and drugs in a brightly lit room, with the implication being that seizing drugs somehow impacts the availability or supply on the street. But there’s no economic paper out there that suggests it has any effect. The amount seized is so minuscule compared to the actual size of the supply.
How to Be Vegan in Prison
I am a vegan. Nineteen years deep into a lifelong commitment to avoid eating anything from an animal. In following this moral code I have found myself at protests turned riots, donning cow costumes at meat processing conventions, and creeping into slaughterhouses in complete darkness to film the inhumane treatment of animals. When I was arrested in 1998 and faced “Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act” (AETA) charges that could have put me in prison for 82 years, I chose an underground life over a potential life sentence. I became a fugitive on the run from the FBI until 2005, when I was arrested and sentenced to two years in prison for releasing thousands of minks from fur farms.
While living on the lam I put as much effort into vegan dining as the FBI did into catching me. I ate seitan marinated in sesame ginger sauce and roasted red pepper hummus on sprouted grain pizza crust. I double-fisted dried strawberries and malted carob balls, drank rice shakes every morning and sipped kombucha every night. Agave nectar was my table sugar, and organic carrot-juice my wine.
Once I was thrown into a prison cell, this comfortable reality instantly evaporated. Three times a day, the slot on my cell door opened, delivering trays piled with every variety of animal flesh and byproduct. The trace amounts of iceberg lettuce barely pushed my caloric intake into the double digits. I launched a nightly letter-writing campaign, targeting anyone with influence. Everyone from the prison captain, to the kitchen manager, to Congressperson Barbara Boxer received my letters. My demands were simple: No meat, dairy, or eggs. In this one-sided negotiation process, leverage was in short supply.
After two years and seven prisons, I learned a thing or three about how to get meat-free food in prison.
Here’s my playbook for imprisoned vegans who refuse to compromise.
Just Close Down California’s Prisons Already
I point out as often as possible that I think my incarcerated experience differed greatly from the average locked-up cracker. First and foremost, New York State, where I was behind bars, has one of the more efficient and regulated prison systems around—you never see its prisons on any of those trashy Shit Is So Crazy in Jail reality TV shows that are everywhere these days. And while most states are dealing with overcrowding in their prisons, New York is closing facilities, which is probably why I’ve been at a lot of sports where most of the guys were in a single bunk. I’ve seen these poor bastards on TV who are TRIPLE BUNKING about ten inches away from the next triplet of stinky anuses, and the cubicles are in a medium-sized room stuffed with 300 dudes, some of whom are bound to be real undesirables. A big dorm in New York prisons only had around 60 guys and that was like hell on earth to me, so relatively speaking I was lucky.
Meanwhile, in California they’ve been desperately trying to figure out what to do with theirfucked-up, overfull prisons—they’re even letting some old guys out early, I heard. FYI, this is what inmates fantasize about… I’ve had many dreams where I’m chillin’ with no pants on and bags of shit weaved into my hair so I don’t lose them and then the CO yells, “BURYKILL! ON THE RELEASE! YOU GOIN HOME, CRACKA!”
What happens to the men and women who get released when the system spits ‘em out? I bet the grant writers are getting fuckin’ busy trying to get the government to shell out ducats for halfway houses and rehabs, and maybe they’ll start putting some of the zanier heads in hospitals for the mentally handicapped, where they shoulda been in the first place.
The Canadian Prison System Is Keeping People Doped Up on Methadone
“Imagine a society that subjects people to conditions that make them terribly unhappy then gives them the drugs to take away their unhappiness. Science fiction is already happening to some extent in our own society.”
Orange Is the New Black is providing lazy Netflix watchers all over the place with an opportunity to escape into the lives of prisoners, but however fashionable prison entertainment may be, the truth is that Canada’s prison system, on all levels, is pretty fucked up right now. When you look at stories of cost cutting, population growth, and the rise of inmates suffering from mental health issues, it’s hard not to shudder at what else might be going on behind bars.
Drugs, in one form or another, have always been present within the prison system, and the failed war on drugs has only made the problem worse. In the last few years, however, one drug in particular has been sounding alarm bells for prison staff: methadone.
Methadone is a synthetic-opioid similar to heroin, and is often referred to as ‘liquid-cuffs’ because the habit is so hard to kick. It comes in a liquid form, and is often mixed with Tang of all things. The drug is used to treat opioid addiction, but many users will end up being hooked on methadone itself for the rest of their lives.
Phone Calls from Jail Are Criminally Expensive
Sometimes phones are a pain in the dick even in the real world. I remember when cell phones turned into a necessity and you could no longer fall off the grid every day just by leaving the house—I miss being able to have that freedom. People wanted to be able to connect with each other whenever they desire, and that turned into everyone being forced to be available to everyone 24/7. Walk down the street sometime and count how many people are staring at their little screens.
Not having your cell phone is such a vicious bitch when you’re locked up. Maybe it wouldn’t have been as bad 15 years ago, but now we’re so used to interacting all the time that inmates go crazy when they can’t even text their people. Dummies in the last county jail I was at did something they called “texting”—they would call someone collect then say something megaquick when the operator asked for their name, and the person on the other end would do the same thing. They’d go back and forth like this for an hour without being charged a penny, but they’d waste 50 minutes of that hour listening to recordings and pressing buttons. Meanwhile we had people who really wanted to use the pay phone waiting while these jerk-offs “texted.”
The reason the texters did that was phone calls from jails and prisons are so insanely expensive, it’s practically criminal—some folks have paid $17 for a measly 15-minute call. A couple weeks ago the FCC finally did the right thing and put a cap on how much inmates can be charged for out-of-state calls by the private carriers who rob ‘em blind. That’s important, ‘cause people in prison really have no choice but to pay whatever those predators charge, unless they want to wither away in the clink-clink without talking to anyone they know.
Prison Pit – Welcome to the Home of El Salvador’s Most Notorious Gangs
Above: Temperatures can reach 100 degrees or higher in these sweaty enclosures. More than 30 men are crammed in each cage.
In San Salvador, the two main street gangs are Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 (M18). Both were founded in Los Angeles in the 1980s by a group of poor, mostly illegal immigrants. Initially their membership consisted almost exclusively of those who had escaped from the civil war in El Salvador. Many of these gang members were deported back to El Salvador after the war ended in 1992, exporting back a newly organized and ruthless gang culture.
For nearly two decades, the gangs have been murdering each other in the most brutal ways possible, while expanding throughout Latin America. In 2011, the murder rate peaked at 15 homicides per day in El Salvador. Last year a truce was negotiated between MS-13 and M18 with the assistance of religious leaders and the government. The aim of the truce was to stem the escalating number of shootings and deaths by focusing on the younger gang members and taking some of the weapons off the streets. According to the gang leaders, the time was right to talk and stop the violence. After the much publicized treaty was signed, the effects were almost instantaneous, and the homicide rate dropped 52 percent in 15 months; however, in early July of this year, tensions boiled over once again and there were 103 killings in the country in a single week, giving Salvadorans a reminder that some things may never change.
These Nonviolent Female Prisoners Have Been Rotting in Prison for Over a Decade
A few weeks ago, I found a book at a thrift store called The Tallahassee Project. It’s a collection of photos of nonviolent female federal inmates who were incarcerated as part of the war on drugs. Each photo is accompanied by a letter from the woman depicted, explaining her situation.
The majority of the women shown in the book were charged with “conspiracy” based on the statements of informants who spoke to authorities in exchange for reduced sentences. Often, this conspiracy amounted to little more than being the girlfriend, wife, or mother of a drug dealer.
The book was compiled in April 2001 by a guy named John Beresford from an organization called the Committee on Unjust Sentencing. I googled John to see if there was any update on how the women in the book were doing. I guess there’s a part of me that likes to believe that once a horrible injustice has been brought to the attention of the public, somebody, somehow, will do something to fix it.
That’s not the case here. Unfortunately, John died in 2007, and took his Committee on Unjust Sentencing with him. I checked to see if the women from the book were still in prison, and many of them still are—rotting in prison since before 9/11 because they got messed up with drugs.
Below are some of the women who haven’t been released, along with the the letter they wrote to John 12 years ago.
Alice Jones (Inmate ID Number: 29560-004)
Sentenced to 24 years for conspiracy, drug conviction
Estimated release date: 04-24-2015
"I am a mother of two, a 19-year-old daughter and a 14-year-old son. For 25 years I owned and operated my own property rental business, which I began from the ground up. In 1992, I was arrested and subsequently convicted for a drug conspiracy of which I had no part. The government attempted to seize my home and business. A thorough investigation of my business and tax records proved my business to be legitimate. No drugs were even seized from me or my home. My criminal record was based entirely upon people with multiple arrests and lengthy police records, who were attempting to avoid further convictions.
I did not ever imagine such an atrocious nightmare could ever occur in the United States. If this can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.”