The worlds of academia and incarceration are closer than you may think.
I Went Undercover in America’s Toughest Prison
Everyone knows the US imprisons more people than any other country in the world. What they might not know is that, as an American citizen, you’re more likely to be jailed than if you were Chinese, Russian or North Korean; that, with 2.3 million inmates, there are currently the same amount of people imprisoned in the States as the combined populations of Estonia and Cyprus; and that once Americans are sent to jail, they tend to keep going back.
According to a recent study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics—a US Department of Justice agency—within six months of release 28 percent of inmates get rearrested for a new crime. After three years, the figure rises to 68 percent. By the end of five years, it’s an alarming 77 percent. But terrible recidivism rates have been a constant in the Land of the Free. The Pew Research Center issued its own report on the problem in 2011; the conclusion was bleak. Too many criminal offenders emerge from prison ready to offend again, and more than four out of 10 adult offenders in America return to prison within three years of their release. For too many Americans, the prison door keeps revolving.
How do we try to change whatever it was that brought someone into trouble with the law? And if that proves impossible, what is the best way that society can protect itself? I wanted to find out. I also wanted to see how much of what I knew—or thought I knew—about jail turned out to be true. So I wrote to corrections departments worldwide asking for access.
Rick Wershe is a former drug dealer and police informant who was convicted in 1988, at the age of 17, of possessing 17 pounds of cocaine. Now 46 and a father of three, Wershe is the only inmate in Michigan behind bars who was sentenced to life as a minor under a mandatory minimum that has since been repealed.
California Prisons Are Making It Harder for Inmates to Organize and Protest by Banning ‘Obscene’ Reading Material
In February 2013 a group of inmates in California’s Pelican Bay State Prison called for a statewide hunger strike to protest the widespread and sometimes capricious use of special housing units (SHUs, a burreaucratic term for solitary confinement). Germinated in a small collective that included representatives from four different gangs, the call quickly spread throughout the state’s lockups, and on July 8, 30,000 men in 25 prisons refused their meals, attracting national and international media attention. At the end of the two-month protest the state legislature promised to hold hearings to look into the use of SHUs, and some reforms have resulted, including a “step-down” program that may hasten some inmates’ transfers out of solitary.
The strike represented a feat of communication that defeated barriers of concrete, steel, and distance, and it had relied, in part, on the newspapers, magazines, and prison newsletters that had spread the word about the protest.
“The access to the media—from mainstream newspapers to more prison-specific publications—empowered these prisoners to strike,” said Oakland attorney Anne Weills, who represents a group of prisoners suing the state for keeping them in solitary for over a decade. “It gave them a sense of individual and collective empowerment.”
But Weills wasn’t the only person who noticed how the prisoners’ use of the media had facilitated a stunning denunciation of SHUs. The prison authorities also took note—and now the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) is proposing a ban on publications that address prison concerns under the guise of clamping down on “obscene materials.”
In California prisons, “obscene materials” has traditionally referred to a fairly narrow realm of images and written material, including photos or drawings of nude people or sexual penetration and pornography involving minors. Since the CDCR first adopted these prohibitions in 1995, there have been no updates, modifications, or additions to the list of contraband publications—until now. In April, the CDCR announced that it would change the rules to prohibit any publication that has an association with a “Security Threat Group” (STG, the new term of art for gang) or any material that might “indicate an association with groups that are oppositional to authority and society.”
“You have to lay on it,” She said as she sucked methadone out of the sleeve of her pink hoodie and placed a few sandwiches in between two gym mats. Somehow, I had found myself on the bench of a jail cell learning how to spice up a frozen cheese and mayo sandwich. I had opted for the PB&J, a rookie mistake. I don’t know why I did it—I don’t even like peanut butter—and it wasn’t PB&J; it was peanut butter and honey. It was a gooey brown substance on frozen bread that resembled wheat but didn’t seem like it should be considered wheat. Was this shit gluten free?
I was going on hour twenty in prison, trying to stuff the frozen sandwich down my throat before I could taste it when she walked in. Her hair was seemingly wet with grease, her neck covered in hickies, wearing a five-sizes-too-small pink belly shirt and sneakers without laces. Her butt-crack and stomach were hanging out of her diamond-studded True Religion jeans. She came in like a storm. She was given four sandwiches from the prison guard before she entered the cell. They had a long embrace before she sat down near me. I guess she was a regular. She threw her sandwiches onto the floor and ran into the bathroom: an open toilet with a piece of wood in front of it to allow for the smallest amount of privacy possible. As we sat there, I listened to her poop and complain about accidentally dropping a cigarette in there. I stopped trying to eat my meal.
Meet the Vigilante Prisoner Who Beats Up Jail Rapists
T-Bone is a 6 ft 5 ex-Marine who’s become something of a legend in the west coast prison system for taking a one-man stand against rapists in American jails. He believes it’s his Christian duty to protect weaker inmates from being sexually abused, and has been stabbed and beaten to within an inch of his life for doing just that. He’s currently serving time for robbery (he maintains his innocence), so I sent him some questions about his anti-rape crusade and the issues of sexual assault in American prisons.
VICE: Hi T-Bone. When did you first decide that you were going to make a stand against rapists in the prison system?
T-Bone: It was in 1986, when I saw a young kid of 18 being pushed around for food and being told to smuggle crystal meth and heroin into prison inside his butt. When the kid brought the dope in, the two guys who’d made him do it both got high and raped the kid, which made me decide to take action.
How common is rape in American prisons? As prevalent as TV and movies would have you believe?
It’s very common, and it happens in a variety of ways. When I was in one particular prison here in Arizona, every single night someone was getting raped. All night long, I heard male flesh pounding against male flesh, guys getting fucked up the ass. Anyone who couldn’t fight back was game. The rapists were the size of apes. They’d put the victim in a chokehold to make them unconscious. Regular guys—not homosexuals—were getting punked and were scared to admit it. I also saw big guys kissing little white boys on the lips and neck like they were women. Gang members would sometimes hold someone down and stick things in his ass—stuff like cans, soda bottles, shampoo bottles, broom handles, or metal shanks.
Shaun has told me that your Christian faith played a part in inspiring you to take action against rapists.
My belief in God gives me the divine power to do all things through His spirit. Some people say that God doesn’t hurt people and that I hurt those rapists on my own because I wanted to run things in prison, but I believe that God didn’t tell the rapists I encountered over the years to force themselves on young inmates just because they could. I never ran across the yard and jumped on people because of their behavior; I prayed, I talked to a lot of people on the yard who felt the same way I did, and I asked God for protection.
I’m not a Superman or someone special. God’s power is much stronger than mine, and His will will be done. Making rapists stop hurting other people was God pushing and guiding me. I didn’t win all of my fights with rapists—I almost lost my life more than once when I was stabbed and smashed in the skull with rocks in socks. I believe the only reason I’m alive is by God’s grace.
Should Teens Be Arrested for the Stupid Things They Say on Social Media?
On Sunday morning, a Dutch teenager named Sarah made one of the most disastrous attempts to be funny on Twitter in history. The 14-year-old girl, whose now-suspended handle was @QueenDemetriax_, decided it would be a good idea to tweet “hello my name’s Ibrahim and I’m from Afghanistan. I’m part of Al Qaida and on June 1st I’m gonna do something really big bye [sic]” at the official account of American Airlines, which responded with an ominous “Sarah, we take these threats very seriously. Your IP address and details will be forwarded to security and the FBI.”
Naturally, she freaked like the kid in trouble she was, tweeting panicked messages to @AmericanAir that she was “kidding,” “joking,” “scared,” “not from Afghanistan,” and “just a girl” who “never did anything wrong” in her life. She briefly paused to take stock of her fame (“Over 2,000 RTs what”) before she was identified by Dutch police, turned herself infor making a false report, and was brought to a court hearing before being released.
It’s not clear that she’ll face criminal charges, but in the wake of her jokey “threat” came a storm of copycats tweeting warnings to American Airlines (and Southwest Airlines, for whatever reason); it was sort of like that scene in Spartacus except much, much stupider. Articles about this hot new teen trend generally took pains to castigate young twitterers like@twerkcunt for their poor choice of prank. Writing for the Washington Post’s style blog, Caitlin Dewey made sure everyone knew that this kind of trolling was NOT COOL, KIDS:
We hardly need reiterate the problems with this kind of thing: Airlines need to take threats seriously, no matter how silly they seem, which means a lot of airline employees (and presumably, police and security and FBI) are spending a lot of time tracking down nuisance threats, as well.
Leaving aside, for a minute, the vast waste of taxpayer money and manpower that represents, there’s another more ground-level problem here: This trolling completely destroys whatever incentives airlines have to engage with their customers on Twitter.
I would argue that if federal agents spent any time whatsoever tracking down Twitter user @comedybatman or the kids making “I think you guys are THE BOMB”–related puns, the resulting waste of taxpayer money is on them, not the trolling teens. But more importantly, the knee-jerk reaction here—tut-tutting at some kids for having some fun making incredibly distasteful jokes—distracts from the actual problem of teens getting arrested, or suspended or expelled from school, for things they’ve posted to social media.
Weev, the hacker who spent a year in jail for a crime that didn’t exist, in a place that wasn’t there.
Why Obama’s Regulators Let Wall Street Bankers Off Easy
If there’s anything more maddening than the sheer scale of the financial fraud that sent America and the rest the planet spiraling into the economic abyss in 2008, it’s the fact that no Wall Street bankers have gone to jail for causing the mess. As in zero, zilch, none at all.
So at his farewell party last month to celebrate a lengthy career at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)—the US regulatory agency that supposedly keeps Wall Street in check—James Kidney, a trial attorney who had been hamstrung for years by indifferent bosses, broke his silence and went off on an awesome rant about how no one in the financial sector fears the body supposedly policing their behavior. The SEC, in essence, is a joke.
Describing it as “an agency that polices the broken windows on the street level and rarely goes to the penthouse floors,” Kidney told an audience of fellow employees that they had dropped the ball because of a revolving door of corruption between the SEC and Wall Street megabanks. “I have had bosses, and bosses of my bosses, whose names we all know, who made little secret that they were here to punch their ticket. They mouthed serious regard for the mission of the Commission, but their actions were tentative and fearful in many instances,” he said.