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only inmate in Michigan behind bars who was sentenced to life as a minor under a mandatory minimum that has since been repealed.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.”
How Poor Young Black Men Run from the Police
Alice Goffman is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison whose book, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City (out this month on University of Chicago Press), has been getting far more attention than academic works usually get. The book is a result of her living in a poor black neighborhood in Philadelphia she refers to as “6th Street” for years as an undergraduate and a grad student. (She changed the names of people and places in her book.) She eventually fell in with a group of young men who were almost constantly under the threat of being arrested and jailed, often for petty probation violations or unpaid court fees. She became a “fly on the wall” and took notes as her subjects (who were also her friends) attempted to make a living, support each other, and maintain relationships with their loved ones, all while attempting to evade the authorities. Goffman’s work shows how the threat of imprisonment hangs over the lives of so many in communities like 6th Street and warps families and friendships in the process. It’s an uncommonly close look at how lives are lived under police surveillance and should be read by anyone with an interest in poverty, policing, or mass incarceration. This excerpt is from the second chapter, which is titled “Techniques for Evading the Authorities.”
A young man concerned that the police will take him into custody comes to see danger and risk in the mundane doings of everyday life. To survive outside prison, he learns to hesitate when others walk casually forward, to see what others fail to notice, to fear what others trust or take for granted.
One of the first things that such a man develops is a heightened awareness of police officers—what they look like, how they move, where and when they are likely to appear. He learns the models of their undercover cars, the ways they hold their bodies and the cut of their hair, the timing and location of their typical routes. His awareness of the police never seems to leave him; he sees them sitting in plain clothes at the mall food court with their children; he spots them in his rearview mirror coming up behind him on the highway, from ten cars and three lanes away. Sometimes he finds that his body anticipates their arrival with sweat and a quickened heartbeat before his mind consciously registers any sign of their appearance.
When I first met Mike, I thought his awareness of the police was a special gift, unique to him. Then I realized Chuck also seemed to know when the police were coming. So did Alex. When they sensed the police were near, they did what other young men in the neighborhood did: they ran and hid.
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.
You learn something new everyday, and if you weren’t locked up in Pelican Bay State Prison in the early 2000s, then today you are going to learn how to make a prison-style sweet and sour pork. And we’ve got just the man to give you a tutorial: Andy Roy, a professional skateboarder for Anti-Hero Skateboards, who’s known for a variety of things—not the least of which are the spider web tattoo on the top of his head and his dog pissers to rock.