Looking out: What you are not supposed to see

Issue 

Looking out

What you are not supposed to see

By Brandon Astor Jones

"The public does not care what happens to people in prison." — Alison Fitzgerald

Recently, I went to get a mop to scrub the floor of the cell I occupy. The mop was old and battered, but the mop's head was as clean and white as newly fallen snow. I was glad that the mop was fresh and clean. However, as I slung it back and forth over the dusty cell floor, it occurred to me that the mop head was cleaner than the underwear I had on.

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When you send your new white underwear to the prison laundry, they are going to come back looking old, and they will have a decidedly dingy brown colour. This prison provides more soap and bleach for its mops than it allows its laundry to use on prisoners' underwear.

Alison Fitzgerald's Associated Press article entitled "Women abused in US prisons" (March 6 Atlanta Journal-Constitution) deals with the serious matter of sexual abuse. Massachusetts, Washington, Alabama, Kentucky, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin have no laws that forbid prison employees from engaging in sexual activity with prisoners.

While some female prisoners perform sexual acts on male corrections officers for various favours willingly, rape and other forms of sexual assaults are quite common, according to Amnesty International's report Not part of my sentence: violations of human rights of women in custody.

In the same way that the public should be outraged at a teacher having sex with a student in exchange for giving that student a good grade, the public should be equally outraged about corrections officers having sex with prisoners in exchange for favours.

Unfortunately, not enough people in the US are outraged; while some do show a limited concern for female prisoners who are raped by male officers, there is little concern about the rape of male prisoners. At best, in most cases, sexual assaults on male prisoners are covered up by prison administrators.

A law in Georgia prohibits corrections personnel from having sexual contact with a prisoner even if the prisoner consents. Nevertheless, it was not until the public learned of repeated rapes, a pregnancy and the subsequent abortion one prisoner was ordered to undergo that Georgia's corrections officials moved to end the sexual abuse of female prisoners.

On the other hand, male prisoners are raped frequently by other prisoners, and in most cases the prison administration knows all about it but covers it up, causing a kind of hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil public attitude towards male prisoners.

One of the logical consequences of that public attitude is that many men in prison get the public's unspoken message, which is that rape is all right as long as the rapist chooses the right victim. Has the public forgotten that most men in prison will be released one day?

Prison administrators are expert at covering up what goes on in prison. A few years ago an assistant warden here was caught in the prison warehouse (by another staff member) engaged in a sex act with a prisoner. He has never been charged for that felonious activity. Within hours of the crime, the prisoner was transferred to another prison.

I am reminded, via newspaper and television, of the public's contempt for rapists and child molesters. I understand that contempt and know that it is deserved, but I have never understood why the public thinks that it is all right for other prisoners to rape the rapist or murder the murderer (in Wisconsin, when the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer was bludgeoned to death by a prisoner, a very large portion of the public actually praised the murderer).

You cannot decrease the brutality in free society by praising any form of brutality in prison. The public has to find the courage to start demanding that prisoners be treated with dignity — if not for prisoners' sakes, then for the public's.

The famed English critic and analyst William Hazlitt (1778-1830) wrote: "There is not a more mean, stupid, dastardly, pitiful, selfish, spiteful, envious, ungrateful animal than the Public. It is the greatest of cowards, for it is afraid of itself." His words have more than a little truth to them. The US public allows its prison administrators to spend precious time and money trying to figure out more dehumanising ways to make money from prisoners instead of trying to rehabilitate them. Then when a released prisoner commits a crime, the public seems to be surprised.

Alas, there are thousands of men like John William King in the US (he is one of the three men who chained James Byrd Jr to the bumper of a pick-up truck and dragged him to his death and dismemberment). What bothers me about some of the media's responses to this diabolical crime are two questions certain television news personalities have asked: "Where did this man learn this hate? What are we doing in our prisons that caused this man to hate so much when he was released?"

Give me a break! P-L-E-A-S-E!

When you encourage men in prison to murder and rape one another and allow groups such as "Skin Heads", the Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nation and a host of others to flourish, why would you be surprised that hate mongers get out of prison and do what King did? Then you put the hate monger on trial and smugly take pride in the jury sentencing him to death — as if killing him will heal the cancerous hate that a racist prison culture has spawned. How dare you fool yourself!

When prison administrators invite you into the prison to observe your tax dollars at work, you see highly polished floors. You see polite and respectfully silent prisoners. It is all a charade. You will not see your hate mongers. They will be hiding behind the forced silence your tour guide will have imposed on them. As soon as you leave, I will see John William King in each one of them.

Please do not forget who called for a "get tough" end to most rehabilitation, educational and recreational programs. Try to understand that your average hate monger, given a choice between a bachelor's degree in mopping, waxing and buffing floors and Hate 101, will choose Hate every time. There is little else to do in US prisons these days.

In the same way that this prison's shined floors and clean mops cover up and perpetuate my dingy brown underwear, giving King (or anyone else) the death penalty only covers up and perpetuates the evil that is hate in prisons all across the US.

I do not often agree with Cynthia Tucker, but her article "America's better than the killer of James Byrd" (February 28 Atlanta Journal-Constitution) speaks well for me. She wrote: "This is no brief for King, who would probably chain me to the back of a pickup truck as quickly as he did Byrd. This is a plea for America, which is strong enough, just enough and merciful enough to have put aside, by now, the thirst for vengeance. The question is not: does John William King deserve the death penalty? The question is: does America deserve the death penalty?" Well said.

The next time a group of taxpayers are invited to tour your local prison, ask your tour guide to take you to a few places s/he clearly does not want to go. Be insistent. Those places will be the real prison; when you get there, ask the prisoners questions that you did not ask your tour guide. One more thing: if you are ever touring this prison, the chances are great that a pair or two of my dingy brown underwear will be visible, neatly folded and silently showing you a part of this prison that you are not supposed to see.

[The writer is a prisoner on death row in the United States. He welcomes letters commenting on his columns (include your name and full return address on the envelope, or prison authorities may refuse to deliver it). He can be written to at: Brandon Astor Jones, EF-122216, G3-63, Georgia Diagnostic & Classification Prison, PO Box 3877, Jackson, GA 30233, USA.]