A Voice from Prison Blog | Criminal Justice Reform & Constitutional Rights

Post 12: Transit During COVID-19 (Part 2)

This blog post is the continuation of a series, Transit During COVID-19. Read part one here.

Grady County (Shady Grady)

When you are on a prison transport bus, the windows are often too high for you to look out at anything and just barely thin enough to let in any light. So when you are transported, you don’t really get a good look at where you are going. Plus you are chained up. Chains around your waist. Chains on your wrists. Chains on your feet. Sometimes also chained to your seat or to each other. It gets even more uncomfortable when you are required to wear paper suits. Yes, suits made out of paper. You sweat due to the lack of A/C in most of these buses and your paper suit is literally transparent and can see your underwear and bare chest by the time you exit.

After arriving at the destination, I looked up at the building and thought that I had to be dreaming. Imagine a building, maybe eight stories tall, missing many exterior bricks and windows, that literally looks like it’s about to tumble. At first I thought we were at a demolition site, you know, where they blow up an unstable building. No… this was what I would be calling home, at least for a short while.

We formed into a long line outside in the summer heat with no shade. Up to this point, I had had no sun on my skin for at least a year and a half. I imagine the sunburn came on within the first ten minutes. We were slowly processed by an instant COVID-19 test. This was only the second COVID test I had since the outbreak began. Luckily, the entire group was told they were negative. However, we were informed later that at least one of the group was in fact positive and it was ‘overlooked’. Regardless, we had arrived at another new facility.

We had not had any water or food that day. We were shuffled upstairs to a large cell. Roughly 50 or so inmates were put in a room that should have probably been rated for 20 at the most. But I was soon getting used to how the system treated inmates – less than human. At least we had our first chance at using the restroom. We had to drink the water from our hands, but at least we had that too.

A couple of hours later, already after sunset, we were finally brought our meals. The first meal of a long day, probably about 22 hours later. Baloney sandwiches. The interesting thing was that those were all the facility served, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner… I felt bad for all the people who had to spend weeks or months there.

It was after midnight when we were finally taken to our cells. The CO had to tell us the time, as we ourselves did not have any means of telling time. He also told us not to get comfortable (as if that is even remotely possible), because he would be back to get us up in the early morning to be put back on a plane. We set up bunks, which were three high. The overflowing toilet in the cell was dirtier than the worse porta-potty I had ever seen. No one was separated by security level. We had several killers in my cell, with a total of maybe 25 prisoners in transport.

Con-Air – Federal Prisoner Transport

We didn’t sleep at all that night we were at Shady Grady. The CO came in and announced that we were ordered to turn in all our sheets and issued materials immediately. Wondering why we were even given anything in the first place, all they said was that it was policy, in order to look good for their Federal contract. They had to appear to give us the essentials to sleep. We were chained up again and put back on buses. Shuttled back to the airport, we were again loaded onto a plane – an inefficient process that took several hours. The US Marshalls could have transported three times the number of prisoners if they worked at an efficient pace. However, we had to remember that this was the Federal Government. Waiting wasn’t due to flight plans or coordination. We were waiting for the chain smokers and these government employees to sit around talking all morning and joke with the pilots. I’m sure this is a stressful job, dealing with transporting prisoners, but after seeing the type of cars they drove up in to the airport in, I suspected they were here voluntarily.

During loading a couple of prisoners refused to get on the plane. I had never seen a Federal Government employee treat someone so inhumanely. One of the US Marshals who had an assault rifle heard another employee yelling at the prisoner to get on the plane. The one who had the rifle, slammed the butt of his rifle into the prisoner’s face, knocking him on the ground hard. He grabbed him by his neck, and dragged him up the stairs to the plane. There was blood on the ground, but I never saw how bad of a condition he was in. I assumed he was placed all the way in the back of the plane. All I know was that he was refusing to go back to the private prison (CCA), due to the conditions. Later I found out we were heading there ourselves.

We finally got underway after loading, taking off and in flight. Still missing breakfast and lunch, several of us begged the Marshalls for food. They said we would be landing shortly and we would be fed at the destination. This was of course not true, but how could we argue?

Memphis Airport then Tallahatchie CCA

I’ve always been concerned about the concept of private prisons. The ability for a person or an organization to make money off incarcerating an individual is cause for concern, because their ability to make a profit is often based on their ability to reduce spending. In this case, the Federal Government is hardly the most efficient when it comes to spending, however, the main cause for concern is primarily oversight. Since prisons are not under public scrutiny, and perhaps many don’t care to see what goes on, few know about the poor treatment of inmates and our inability to get even the most basic necessities.

I was not wrong to suspect that my first private prison experience would be a negative one. However, what really shocked me was how much worse it was than what I had actually expected. After arriving at the Memphis airport and being ‘sorted’ onto buses, we were set on the road for hours only to arrive in the middle of nowhere. On the way, we made several stops, which of course I would believe at this juncture were not allowed or known about. Most of the stops were for the guards to purchase food or pick up unknown items in plastic bags, but as the last stop showed, it appeared they mainly wanted to waste time not being at the prison itself. On this last stop, several of the guards just went outside and sat on boxes in the sun and drank the drinks they picked up earlier. A trip that probably should have taken just a couple of hours took much longer, leaving inmates again to miss another meal and chained up with their wrists and feet shackled.

We finally arrived at the prison that definitely looked like a maximum security facility. There were extremely high fences topped with double razor wire, then another whole set behind them, as well as a set behind those for the actual prison pods. We were admitted after being yelled at for not moving fast enough off the bus, several of the older individuals being pushed, some falling down the stairs while still in shackles. No one was hurt more than scratches or bruises, but still, there was no oversight by the US Marshalls or the Federal Government.

After going through a very extensive admission process, we were finally brought food at the end of the day, after having missed all meals since the previous day. I had become accustomed to missing meals as part of the prison transport process. I never thought this would be a normal experience in my life. What they called food was barely edible. I realized that this was one of the areas where they made most of their profit. I have to believe that there had never actually been a health inspection at this facility. The food probably consisted of 3/4 water – everything was watered down to the point that even what might have been a burger patty, was now a soup. The meat was probably the lowest grade, not even fit for dog food. Hardly anyone ate while at their stay in this facility. Of course the facility got away with it – they were in the middle of nowhere with no health department or oversight, except probably a board of directors who demanded profits over all else. Inmates were Federal prisoners in transport and would rarely stay more than 90 days at this facility. A lot of people got sick and lost a lot of weight extremely fast. No measurements were made coming in or going out.

Once we finished with the admission process, we were taken to our pod. There were 90 cells in a unit, all with double bunks. So 180 people were crammed into this tiny little space. There were no cell assignments, so we had to attempt to fight on our own. There was a lot of blood that day and endless fighting. No guards stayed, they just opened the door and left. There was no way to get in contact with a guard either. The intercom button at the door was broken. We were completely on our own.

When I was able to get to a cell myself, I realized how much this facility wanted to maximize their profits. There was no light switch on the inside or outside of the cell. Most cell doors were broken. My light switch was exposed (and live) wires that you had to attempt to touch together without shocking yourself with 120V of electricity. After all the blood I saw that night, it didn’t even hit me until the next day how wrong being in this place was. I didn’t have a mattress. I laid down a white sheet on the metal bunk and went to sleep that night, exhausted, unknowing if anyone would visit my cell while I slept. Honestly, at that point, I didn’t care. I was in hell and too exhausted to care what else happened to me that day.

After waking up, I found most of the other inmates were equally exhausted after the long trip we had experienced, as well as all the fighting that occurred the previous evening. I don’t remember one person who had less than a 5 year sentence in my entire pod. Most had 15+ years, as well as a large handful of individuals who had life. We were all mixed together, a thought which scared me. These individuals had nothing to lose. They couldn’t receive a worse sentence than life, so what did anything else matter in their life at this point.

I discovered that three of these extremely largely populated pods were watched by a single CO. That meant that there were 540 people to 1 CO. 90% of the staff were women. There was no help for any of us if fighting broke out. If someone were hurt bad enough, I realized they would likely die at this place. During my time there, I wondered if I would be one of the few who made it through this experience.

That morning, I discovered there were a number of rival gangs within the same pod as us. This meant trouble of course. Walking around the unit, watching my back in the process, I quickly realized there were no books, no reading materials, or board games and cards. There was a single working TV mounted on a pole roughly 18 feet in the air – so high your neck hurt watching for more than 10 minutes. The center of the pod was filled up with metal tables with attached chairs. Nothing else existed other than the prisoners who were present. Boredom does not even begin to describe the experience.

There were a total of 4 phones for all 180 people in the unit. Quickly, two of the gangs took over two phones. Following that there were two remaining phones, one for the Hispanic and one for the black prisoners. I was defiantly in the minority and didn’t have a say for the first couple of days. However, after several more fights, phones were shifted around so that white prisoners also got a turn. This became my life. I would wait in line for hours to have a twenty minute call with my family, which was extremely expensive. The CCA was making so much money off the phone calls. They typically ran between $5-8 per call. But there was nothing else to look forward to. My existence was dedicated to being able to speak to someone on the other end of that phone, hoping that the money would be on there for the next call.

The food continued to be horrible. I ate roughly one meal out of five. I had about one every other day. I lost weight extremely fast. However, as there was nothing to do, I quickly adjusted to the sedentary lifestyle and hoped I would not get into a physical altercation. There is only so much you can sleep in a day, but you quickly learn how to adjust to maximize that. It also didn’t help that my medication was not issued for several weeks. Depression, as I realize today, is very much a real thing. At this point, I wanted nothing more than to not exist in this world anymore. A cage, with constant violence, no help, and nothing to do. I saw so many people break in ways that I could never have imagined.

(Adventure will continue in Part 3)

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