What Message is the US Justice System Really Sending Prisoners?

What has surprised me most in my extensive experience with the United States Justice System is by far the overarching message sent by leadership and administration. The message is simple – “This Is A Game, Try Harder To Not Get Caught.”

Many might not believe this statement, so I will expand on this in the context of my own personal experience, as well as by describing common issues that exist in many correctional facilities throughout the United States.

First, I would like to highlight my knowledge and experience of the topic – I have currently been incarcerated for roughly 3 years in the Federal System. In that time, have been housed in County facilities, State facilities, private facilities, Marshal facilities, and BOP facilities. All thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic which led to excessive transfers and to various prisons refusing new inmates.

I was first remanded from Court following a guilty conviction for conspiracy in a white collar crime to a local County correctional facility in Albany, New York. Since then, I have been flown and bussed all over the United States, cross-country several times. While this has been a quite horrible experience, I have come to understand the overall American criminal justice quite intimately.

While many people might believe my portrayal of this experience is biased, and they might be correct to an extent, I have also been reviewing this topic objectively, as a citizen and as a community member. The message is clear – the justice system itself, along with the the correctional facilities, is primarily viewed and reinforced as a game, one which it is suggested that reform is not paramount but that the objective is to try harder to not get ‘caught’.

Throughout my travels, I have experienced, and been subjected to, discipline a multitude of times. My infractions have been quite *** insert sarcasm here *** serious. Anything from possession of contraband to failure to take medication (a turkey sandwich given for lunch in my cell, an extra blanket approved by medical but not documented, my cell door not properly closed by the previous correctional officer during a previous evening count, refusing medication following being taken to the hospital for an reaction, etc….). I have for the most part attempted to maintain a clean and ‘crime free’ prison life. It can be difficult when being policed 24/7 (imagine how a typical law abiding citizen feels when followed for more than a couple of minutes by a cop car even though they know they are doing nothing wrong) to not slip up and forget that something as simple as Chapstick purchased from commissary can be considered contraband in the right (or wrong) circumstances.

Within a correctional facility, there are many different types of guards and administrative officers. These include typical CO’s (correctional officers) who are assigned to a unit or detail, all the way up to wardens and administrators. Most staff, in my own experience, do not wish to make life excessively difficult in an already difficult environment. However, the minority can greatly outweigh the majority in wanting to inflict as much pain as possible on the lives of others. Without getting into the psychological reasons they might want to act that way, this sets many individuals up for failure from day one in an institution. As rules can be bent or broken, they also work in the opposite way for oppressors – some correctional officers and staff members can bend rules so far that the core justification for having implementing the rule in the first place is no longer seen. Something as simple as an inmate not having contraband has been warped into such a form that anything out of place today is now called ‘contraband’. This is extremely harmful to such a vulnerable population that society has opted to seek rehabilitation for. Today, we are in fact doing the opposite of rehabilitating those convicted of crimes – we are in fact hurting them and giving them the wrong message.

Rules have purposes – they are necessary for the protection of the community as a whole. When warped beyond their original purpose, they actually begin to serve the opposite purpose, by hurting individuals as well as the community at large. Laws work in a similar fashion – they serve a purpose and should only be executed and maintained on the books as long as they promote a positive end result for the community. In prison, too often rules are turned into ways which malicious guards or staff can retaliate against inmates under their care without having a clear and concise justification for their actions. Too often, this is exactly what occurs in any position where power is so unevenly distributed such as in a correctional facility.

I find the word correctional facility kind of ironic in itself. With recidivism at such high levels, I find it difficult to imagine that any correction is actually being done successfully. You can not label something to make it more appealing and easier for society to swallow. It’s a lot like how we refer to ‘torture’ today as ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’. Renaming something doesn’t change the nature of the action. We aren’t actually correcting behavior, we are asking those convicted of crimes today to hide their actions better by making a game of it.

Now, I would like to share specific examples, from personal experience, that those words have almost been spoken by correctional leaders verbatim. My first experience came during a search of my cell at the first facility I was placed following trial. Keep in mind, I had never experienced incarceration before and had zero interaction with law enforcement officers, at least not negative ones. I was placed in a County Correctional Facility, classified as maximum security. This meant we were not allowed outside, the only room other than our cells we could go was the day-room which is monitored by a live CO, visually and recorded with cameras, and the only access we had to outside materials was through mail which underwent extensive inspection. If we were allowed visitation, which during COVID-19 we were not, we were strip searched (yes all the way naked with cavity searches) BEFORE AND AFTER every visit. Sounds pretty difficult to have the ability to get any contraband into such a facility, other than by those who were guarding us. Now, searches in County facilities are extremely common. When I say common, I mean multiple times a day, where your cell is tossed, everything dumped on the floor, our already thin mattresses ripped up, etc…. How often was contraband found? Constantly, so much so that every day many people would often be placed in solitary confinement for a period of time.

Now, I know exactly what you are thinking – the guard brought stuff in – the same ones who were probably searching us? WRONG. No one brought anything in. Do you know how difficult it is today to bring in ANYTHING into a modern-day County Correctional Facility with cameras and metal detectors and all the other things used to inspect paid for by the American people? Extremely difficult. The only likely way anything truly classified as contraband was brought in was via mail, which has all been shutdown by conversion of physical mail to copies being provided or by the modern-day technology used to inspect the mail sent to prisoners.

So you are probably asking what the contraband was? Well, it was every day normal items: things we are allowed to purchase or that are provided to us. An extra bar of soap given to you by a prisoner who was leaving? Contraband. Three books when you are only allowed two? Contraband. 18 family photos when you are only allowed 15 by policy? Contraband. Even a turkey sandwich given to you at lunch and put in a bowl because you were throwing up and sick, in order to eat later? Contraband.

One time I got sent to solitary confinement for having a second blanket. They are issued by staff, so the only way you can have it in the first place is if it is given to you by someone in charge. In my case, I was given one by medical to use as a pillow (we are not given pillows in most County facilities) due to a car accident I was in prior. During a search, the guard which was in my cell during the raid discovered the extra blanket – i.e… contraband – and asked another officer if I was allowed it. The other officer did not have the medical sheet and medical was not available to take the call to verify, so it was assumed that it was contraband. I was given solitary confinement as punishment. Now, I am not a pushover and spoke with the lead guard doing the raid. I explained I was given the blanket by medical and that it was approved. However, since he was unable to verify that fact, I was given immediate punishment. Guilty until proven innocent. I asked him why such measures would be taken and his response was given with a smile, “Jail is a game. Sometimes you lose. Sometimes you win. Deal with it.” I will never forget those words…

Another incident happened at the same facility which I can use as an excellent example. Now, in a County Correctional Facility (jail), there is literally nothing to do other than watch TV or play cards. I often used the time to work or to read in order to spend my time at least somewhat productively. There is a problem in these places though. The only exercise you can do is push-ups or sit-ups. You are not allowed to run and there is no equipment or weights. So naturally, we criminals must be innovative. We used chairs – lifting them as weights. This was ‘improper use of government property’ according to the regulations, as a chair is meant to be sat in, not lifted. What would you think of if you read ‘improper use of government property’ out of context? Pretty serious, right? Well, some of the unit CO’s would be compassionate and allow us to work out with the chairs. However, if the captain came around, we couldn’t be seen using them. Also, since there are cameras, we had to do it in the grey areas where the cameras didn’t see well.

So, on one hand, we are given the OK by a police officer to do something, UNLESS someone else sees. Now, think about this with me for a minute. What does this message instill in inmates? Maybe “It’s okay to break the rules as long as you can hide the evidence,” or “Rules are pointless and can be broken,” or “Authority should be considered the bad guy”? What are your thoughts? Well, this was my second time spent in solitary confinement. I was given permission by the authority to do something against the rules, where later I was caught and subject to full enforcement, even after someone else said it was okay to do.

The message to me was clear: ‘improper use of government property’ = raising a chair arm’s length = okay for one police officer = not okay for another police officer = solitary confinement as punishment. What did I learn that aided in my rehabilitation and successful reintegration back to society? I am still unsure.

Most inmates I have encountered at some point question what they are really learning by this horrific experience. The message I mentioned before as central to the US justice system – “This Is A Game, Try Harder To Not Get Caught” – was reinforced most recently by a high ranking leader in the BOP facility I am currently located at. Contraband was one of their concerns when recently addressing the inmates at this facility. Their statement caught me a little off-guard, however I should be used to this by now. It was this: make sure you have a lookout (someone who watches for when the guards walk around) so that inmates don’t get caught. WOW. We are here to be rehabilitated by society so we can come back and live productive lives and successfully reintegrate in the community. But clearly, the message is this: “We know what you are doing and we are telling you it is wrong. But just hide it better and don’t get caught.”

Thoughts? Comments? What do you think?

One Response

  1. I really liked your comment that “We aren’t actually correcting behavior, we are asking those convicted of crimes today to hide their actions better by making a game of it.” It’s as if prisoners in our country are incentivized to not improve themselves because their well-being is so compromised either way while incarcerated. Researching the prison system of the US has unearthed the “backwardness” of these institutions. Using the organization First Step Alliance, I looked to other countries that have much lower rates of recidivism, such as Norway, and found that at their core, they treat imprisonment as a rehabilitation, with the focus being the well being and humane treatment of individuals. It seems that their correctional facilities truly attempt to correct behavior, something the US falls far from even attempting to accomplish.

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