Going up the River: Travels in a Prison Nationby Joseph T. Hallinan
The American prison system has grown tenfold in thirty years, while crime rates have been relatively flat: 2 million people are behind bars on any given day, more prisoners than in any other country in the world — half a million more than in Communist China, and the largest prison expansion the world has ever known. In Going Up The River, Joseph Hallinan/b>… See more details below
The American prison system has grown tenfold in thirty years, while crime rates have been relatively flat: 2 million people are behind bars on any given day, more prisoners than in any other country in the world — half a million more than in Communist China, and the largest prison expansion the world has ever known. In Going Up The River, Joseph Hallinan gets to the heart of America’s biggest growth industry, a self-perpetuating prison-industrial complex that has become entrenched without public awareness, much less voter consent. He answers, in an extraordinary way, the essential question: What, in human terms, is the price we pay? He has looked for answers to that question in every corner of the “prison nation,” a world far off the media grid — the America of struggling towns and cities left behind by the information age and desperate for jobs and money. Hallinan shows why the more prisons we build, the more prisoners we create, placating everyone at the expense of the voiceless prisoners, who together make up one of the largest migrations in our nation’s history.
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There are two prisons in Beeville, Texas. One sits on the site of a recently closed naval air base and is known as the Garza Unit. The other is known as the McConnell Unit.
Beeville, like many prison towns, is a remote place. It lies on the brushy plains of South Texas between San Antonio and Corpus Christi, but it is no closer than an hour's drive to either of them. I had come here for many reasons, but chiefly because I thought I could see in Beeville both the old prison world and the new. In Texas prisons they still do things much as they have for a hundred years. Many of the "units,"as the prisons here are known, are run as large penal farms ? plantations essentially, some spanning more than ten thousand acres ? and the farms grow or raise most everything, from hogs to jalapenos. The crops are tended by inmates, who work the fields under armed guards on horseback, trailed by a pack of hounds (in case a convict tries to escape). Almost no place in America still treats inmates like this, and I had wanted to see this piece of living history before it died. I also wanted to see the modern prison town, and few places seemed to fit the bill better than Beeville. Here was a town of 13,000 people and 7,200 inmates, a ratio unsurpassed almost anywhere in the United States. And yet, some of the town's boosters told me over the phone, they were eager for still more inmates. They were trying, as I knew other American towns were, to turn their community into a prison hub, becoming roughly what Pittsburgh is to steel or Detroit is to cars. But so far they had only the two prisons, the Garza and McConnell units.
The McConnell Unit is run by Warden L. W. Woods. The L stands for Leslie, but no one calls the warden Leslie. He is tall, well over six feet, although it is hard to tell how much is hat and boot. He has pale blue eyes and smooth, hairless cheeks. When the warden speaks, which is no more than necessary, he does so from the side of his mouth, and his lips, I notice, barely move.
Woods is what is known in the business as a custody warden: he believes in locking people up and keeping them locked up. In Texas, this is something of a religion. Texas incarcerates more people, per capita, than almost any state in the country. Its prison system is so big that one of every nine inmates in the United States is incarcerated here. And each year the number grows. To accommodate this growth the state has built more than one hundred prisons since 1980. The state predicts it will soon have 155,000 inmates, making it the largest prison system in the United States. When I ask Woods if this bothers him, he snorts. "In my opinion, there's a lot more that need it."
In 1996, Americans spent $24.5 billion on prisons ? an average of $55 per inmate per day. But, for a variety of reasons, prisons are cheaper in Texas. At the McConnell Unit, it costs just $43 a day to keep a convict ? a figure that makes the warden proud. "We've tried to run it as a business," he says ? a line I hear often from wardens.
The McConnell Unit is named after the late chief of police of Beeville, Bill McConnell, who died in 1987. Until recently, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice named its prisons only after governors or distinguished members of the department and then only after their death. But in recent years the department has had so many prisons to name that it has departed from this custom. Now it names its prisons after mayors, state representatives, judges, and policemen, some still living, and some, like Chief McConnell, long dead.
There are 2,806 inmates at the McConnell Unit, 504 of whom are currently isolated in an area known as administrative segregation, or ad seg. "Ad seg" is a modern term for an ancient practice. Since at least the Roman Empire, prisons have come with separate cells intended to segregate difficult inmates from the general population. But in the last twenty years, as prisons have become more punitive, the use of administrative segregation has become more pervasive, and its consequences, in many cases, have become more severe.
Theoretically, ad seg is not intended as punishment. Texas inmates are placed in here not because they have done something wrong, but "for the purposes of maintaining safety, security, and order" in the prison. In lay terms, they are put here to protect themselves or others from harm. And in Texas, apparently, inmates need a great deal of protecting. Nationwide, slightly more than twenty-eight thousand inmates are kept in administrative segregation. Of these, more than one of every four are in Texas.
But it is hard to imagine life in ad seg as anything but punishment. There are three levels of ad seg in Texas, and most newcomers spend at least ninety days in level 3, the most restrictive. Level 3 inmates receive no deodorant, no shampoo, and no toothpaste ? only a small box of baking soda to use to brush their teeth. The other items are considered perks to be handed out as rewards for good behavior.
But in ad seg good behavior is rare. Many of the inmates are mentally disturbed. Some are called "frequent fliers" because they attempt suicide so often. Others are called "chunkers" because they pelt guards with their feces. The penalties for chunking can be severe. Inmates are stripped and dressed in paper gowns. Their regular meals may be withheld for seven days. Instead, each day's meal is mixed together, baked, and served to the inmate as a "food loaf."
In 1999, a federal judge found the ad seg units in Texas to be "virtual incubators of psychoses." They inflicted such cruel and unusual punishment, he held, that confinement in them violated the Constitution. His findings were based largely on the testimony of experts, including Dr. Craig Haney, a psychologist who is considered, according to the court, "the nation's leading expert in the area of penal institution psychology."
Haney examined the ad seg units in three Texas prisons (the McConnell Unit was not among them) and found what he termed an "unparalleled" level of despair and desperation among the inmates. "In a number of instances," Haney testified, "there were people who had smeared themselves with feces. In other instances, there were people who had urinated in their cells, and the urination was on the floor."
Many of the inmates he tried to speak with were incoherent, "often babbling or shrieking." Others appeared to be full of fury and anger and were, in some instances, banging their hands on the wall and screaming. Still others "appeared to be simply disheveled, withdrawn and out of contact." One inmate scrubbed to remove imaginary bugs from his skin. In all, testified Haney, the conditions inside the state's ad seg units were "as bad or worse as any I've ever seen."
In the McConnell Unit the ad seg area contains a guardroom, and inside is a wall chart. The chart lists the occupant of each of the unit's 504 cells. The cells are arranged in pods, which are labeled alphabetically: A Pod, B Pod, and so on. The chart is color coded to show each inmate's race and gang affiliation. Since virtually all the inmates are gang members, and since virtually all gang membership is based on race, the inmates are, in effect, segregated: whites with whites, Hispanics with Hispanics, blacks with blacks. Since Beeville is in South Texas, many of the men here are of Mexican descent, virtually all of them members of the Mexican Mafia, or EME.
Entering F Pod is like entering a primate cage. It is loud and raucous and feels dangerous and predatory. Banging and hollering echo through the pod. Most of the noise is indecipherable; some of it is tormented. From somewhere deep in the pod I hear the padded, rhythmic thuds of an inmate pounding his foot against the steel door of his cell. He is trying, perhaps, to get out, or, more probably, to break the plate that covers the slot in the door through which he is fed. By breaking the plate he would gain the attention of a guard, at least for a while, and thus break the monotony of life in ad seg.
The warden and I are accompanied into ad seg by Major Brian Rodeen, a lean, dark-haired man. F Pod, Rodeen explains, is filled with "soldiers," junior members of their respective gangs. A Pod, on the other hand, is filled with leaders and is relatively peaceful.
"They give the orders to the others and control gangs on the streets," he tells me. "They don't want to be hassled and they don't want to be on restriction." So they make no trouble.
"These guys," he says, nodding toward A Pod, "are controlling the drug traffic from right here." The men in A Pod hear what he is saying, but their faces betray nothing. They remain blank the entire time I am there.
The convicts at the McConnell Unit are among the most hardened in the Texas prison system. "Most of our inmates are doing over forty-five years," says Rodeen. "A lot are doing life."
The ad seg unit, Rodeen says, has been called the most dangerous in the state. Every day, his officers report ten to twelve assaults. Guards wear safety glasses to protect them from the feces, urine, and food that are regularly heaved at them. One guard now lies in a hospital. He was shot with a homemade arrow-launching device that sent a metal shaft three inches into his upper arm, severing an artery. The arrow was propelled with elastic bands that had been tied together. The bands had been removed from the pants and underwear of the inmate.
The McConnell Unit employs 843 people, 570 of them guards. After eighteen months, a correctional officer at McConnell will pull down $2,027 a month, or $24,324 a year ? a good living in a county where the per capita income is $8,600 a year and one of every four people lives in poverty. And those dollars have been a boost to the local economy. There's a new Taco Bell, a new movie theater, and three State Farm agents where before there had been only one.
"We buy, shop, and live here," Rodeen says. "This is our home."
This is a point that people in Beeville like to make: that prison guards are less transient than the sailors at the now-defunct naval base ? that they stay in town; that they spend in town and not at the PX.
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