Prison violence: Reflections on a public lynching

By a former Federal prisoner

December 16, 2018 – I seldom watch television, but when visiting my parents this evening as I was scanning channels I happened upon a “reality” show called “Lockup,” or maybe it was “Lockdown.” As I saw the prison outfits I could tell what kind of show it was. Normally I do not like to watch anything relating to prison, because it brings back too many terrible memories. But at this instance, just as I was ready to change channels I heard the words “sex offender.” Curious, I saw what looked to be a young Caucasian man, perhaps age late 20s, with a conventional haircut. I mention the haircut because virtually every other prisoner in the picture had a shaved head. The young man with the conventional haircut was in front of the desk, talking to the guard on duty.

Suddenly another prisoner rushed across the room and hit the conventional man on the back of the head, knocking him down. Then he started kicking him. The attacker was joined by another prisoner, and both of them kept punching and kicking the young man with the conventional haircut who was lying motionless on the floor.

While all this was going on, the guard was standing behind the desk, not moving toward the attackers. As far as I could tell, the guard did not yell at the attackers to stop. Instead, he was speaking into his walkie-talkie. The voiceover on the program stated that the guard called backup, and that “by prison policy, a single guard is not authorized to move to break up a fight until reinforcements arrive.”

This was hardly a fight. Instead, the two attackers kept punching and kicking the unconscious body of the young man on the floor. As soon as reinforcements came into the unit, both attackers quickly moved to the other side of the room. At no time did the guards attempt to counter the violence of the attackers. Instead, they were escorted into isolation cells. The attackers were both Latino young men in their 20s, with shaved-heads and with multiple tatooes on their faces and bodies. When interviewed, both spoke without a Spanish accent, smiled for the camera, and explained that “being a cho-mo, a child molester, is not cool”. Another prisoner was interviewed, smiling, saying, “That’s what happens to those people in here,” as if it were a regular occurrence.

The voiceover described the victim of the attack as “having a statutory rape charge,” which suggests that this young man in his 20s must have been sexually involved with a person below age 18, but the age or sex of that person was not mentioned. A real, forced or violent rape is never referred to as “statutory,” so this person was evidently involved in a consensual relationship.

As the guards lifted the limp body onto a stretcher, the announcer stated, “The injuries of the inmate are severe, and he will be taken to the hospital.” No statement was made about whether the person lived or died. All viewers saw was scene in which the guards were wheeling out the guerney. The next scene is a guard telling one of the attackers, “If he dies, then you will be facing a manslaughter charge.” Why the charge would not be murder, if the victim was beaten to death, is not mentioned.

Next, we see an interview of the warden, who with a deadpan expression states, “There is no policy to separate sex offenders from other prisoners, but this kind of violence often happens.”

As I heard that statement, I wondered why, if prison officials know that life-threatening attacks often happen to people accused of sex crimes, why are such non-violent persons consistently put into the same housing unit with some of the most violent prisoners in the unit? When I was housed in the Los Angeles Metropolitan Detention Center, I remember an exceptionally brutal attack that was made by a gang member against a gay man who had a teenage boyfriend.

The warden came in to make a speech, and she stated very firmly that she would not tolerate such violence in her prison. I thought at the time that it was a very fine speech. But then later, an exceptionally violent prisoner was transferred into my unit, and he was put into a single cell because, as an officer told me, he was known for getting into fights. When that prisoner started making threats against me, a captain came into our unit. He also made a very fine speech, stating that he will not tolerate any violence against any inmate in his prison. The captain later told me that this prisoner had made a written death threat against me. When I asked the captain to please move that man to another unit, he assured me that this man was no danger. “We will make sure you are safe,” the captain told me.

Nevertheless, when the threats continued, I wrote a letter to the captain, I spoke with a lieutenant, and with the unit psychologist. All of them again told me not to worry. They had many fine words.

Only a day later, the prisoner came up behind me and knocked me unconscious. I did not even see him coming. Others who saw the attack told me afterwards that after the man hit me on the back of the head he kicked me repeatedly as I lay on the floor.

I regained consciousness as I was being carried into the medical unit on a stretcher. I was taken into the Special Housing Unit (SHU) and kept in the isolation unit for over two weeks. My head was throbbing with the worst headache I have ever felt. I asked for an icepack for my ear, which was swollen to what seemed like the size of an elephant ear. A guard promised to bring me some ice, but never did. During the entire time I was kept there, I was never once seen by a doctor. I was never once given any pain reliever, nor even an aspirin.

After I got out of the SHU, friends who witnessed the attack told me that the guard on duty, Mr. Young, walked extremely slowly from his desk to where the attacker stood over my body, and when he got there he asked the attacker, “Are you finished yet?” I wrote to the captain asking why I had not been protected as promised. I was transferred to a different housing unit, but I never received a reply.

Friends told me that the man who attacked me was kept in the SHU only a few days longer than I was. When he was returned to the same unit, friends told me he bragged to everyone he was quite proud that he had “fucked up the fag.”

Later, I filed a lawsuit with U.S. District Court against the officers who did not protect me. My lawsuit was challenged by the Justice Department’s U.S. Attorney for Los Angeles, on the basis that I missed a deadline in my filing time. I appealed to the judge, asking for my lawsuit to be judged on its merits rather than being dismissed out of hand. The judge would not even open my letter asking for an appeal. He sent my letter back to me, unopened.

All of these experiences combine to let me understand the larger pattern than one incident by itself. Every upper level administrator in the federal Bureau of Prisons is skillful in making very fine speeches: “Yes, we do not allow any violence in prison. We run a tight ship.” But these fine speeches are only given after the fact, after an incident of violence has already occurred. And then no practices are changed. So the violence is repeated again, in another unit on another day. And another fine speech is given.

Most prisoners do not have the education, stamina, or resources to file a lawsuit in federal court, but even if they do, I clearly see now that the system’s primary purpose is to protect government employees, or the Bureau itself, from being sued. And because the courts do not provide genuine oversight, prison officials feel secure in knowing that their misdeeds will not get them fired, demoted, or even listed as problematic. And so, the system continues as it was before, looking the other way as still more prisoners are abused, both by staff and by other prisoners. And the fine speeches continue.

Looking at this television show, even for a mere few minutes, was enough to give me shudders of bad memories of my own experience with prison violence. A psychologist suggested that I probably have post-traumatic-stress-disorder because of those experiences. What I still wonder is, if prison officials at all levels know that violent felons frequently attack, wound, and kill prisoners who have any kind of sex charge (especially if it is a homosexual case), why do they continue to place such persons in the same housing unit with men who are violent? This type of thing happens on such a regular basis that its continuation cannot be dismissed as an accident. On the contrary, I see now that this is no accident at all. It is deliberate policy.

And what about the fact that such events are shown on national television, with not one word to challenge the bland statement of the warden that, yes, such things happen all the time? That silence shows that the sensationalist mass media are also complicit in this system of institutionalized brutality.

The media of late has taken to discussions about the lynching of African Americans, talking in incredulous terms wondering how people could attend public lynchings and not be horrified. How easy it is to condemn things from the distant past, things which (supposedly) no longer exist. But, with the removal of the lifeless body of the young man with the conventional haircut, how different is that television scene from a public lynching? Vigilante justice is alive and well in America today. We are not one bit any better today, in these supposedly enlightened times. If you doubt that, just sit in front of your television for awhile.

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