[Editor's note: A short time ago the prison where Todd is incarcerated experienced an outbreak of violence in the form of serious assaults by gang members in one of the living areas. What follows is an inmate's view of what is often a standard response in such cases, a lengthy institutional lockdown.]
“Toil is man’s allotment; toil of brain, or toil of hands, or a grief that’s more than either, the grief and sin of idleness. But when man toils and slays himself for masters who withhold the life he gives to them–then, then, the soul screams out, and every sinew cracks. So with these poor serfs. And few of them could choose but be the brutes they seemed.”–Herman Melville, Mardi
To be in prison is to be continually, repeatedly, punished for the actions of other people. Set aside, for the moment, that you’ve been sent to prison for a crime you didn’t commit. Now, whenever the felons and gang members you’ve been sent to live with get caught fighting or assaulting each other, you’re locked down, deprived of recreation facilities, and visits–and work.
When gang violence, which is ever present, becomes visible, or reaches some threshold level, the solution is to shut everything down, to increase the anxiety level of everyone in the facility, to increase tensions, and to make it so that the only thing going on is gang violence.
Particularly frustrating is the use of lockdown in dealing with assaults that occur in the living units. Apparently the administration believes that the best way to reduce assaults in the living units is to take away any means of coping with confinement in a productive way and to keep this now even more frustrated population confined to the living units, where the most serious, most dangerous assaults are the most likely to happen. Keep in mind that you’re in a facility with dry cells. The bathroom is down the tier and is shared. Your cell locks from the inside, not the outside. So, anyone who wants to fight still can. And you’re mostly on modified lockdown; the day hall, the common area, is mostly open. You still eat in the chow hall. Kitchen workers, laundry workers, Correctional Industries workers, anyone who makes money for the Man, or who keeps the prison running conveniently, is deemed safe to go to work.
It’s just religious programs, and educational programs, and the hobby shop, and vocational education, and visiting, and Toys for Tots, that are shut down. “Safety” looks suspiciously like a group punishment tailored to the convenience of the administration——and so made even more arbitrary, even more unfair, than it already would be.
About midday four days into the lockdown, the following appeared on the A.V.C.F. crawl, the closed circuit that appears on our Channel 4:
“DUE TO SERIOUS OFFENDER ASSAULTS IN LIVING UNIT 2, THE FACILITY WILL REMAIN ON LOCKDOWN UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE. ALL PROGRAMS ARE CANCELED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE. THIS INCLUDES: ALL RELIGIOUS AND EDUCATION PROGRAMS TO INCLUDE ICE CREAM DELIVERY ON NOV. 19. THEY WILL REMAIN CANCELED UNTIL THE FACILITY IS SAFE FOR THE OFFENDER POPULATION TO CONTINUE WITH THEM.”
I especially like the cancellation of ice cream delivery, an item that is delivered to the individual units and that has absolutely no bearing on security. Despite the use of the language of safety, the cancellation of ice cream reveals the lockdown for what it is, an imposition of group punishment. Further, the fact that the administration couches this cancellation in the language of safety illustrates both an understanding that group punishments violate long standing principles of international law, and a desire to dissemble on the actual intent behind the lockdown.
A later update announced:
“ALL VISITS HAVE BEEN CANCELED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE WITH THE EXCEPTION OF THE SCHEDULED APPROVED SPECIAL VISITS.”
Colorado DOC has set itself up for failure in dealing with the gangs and in dealing with internal security threats generally, by treating such things as institutional violence the same as years to parole eligibility. Under Colorado’s classification system, the number of points that you’re assigned determines the security level of the facility to which you will be sent. What this system fails to acknowledge is the difference between flight risk, which naturally accrues to those with lengthy sentences or previous escape attempts, and internal security risk, which accrues to gang affiliates and those with a history of institutional violence. These are two different problems which require different solutions. In the same way that not every prison is equipped to deal with the same level of flight risk (hence the range of security ratings), not every prison is equipped to deal with the same internal security risk.
Prisoners with long sentences shouldn’t be additionally punished simply because the state has chosen to force them to live in the midst of gang activity.