Rape, Overdose, and Suicide: A Week of Dysfunction in Prison

by Daniel A. Rosen |

Attorney General William Barr recently characterized Jeffrey Epstein’s death in prison as the product of a “perfect storm of screw-ups” and “serious irregularities.” As if only some unforeseeable and unpredictable machinations could have produced such a result. But at the prison where I reside, in one week alone in early December there was a rape, a drug overdose, and a suicide. And while that’s quite a trifecta of terribleness in just seven days, you can’t attribute it to some confluence of cosmic anomalies. It’s the end result of the regular indifference and incompetence that has become the norm here, and in America’s prisons more broadly.

The first of these events, the rape, happened on a Sunday afternoon in the cellblock just upstairs. Staffing on the weekends is usually pretty light, and I’m told the assailants just waited until the floor officer went on break. You usually only see an officer on the floor and outside the control booth about once every hour or two anyway. Two men assaulted another and beat him badly before sexually abusing him. So far, a month later, there have been no consequences for the perpetrators. It’s the third rape I’ve heard about since I’ve been locked up, and the second in just the past three months here at the Greensville Correctional Center in Virginia.

The overdose happened the very next day, Monday, in my own cell block. The kid a few cells down from me overdid it with weed and opiates, apparently, and my cellmate walked past and found him face down on the floor, passed out. He’d no choice but to sound an alarm; a couple sergeants showed up, and then some nurses with a wheelchair after about ten minutes (the medical office is roughly 75 yards from here). They wheeled him out slumped over in the chair and were able to revive him. He’s lucky – recently at my last facility, eight people overdosed together and one died. It happens hundreds of times a year in Virginia prisons.

The Warden responded, predictably, with a lockdown of this building that same afternoon, in the wake of all that. Tuesday brought a visit from the drug-sniffing dogs early, around 7am. Of course, anyone who was holding flushed their stash on the spot, before the dogs went through our cells. When that was finished, the goon squad (sorry – “Strike Force”) came in with urine tests for everyone in the building. Before giving them a sample with an officer watching (and I mean really watching), we were strip-searched too.

They can do all this as often as they want, and inmates will still find ways to procure and use drugs. Usually they get it from dirty COs who want to make extra cash. Not much contraband comes in from mail or visits these days, they’ve cracked down hard on that. Word was, a drone dropped some contraband (including a gun) at an adjacent compound; like much else here, that’s hard to verify. But there will always be a few COs willing to take the chance to make more money, given how poorly they’re paid – after all, they don’t get strip-searched.

Wednesday brought another visit from the goon squad who did cell shakedowns starting around 6 am, though they’d just done them eight days prior. Guess they didn’t find everything – or anything – the first time. During most shakedowns, the guards take silly things no one cares about: extra bags, jars, toilet paper, towels, and the like. Stuff we’ll just collect all over again. But they have to put something in their trash bags, so we go through this security theater, kind of like giving up your shoes for x-ray at the airport.

Finally, that Friday morning they let us out of our cells and things started getting back to normal. Meaning, just the regular, low-level background noise of dysfunction that governs our everyday lives here: recounts, cancellations of school and recreation, medical neglect, and run-down facilities.

Then I heard some more disturbing news: early on Sunday morning, an older inmate in the mental health cell block hanged himself. Those are single cells, so he had no cellmate to alert an officer. He was found during rounds at 3:30 am, and by mid-morning was reportedly still there in his cell awaiting the coroner.

He had a life sentence and chronic medical problems, and was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. When his application for compassionate release was rejected, he took matters into his own hands. I can’t blame him or fault his choice, either. I’m sure he had an idea of the type of medical or hospice care he’d get here in prison, where narcotic pain medication is forbidden.

While all that might seem like an astounding confluence of events to happen in any single week, none of it is particularly unusual or surprising, aside from the proximity of each to the other. I’m sure some readers might think: “Well, it’s prison, not summer camp – bad things happen there, and people should refrain from committing crimes if they don’t like it.” And I understand that sentiment. I probably thought the same way at some point, too, before I got locked up. But people should know what kind of system their tax dollars are supporting, and what’s being done in the name of so-called public safety.

In concise terms, that system can only be described as: an indifferent method for warehousing primarily poor people and minorities without regard for their future re-entry into the community; badly overcrowded with technical probation violators and low-level drug offenders; and dangerously understaffed relative to the excessive number of inmates behind bars. These are institutions structured to fail everyone involved – crime victims, inmates, officers and staff, and the public in whose name it operates.

The indifference, incompetence, and dysfunction that govern our everyday lives here are certainly not intentional, but rather the inevitable cracks in the foundation of a system as overloaded as this. And those cracks should serve as warning signs to the public and to lawmakers that the public safety enterprise is in need of serious reform. A rape, a drug overdose, and a suicide – all in the same week at one prison – ought to serve as a wake-up call that tells us: things are seriously amiss, and business as usual isn’t really tenable in Virginia’s – or the nation’s – prisons any longer.

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