The ‘Perfect Storm’ of Dysfunction in American Prisons

by Daniel A. Rosen |

Last year, Attorney General William Barr attributed Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide in prison to a “perfect storm of screw-ups” that resulted in his ability to take his own life. By this we understood him to mean that guards were derelict in making their rounds, and a cellmate who might have raised an alarm was transferred the previous day, leaving Epstein alone in his cell to hang himself and succeed in denying justice to his victims.

Two corrections officers were indicted on felony charges of falsifying federal records – logbooks that record the requisite half-hourly welfare checks – scapegoating them for the failures of the whole system. Though they may have been culpable of neglecting their rounds, responsibility for any high-profile suicide goes well beyond two sleepy prison guards. Subsequent shakedowns at the prison revealed the presence in large quantities of drugs, cellphones, and weapons – including a loaded gun.

The system as a whole deserves our indictment for its indifference, incompetence, and the impunity that routinely governs it. And the notion that convicting two low-level officers of a minor felony is the same as holding the system accountable – well, that’s a notion of ‘justice’ that ought to offend us all.

The Attorney General’s further insistence that “there will be accountability” for that suicide surely provoked laughter from anyone behind bars. They’ll have thought the same thing I did when I heard that: The system never holds itself accountable. When lawsuits are filed after prison tragedies, the justice system relies on immunity granted to officers and administrators in the performance of their official duties to shield itself from answering for mismanagement and mistreatment. Wardens point to the certificate on the wall from the latest American Correctional Association audit as proof that their facility is run right – as if it’s anything but a fiction, and the ACA auditors saw anything like the normal state of affairs when they visited.

When a disgraced man alone in a cell facing life in prison hangs himself with a bedsheet from an upper bunk, it’s not a surprise or a rarity; it happens all too often. Overworked officers fall asleep in their chairs and neglect to carry out welfare checks, no matter what the log book says. Staffing shortages lead to near-constant mandatory double shifts, cellmates are moved around, no one pays much attention to who’s crowded into which cell. Inmates are just numbers to be counted five or six times a day.

Officials then have the temerity to stand up at press conferences and insist with straight faces that outcomes like this somehow depend on “serious irregularities” taking place, as Barr initially did. That only a “perfect storm” could produce such a result. But it isn’t unusual or irregular at all – that dysfunction and indifference to inmates’ welfare is the normal state of affairs in jails and prisons across America. In one week recently, there was a rape, an overdose, and a suicide here at the prison where I reside – and no one was held accountable at all. The only thing remarkable about these events was just how unremarkable they were. Drugs and weapons are common here too.

I’m sure it’s hard for people to imagine what it’s like to live, as inmates do, in a space the size of the average suburban laundry room. Your bathroom is included in that square footage, by the way. So is another adult male, and he probably has some serious issues too – after all, this isn’t summer camp. It’d be difficult to live with a family member or romantic partner in a space this size, let alone a stranger.

For me – a 45-year-`old upper-middle class white guy locked up in 2015 for the first time – it was like a sudden immersion in an ice bath of shock and despair. I wasn’t wealthy by any measure, and still the privations were startling. They put me on suicide watch for a couple days too – it must be a courtesy they extend to privileged white people who suddenly lose all that privilege. It’s oppressive. You get a ‘suicide smock’ after they take away all the bedding and your clothes; it looks like a turtle shell and you’re stark naked under it. The lights stay on and someone invades the little privacy you have every fifteen minutes to check on you. It’s not sustainable for long periods of time. Nor is it an appropriate way to deal with inmates’ serious mental health problems, as is too often the case.

I’ve heard the conditions at New York’s Metropolitan Correctional Center described on the news as “medieval,” which makes me wonder: do people really believe that other jails and prisons are somehow different? That others are like a college campus, or maybe like the Space Station – sleek and clean, modern marvels of pleasant, functional behavioral adjustment and vigilance about humane living conditions? Prisons are ugly, violent, dangerous, dirty, smelly, loud, and stressful.

I’ve only been in five lockups out of the roughly seven thousand in this country during this journey of mine, but I’ll let you in on a poorly-held secret: there’s nothing at all irregular about the ‘screw-ups’ at the MCC that resulted in a high-profile suicide. Even under the best circumstances, jails and prisons are too crowded, too understaffed – they’re run-down, falling apart, and collapsing under their own weight, for the most part. They’re institutions structured to fail everyone involved: inmates, crime victims, officers and staff, and most critically, the public in whose name the public safety enterprise purports to operate.

Full disclosure: I also have a sex offense charge involving minors. I was sentenced to twenty years in Virginia for ‘sexting’ with an undercover detective running a sting and posing as a fourteen-year-old. The judge suspended fifteen years, so I’ll serve five years in prison, and then spend fifteen years on probation. My sentence is lengthy but not wholly unusual.
Even this kind of ‘non-contact’ offense (computer solicitation of a minor, technically) was enough to trigger a mandatory minimum five-year sentence in Virginia – a stark contrast to Epstein’s initial sentence of thirteen months spent in work release at a local lockup. Florida’s laws aren’t that different than Virginia’s.

Regardless of opinions about Epstein’s case, or mine for that matter, you’ll find little argument among anyone who’s spent time behind bars about the conditions they endured and what the ‘regular’ state of affairs looks like. Publications like “Prison Legal News” are filled with ‘regular’ reports of negligence and malfeasance from jails and prisons in every corner of this country, month after month, and the well of stories never seems to run dry.

At the prison I currently reside in, people write up grievances all day long that mostly are ignored and amount to nothing but paperwork to be filed. It’s well-known as one of Virginia’s worst-run facilities, where a culture of incompetence and indifference has long prevailed and seems to be accepted by most everyone who works here. “This is Greensville,” they shrug, as if that expiates all sins.

If you’re one of the tens of millions of people locked up in this country, or have been, or have family who are, you care about the consequences of this regular mismanagement. But if you are one of those reading this who don’t know a single person living behind concrete walls and razor wire, you might not bother looking too closely at what’s being done behind those walls in your name. It might shock your conscience if you did.

The only conclusion an inmate can come to is that no one (besides him and his family) really cares about the conditions in America’s prisons or how they’re run. You don’t see it in your Facebook or Twitter feed, or on the evening news. And there aren’t any pictures or video available anyway – so, as the saying goes, it didn’t happen. A lot might change in America’s prisons if camera footage were made available to inmates and their families.

In any case, when prisons are short-staffed, as they often lament – what can they do? We who are locked up know what the immediate solution will be – mandatory overtime for the COs and lockdowns on the cell block when there aren’t enough floor officers. At the very least, outdoor recreation and educational and treatment programs will be curtailed or outright cancelled as necessary; they’re not essential anyway. Inmates who need medical or psychological attention won’t get it, either on time or at all. Half-hourly welfare checks being missed while COs catch up on sleep is about the least of the dysfunction.

Sure, there are other, more sensible solutions – though even these fall short of the big-picture need to end ineffective and counterproductive mass incarceration: abolishing the cash bail system; ending the appalling practice of sentencing parolees and probationers to prison for minor technical violations; putting drug offenders in treatment instead of behind bars; ensuring that returning citizens have jobs and support systems in the community; paying corrections officers a living wage.

These ideas aren’t even very controversial at this point, but the people pushing them have far less money and political power than the prison-industrial complex which relies on public apathy and fear to support its profit agenda.

The only thing our prison system is actually good at is producing profits for those who feed at its endless trough – the corrections officer unions, private prison companies, telecoms, commissary and meal providers, financiers of municipal bonds, companies that make cheap linens and jumpsuits and pepper spray, and endless others. Keeping the stream of inmates flowing to the financial tune of 80 to 100 billion dollars a year is in the interest of a lot of powerful corporations and other entities, who buy the political support they need. Half these inmates probably don’t belong behind bars, but try telling that to those who profit off their incarceration.

In the wake of public outcry after the Epstein debacle, practices and procedures at the MCC and the Federal Bureau of Prisons aren’t likely to change much, except perhaps on paper. There are just too many inmates and too few officers trying to muddle through in the midst of a chaotic and crumbling system for it to be otherwise. AG Barr has now announced a Task Force on prison misconduct, but has said he “doesn’t believe there are systemic issues” in the federal prisons.

So, the real victims in this case will be denied true justice yet again, because of the enduring perfect storm that is America’s prison system – married with the reality of a privileged class that looks away from the abuses it tacitly supports, in the hopes that it keeps the horrors of the evening news away from their kids and their front door. But the reality is that justice is almost always denied, to victims, to inmates, their families and everyone else. The system we’ve allowed to flourish while we turned a blind eye just isn’t built for it.

In concise terms, that system can only be described as: an indifferent method for warehousing poor people and minorities without regard to 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 people behind bars.

For those of us who live inside it, there’s nothing surprising about the system failing like it did in Epstein’s case. We’re more shocked when things go as they should. “Too much like right,” you’ll hear inmates mutter with suspicion, when activities run on time, or a meal is well-prepared. Don’t worry, it’s not something you hear very often – in fact, like the weather forecast, it’s rarely accurate or very predictable – those ‘perfect’ storm clouds are somehow always looming.

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