Thursday, October 17, 2013

Even Federal Prison Camps Are Not Above Human Rights Violations

Today is Blog Action Day 2013 (#BAD13). This year's topic is #HumanRights. Since this is a personal blog about my experience in federal prison camp, I am going to go there.

The Supreme Court, along with some other heavy-hitters, have decided that prison (and prison camp) inmates are entitled to some basic human rights. Not all of the same ones that the non-incarcerated enjoy but a handful nonetheless. As a humanist and former attorney, I've always believed this. Those who disagree are reading the wrong blog on the wrong day.

I've mentioned in earlier posts that my ride through the federal criminal justice system was pretty smooth. People were pleasant, kind and mindful that my family and I had seen better days, in spite of my own personal and professional failings.

Prison camp was a different story. Not necessarily for me: I don't think I ruffled too many feathers in general, but then I was a white-on-white (white-collar, white-skinned inmate) male in an upper-Midwest camp run by a staff that was at least 90 percent white and 70 percent male. The inmate population was far more diverse, the majority likely non-white. This, along with a clear hatred of their jobs among many of the prison employees, made for an occasionally unpleasant compound environment.

The regulations promulgated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BoP), and clearly printed in the handbook issued to all FPC Duluth 'campers', state that inmates "have the right to expect as a human being [to]... be treated respectfully, impartially, and fairly by all personnel." It is also considered staff misconduct to threaten an inmate with physical harm.

One high-ranking officer (above Lieutenant-grade) at FPC Duluth, in particular, failed to get -- or was perhaps unable to read -- the memo from the BoP, the Department of Justice, Congress or the Supreme Court that this was how things were supposed to be. For purposes of this post, we'll call him Officer Douchebag.

Officer Douchebag is a short, balding man. When I was there, he sported a goatee, wore ill-fitting blazers and had a propensity to scream profanities... at pretty much everyone; perhaps it's Tourette's, but I kinda doubt it. Rumor had it that he had brought so much heat upon himself in the way of inmates filing complaints against him that he would pretty much never be promoted nor allowed to leave Duluth as long as he worked for the BoP.

When I first moved into M Dorm, Unit 209 -- RDAP -- two of my roomies had stories about Officer Douchebag (ODB). One, my bunkie, Corona, was a big -- well over six feet, could deadlift 550 --Mexican dude from Eastern Washington. The incident occurred when Corona was sitting on a boulder outside the activity center, resting after work hours. The ODB approached and threatened to "kick the shit of him" if he didn't "move his ass" from the rock. According to Corona, the situation de-escalated quickly when he stood up and cast his shadow over ODB, who left quickly cursing under his breath.

Another roomy from the 214, Blaze, was once caught standing and staring by the ODB. Blaze wasn't doing much of anything, he was just outside, on the compound, minding his own business. Blaze told me that ODB walked up and threatened to "rip [his] fucking throat out" if he didn't move along. I tend to be a pretty fair-minded person and took these ODB stories with a grain of salt; but on June 4, 2012, while waiting for ODB and some other staff members to finish the weekly inspection of our dorm, I got to witness his violations of BoP regulations first-hand.

As an orderly in the dorm, I often was present when the weekly inspections occurred. The dorm that won for cleanliness got called to food service ahead of all the other dorms. This meant that you got out of the building soonest after the counts and could hit the email or the track before they got crowded. So, we orderlies tended to hang out and see how we did.

On that particularly Thursday, I was in my room when the inspection team stopped next door in 216. Another orderly, T.H., who is African-American, was in the room when ODB shouted at him, "If anybody is going to do any hitting around here, it's going to be me."

The orderly, T.H. replied, "I didn't say anything about hitting nobody."  The ODB replied, "Yeah. But I did."  This is a contemporaneous account of the above exchange, written in my notebook immediately after it occurred. I wrote them down because it seemed to me that ODB's words clearly constituted a threat of physical violence -- or at the very least a lack of basic respect.

My example here is by no means exclusive; I heard many stories and witnessed many indignities at FPC Duluth. I believe that much of what I saw was racially-motivated by a white, power-engorged staff who felt free to let loose their racism on disenfranchised, non-White inmates.

In a country where we incarcerate and execute more of our population than pretty much any other nation on Earth, it's not surprising that this is par for the course. On the other hand, since this country was founded on such glorious words as those contained in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, you'd think we could do a little better at the "all... are created equal" and Bill of Rights parts. Even for prisoners.

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