Desperation Rises in America’s Prisons

By Chris Barton, Co-Editor

There are things that I really wish I could stop writing about, and chief among them are prison uprisings. It is hard, both logistically and emotionally, to look behind the walls of the compounds where over two million Americans try to survive in a demeaning and dangerous system. But the problems persist, and so here I go, writing about it, again.

Amidst the calamity of last week’s political maelstrom, a mostly ignored bit of news surfaced: on Feb 1st, James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Delaware was the site of a standoff between inmates – who had taken over the prison and taken hostages – and police. We know that at the end of the 18 hour standoff, law enforcement used a backhoe to break into and retake the building, and we know that a prison guard, Stephen R. Floyd, died at some point during the night. Other than that, the facts are fuzzy. As they always are.

It is notoriously difficult for journalists – or anyone, for that matter – to get any information about what happens behind prison walls. The only times we hear about prisons in the news are when simmering tensions finally boil over and violence erupts. At that point the facts available fit into a common narrative: violent prisoners go on an unprovoked rampage, and brave law enforcement officers fight to regain control. Sometimes this is true; rarely is it the whole story.

The inmates after the rebellion.  Courtesy of
The inmates after the rebellion.
Courtesy of

In the case of Vaughn, the prisoners were rebelling against problems that the public only learned of in the last few days. Unlike the rest of us, the prisoners knew that Vaughn was notorious for its overuse of solitary confinement, which is known to cause serious mental health problems. They knew that staff had been forced to work overtime to cover for 90 vacant positions. They knew, as this man testified, that the prison focused more on control and oppression than rehabilitation. These are the reasons why the prisoners felt the need to mount what they called a ‘rebellion.’ If the world had known about these issues beforehand, perhaps they could have been addressed. Perhaps the people inside wouldn’t have needed to take hostages in order to be heard, and perhaps Stephen Floyd would still be alive.

The prisoners at Vaughn were able to speak with the media before law enforcement broke down the wall. They tried to make clear why they were rebelling:

“We’re trying to explain the reasons for doing what we’re doing. Donald Trump. Everything that he did. All the things that he’s doing now. We know that the institution is going to change for the worse. We know the institution is going to change for the worse. We got demands that you need to pay attention to, that you need to listen to and you need to let them know. Education, we want education first and foremost. We want a rehabilitation program that works for everybody. We want the money to be allocated so we can know exactly what is going on in the prison, the budget.”

The inmates’ demands were not unreasonable, yet they felt the only way to be heard was to take drastic action. They felt that they were running out of time to have the prison’s issues addressed, and that conditions would worsen under the Trump administration. And they may very well be right, for reasons that Ava DuVernay’s brilliant and heart-rending documentary “13th recently highlighted. American politicians that claim to enforce “law and order” support privatization of public services such as prisons, and depend on a white, middle class voter base (AKA Trump supporters, for the most part), which tends to increase prison populations while decreasing prison quality. (13th is on Netflix and is VERY worth watching).

Trumps 1989 ad against the Central Park 5 Courtesy of
Trumps 1989 ad against the Central Park 5
Courtesy of

Trump’s personal record on this topic is atrocious. Take, for example, the Central Park 5. In 1989, 5 black and brown teenagers were falsely accused in the assault and rape of a jogger in central park; victims of circumstance, bullying by the police force, and racism, they spent 13 years in prison before DNA evidence and the confession of the actual rapist cleared their names. At the time of their arrest, Trump spent $85000 to take out full page ads in four daily New York papers – calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty and the murder of the Central Park 5. Years later, as the victims received a $40 million settlement for their wrongful imprisonment, Trump wrote an op-ed claiming that the men were surely guilty of something, and that they did “not exactly have the pasts of angels,” despite the fact that they had otherwise spotless criminal records and had been exonerated of all wrongdoing. And just last year, he again doubled down on claiming – against all evidence – that the Central Park 5 were guilty.

It’s not hard to see why the men at Vaughn felt that they needed to act: Trump has only ever shown disdain and hatred toward people in their position, and is now in charge of the bureaucracy that controls every aspect of their existence. The fact that they were willing to risk their lives and their freedom for demands as simple as education and effective rehabilitation should alert us to just how bad things already are in the prison system – and how much worse they’re about to get. The human beings inside of America’s prison industrial complex – nearly one in every 100 Americans and growing – need our solidarity and support perhaps more than any other population in America right now. They have no voice of their own.

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