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Prison Memoirs: The New York Women’s House of Detention

On October 13, 1970, the FBI ar­rested Angela Davis on charges of murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy to commit murder stemming from her alleged role in the Mann County courthouse shootout. Before being extradited to California — where she was subsequently acquitted of all the charges — Ms. Davis was imprisoned for nine weeks in New York’s Women’s House of Detention. The following excerpts from her forth­coming autobiography describe some of her experiences in the city’s prison.

When the wailing of the sirens tapered off and the caravan began to slow down, I realized that I was somewhere in Greenwich Village. As the car turned into a dark driveway, a corrugated aluminum door began to rise and once again, crowds of photographers with flashing lights jumped out of the shadows. The red brick wall surrounding this tall ar­chaic structure looked very familiar, but it took me a few moments to locate in my memory. Of course; it was the mysterious place I had seen so often during the years I attended Elisabeth Irwin High School, not too far from there. It was the New York Women’s House of Detention, which stood there at the main intersection in the Village, at Greenwich and Sixth avenues.

While the car was rolling into the prisoners’ entrance, a flock of mem­ories fought for my attention. Walk­ing to the subway station after school, I used to look up at this building almost every day, trying not to listen to the terrible noises spilling from the windows. They were coming from the women locked behind bars, looking down on the people passing in the streets, and screaming incomprehensible words.

At age fifteen I accepted some of the myths surrounding prisoners. I did not see them as quite the crimi­nals society said they were, but they did seem aliens in the world I inha­bited. I never knew what to do when I saw the outlines of women’s heads through the almost opaque windows of the jail. I could never understand what they were saying — whether they were crying out for help, whether they were calling for some­one in particular, or whether they simply wanted to talk to anyone who was “free.” My mind was now filled with the specters of those faceless women whom I had not answered. Would I scream out at the people passing in the streets, only to have them pretend not to hear me as I once pretended not to hear those women?

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The women did not even notice that a new prisoner had been thrown in with them. Except for the woman who continued to pace, they each found places at the table in the day room and sat separate from one another, as if there were a mutual agreement that they would all re­frain from invading the others’ turf.

Later I learned that these women received Thorazine with their meals each day and, even if they were completely sane, the tranquilizers would always make them uncommu­nicative and detached from their surroundings. After a few hours of watching them gaze silently into space, I felt as though I had been thrown into a nightmare.

I had loudly protested being kept in 4b (the mental ward) from the very first day. I didn’t belong there — or had I been judged a mental case? The officer said I had been placed in 4b not because I was psychologically unsound, but for my own safety and to keep me from disrupting the life of the jail. I was not persuaded. At last the call came announcing the arrival of the lawyers. Going to meet them was my first opportunity to walk through any part of the jail at a normal hour — when the prisoners were not locked in or sleeping.

When the iron door was opened, sounds peculiar to jails and prisons poured into my ears — the screams, the metallic clanging, officers’ keys clinking. Some of the women noticed me and smiled warmly or threw up their fists in gestures of solidarity. The elevator stopped on the third floor, where the commissary was located. The women who were wait­ing for the elevator recognized me and told me in a cordial, sisterly way, their words sometimes reinforced with their fists, that they were on my side. These were the “dangerous women” who might attack me because they didn’t like “Communists,” had I not been hidden away in 4b.

Regardless of why the women in 4b had been placed there, they were all being horribly damaged. Whatever problems they had had initially were not solved, but rather systematically aggravated. I could see the erosion of their will taking place even during the short time I spent there.

In the cell next to me lived a white woman somewhere between thirty and forty-five years old who had lost all contact with reality. Each night before she fell asleep the cell-bloc shook with her screams. Sometimes her rantings and ravings filled the air long after midnight. Her vile language, her weird imagery be-speckled with the most vulgar kind or racial epithets made me so angry that it was all I could do to prevent myself from trying to break through the steel and concrete that separated her cell from mine. I was convinced that she had been placed there inten­tionally as a part of the jailers’ efforts to break me.

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When I saw this pitiful figure the next morning, it was clear that her sickness was so far advanced — some stage of schizophrenia — that she was beyond the reach of argument. Her illness had become a convenient ve­hicle for the expression of the racism which had grown like maggots in her unconscious. Each night, and even morning before breakfast came, she went through a prolonged ritual which took the form of a violent argument with some invisible figure in her cell. More often than not, this figure would be a Black man, and he would be attacking her with a kind of sexual perversity which would have been inconceivable had not her own verbal imagery been so vivid. She would purge this figure from her cell with a series of incantations. When her imagined attacker assumed some other position, it brought about a corresponding change in her incantations.

One morning in the day room, Barbara, the young Black woman from the cell directly across from mine, broke her habitual silence to tell me she had refused her daily dose of Thorazine. It was very sim­ple: she was tired of feeling like a vegetable all the time. She was going to resist the Thorazine and was going to get out of 4b. She knew about my own attempts to get out, and if we were both transferred she said she would like very much to be my “cellie” in the main population.

In the cell next to Barbara’s was a very young white woman who ap­peared to receive larger doses of Thorazine than any of the others. One day when she was not so spaced out, she wanted to know if I could help her with her case. (She was back from court and evidently had not been drugged so she would look more or less normal for the judge.) When I asked her about her charges, tears streamed down her face as she said repeatedly, “I could never do anything like that. I couldn’t kill my own baby.”

She didn’t understand where she was and had no comprehension whatever of the judicial system. Who were her friends, she wanted me to tell her, and who were the ones who wanted to put her away? She had been afraid to talk to her lawyer, for fear he would tell the judge. Now she was thoroughly crushed because a doctor who had sworn himself to secrecy had just taken the stand and divulged everything she had told him. All she wanted now was just a little Thorazine. She wanted to get away, forget, get high.

Perhaps the most tragic or them all was Sandra — the teenager charged with arson. She was one of the women who had been in the receiving room the night I was ar­rested. I had noticed then that her hair was coming out in patches and had assumed that she had ringworm. My first day in 4b, she came out of the cell for meals. The second day, she ignored the key unlocking her cell gate at mealtimes. She silently and systematically pulled her hair out by the roots. From that day on, whenever I saw her, she was sitting quietly on her bed, yanking her hair by the handful. By the time I left, she was as thin as a wishbone, and all that was left of her natural was a few clumps of hair on one side of her pitiful hairless head.

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A little more than a week had passed when the warden informed Margaret (Margaret Burnham, one of Ms. Davis’ lawyers) that I was to be moved. Sure enough, the very next day I was told that I was about to be transferred to another part of the jail. I protested being bounced back and forth like a Ping Pong ball; but actually I didn’t mind the move, thinking that I was going into the regular population. I had no idea that my longing for some degree of seclu­sion was about to be overfulfilled. The main population I thought I was ­about to enter turned out to be a hurriedly improvised special isolation room separated from all the corridors on the sixth floor.

I decided to dramatize the situation by declaring myself on a hunger ­strike for as long as I was kept in isolation — I would hold my own on this side of the walls while things got rolling on the other side. Through the grapevine I learned that there were women all over the jail who were carrying out a hunger strike in sympathy with mine.

On the tenth day of the hunger strike, at a time when I had per­suaded myself that I could continue indefinitely without eating, the Federal Court handed down a ruling enjoining the jail administration from holding me any longer in isolation and under maximum security conditions. They had decided — under pressure, of course — that this unwarranted punishment was meted out to me because of my political beliefs and affiliation.

There was little time to learn my way about (the main part of the prison) before all the cell gates were locked, but some of my neighbors gave me a guided tour of my 8 foot by 5 foot cell. Because mine was the corner cell — the one which could be easily spied on from the officer’s desk in the main hallway — it was also the smallest one on the corridor; the double bunk made it appear even smaller. The fixtures — the bed, the tiny sink, the toilet — were all ar­ranged in a straight line, leaving no more than a width of two feet of floor at any point in the cell.

The sisters helped me improvise a curtain in front of the toilet and sink so they could not be seen from the corridor. They showed me how to use newspaper wrapped in scrap cloth to make a seat cover so the toilet could be turned into a chair to be used at the iron table that folded down from the wall in front of it. I laughed out loud at the thought of doing all my writing while sitting on the toilet stool.

Lock-in time was approaching; a sister remembered that she had forgotten to warn me about one of the dangers of night life in the House of D. “‘Mickey’ will be trying to get into your cell tonight,” she said, and I would have to take precautionary steps to “keep him out.” “Mickey?” Was there some man­iac the jailers let loose at night to pester the women?

The sister laughingly told me she was referring to the mice which scampered about in the darkness of the corridors looking for cell doors not securely stuffed with newspa­pers.

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It became a nightly ritual: placing meticulously folded newspapers in the little space between the gate and the floor and halfway up the gate along the wall. Despite the preven­tive measures we took, Mickey could always chew through the barricade in at least one cell, and we were often awakened by the shouts of a woman calling the officer to get the mouse out. One night Mickey joined me in the top bunk. When I felt him crawling around my neck, I brushed him away thinking that it was roaches. When I finally realized what it was, I called for the broom — our only weapon against him. Apparently mousetraps were too expensive, and they were not going to exterminate.

Jails and prisons are designed to break human beings, to convert the population into specimens in a zoo­ obedient to our keepers, but dangerous to each other. In response, imprisoned men and women will invent and continually invoke various and sundry defenses. Consequently, two layers of existence can be encountered within almost every jail or prison. The first layer consists of the routines and behavior prescribed by the governing penal hierarchy. The second layer is the prisoner culture itself: the rules and standards of behavior that come from and are defined by the captives in order to shield themselves from the open or covert terror designed to break their spirits.

In an elemental way, this culture is one of resistance, but a resistance of desperation. It is, therefore, incapable of striking a significant blow against the system. All its elements are based on an assumption that the prison system will continue to survive. Precisely for this reason, the system does not move to crush it. (In fact, it sometimes happens that there is an under-the-table encouragement of the prisoners’ subculture.) I was continually astonished by the infinite details of the social regions which the women in the House of Detention considered their exclusive domain. This culture was contemptuously closed to the keepers. I sometimes wandered innocently through the doors and found myself thoroughly disoriented. A telling example happened on my second day in population. A sister asked me, “What did you think of my grandfather? He said he saw you this morning.” I was sure I had misheard her question, but when she repeated it, I told her she must be mistaken, because I had no idea who her grandfather was. Besides, I hadn’t had any visitors that day. But the joke was on me. I was in a foreign country and hadn’t learned the language. I discovered from her that a woman prisoner who had come by my cell earlier in the day was the “grandfather” to whom she was referring. Because she didn’t seem eager to answer any questions, I contained my curiosity until I found someone who could explain to me what the hell was going on.

A woman a few cells down gave me a fascinating description of a whole system through which the women could adopt their jail friends as relatives. I was bewildered and awed by the way in which the vast majority of the jail population had neatly organized itself into genera­tions of families: mothers/wives, fathers/husbands, sons and daughters, even aunts, uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers. The family sys­tem served as a defense against the fact of being no more than a number. It humanized the environment and allowed an identification with others within a familiar framework.

In spite of its strong element of escapism and fantasy, the family system could solve certain immedi­ate problems. Family duties and responsibilities were a way in which sharing was institutionalized. Pa­rents were expected to provide for their children, particularly the young ones, if they could not afford “luxury items” from commissary.

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Like filial relationships outside, some sons and daughters had, or developed, ulterior motives. Quite a few of them joined certain families because the material benefits were greater there.

What struck me most about this family system was the homosexua­lity at its core. But while there was certainly an overabundance of ho­mosexual relationships within this improvised kinship structure, it was nevertheless not closed to “straight” women. There were straight daugh­ters and husbandless, i.e., straight, mothers.

Since the majority of the prisoners seemed to be at least casually in­volved in the family structure, there had to be a great number of lesbians throughout the jail. Homosexuality is bound to occur on a relatively large scale in any place of sexually segregated confinement. I knew this before I was arrested. I was not prepared, however, for the shock of seeing it so thoroughly entrenched in jail life. There were the masculine and feminine role-playing women: the former, the butches, were called “he.” During the entire six weeks I spent on the seventh floor, I could not bring myself to refer to any woman with a masculine pronoun, although some of them, if they hadn’t been wearing the mandatory dresses, would never have been taken for women.

Many or them — both the butches and the femmes — had obviously decided to take up homosexuality during their jail terms in order to make that time a little more exciting, in order to forget the squalor and degradation around them. When they returned to the streets they would rejoin their men and quickly forget their jail husbands and wives.

An important part of the family system was the marriages. Some of them were extremely elaborate — with invitations, a formal ceremony, and some third person acting as the “minister.” The “bride” would prepare for the occasion as if for a real wedding.

With all the marriages, the seeking or trysting places, the scheming which went on by one woman to catch another, the conflicts and jea­lousies — with all this — homosexua­lity emerged as one of the centers around which life in the House of Detention revolved. Certainly, it was a way to counteract some of the pain of jail life; but objectively, it served to perpetuate all the bad things about the House of Detention. “The Gay Life” was all-consuming; it prevent­ed many of the women from devel­oping their personal dissatisfaction with the conditions around them into a political dissatisfaction, because the homosexual fantasy life provided an easy and attractive channel for escape.

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On a cold Sunday afternoon a massive demonstration took place down on Greenwich Avenue. It was spearheaded by the bail fund coali­tion and the New York Committee to Free Angela Davis. So enthusiastic was the crowd that we felt compelled to organize some kind of reciprocal display of strength. We got together in our corridor, deciding on the slogans we would shout and how to make them come out in unison — even though we were going to be spread down the corridor in different cells, screaming from different windows. I had never dreamed that such powerful feeling of pride and confidence could develop among the sisters in this jail.

Chants thundered on the outside: “One, two, three, four, the House of D. has got to go!” “Free our Sisters. Free Ourselves,” and other political chants that were popular at the time. After a while, we decided to try out our chants. It was far easier for us to be heard through the windows by the people outside than it was for us to be heard by ourselves, separated as we were by the thick concrete walls dividing the cells. Although our slogans may not have been transmitted in the most harmonious style, we managed to get our message across: “Free the Soledad Brothers,” “Free Erika,” “Free Bobby,” “Long Live Jonathan Jackson.”

While the chants of “Free Angela” filled me with excitement, I was concerned that an overabundance of such chants might set me apart from the rest or my sisters. I shouted one by one the names of all the sisters on the floor participating in the demon­stration. “Free Vernell! Free Helen! Free Amy! Free Joann! Free Laura! Free Minnie!” I was hoarse for the next week.

As the demonstration moved into full swing, an officer unlocked the gate to our corridor and shouted to us to stop all the noise. We refused. They sent a captain to try to halt the demonstration. She approached me in my cell to say there would be sanctions for all of us if we did not calm down. Our exchange was heat­ed. Within a matter of minutes, a confrontation had brewed. Shouts began to come from across the hall — the sisters in the next corridor had decided to join. There was noth­ing this captain could do to make us acquiesce; every word she uttered kindled our combativeness. The more militant we became, the less confident she became, and finally she left the corridor in defeat.

As long as there were demonstra­tors outside, we continued our chants. Even after they left, the floor was throbbing with excitement. We were proud of the staunch position we had taken vis-a-vis the bureau­cracy. In this atmosphere of triumph, it was a cruel letdown for us to discover that the Supreme Court in Washington had just denied our appeal, and that I would soon be extradited to California.

That night, still hot with the ardor of the demonstration, locked up in the darkness of their cells, the women staged a spontaneous de­monstration of support. “One, two, three, four. We won’t let Angela go!’ Five, six, seven, eight. We won’t let them through the gate!” Shoes were banging on the cell bars; chants grew louder. An officer tried meekly to calm them down but had no success. A very vocal sister who was in one of the adolescent corridors was told to keep it quiet, but when she refused and all the sisters came vociferously to her aid, the officers hit her, knowing that all we could do was scream. They dragged her away to 4a — the punitive isolation unit. Frustrated by our inability to help her, we called out threats and beat even more loudly on the bars of our cells.

Someone noticed a sympathetic-looking white couple on Greenwich Avenue staring up in wonderment at the building, which was shaking with the clamor of protests from our floor. We called down to them that a sister had just been beaten and was proba­bly being put through the third de­gree down in the hole. We were bold that evening. We shouted out loud and clear the names and ranks of the officers who had pulled her from her cell. We asked the couple to call the underground press and as many Left organizations as they could to let them know that we were expecting an even more severe crackdown. (I later discovered that they had spent the evening contacting everyone they felt could help us.)

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With the receptionist on one side and the librarian on the other, I walked slowly through the prisoners’ gate onto the cold cobblestones of the courtyard. My anger gave way to pangs of regret at having to leave behind all my friends locked up in that filth. Vernell … Would they drop that phony murder charge? Helen … Would she go home? Amy … so old, so warm … What would happen to her? Pat … Would she write her book exposing the House of D.? And the organizing for the bail fund … Would it continue? Harriet … So committed to the struggle — would they continue to try to break her will?

The police van was waiting in the courtyard, the same van they had used to take me to court. Through the heavy grill on the windows, I could see nothing in the darkness. But suddenly, as the van rolled through the courtyard gates, I heard a thun­derous burst of shouts of support. I could not figure out how so many people had learned I was being taken away that night. Later I found out they had come in response to the calls made by the white couple on Greenwich Avenue. Not a single light illuminated the gigantic courtyard of the Tombs. All I could see was the outline of a collection of cars parked in the center, and the shadows of human figures moving back and forth between the vehicles. The atmosphere was reminiscent of postwar spy movies. A dozen white men swarming around their unmarked police cars, nervously awaiting the end of this transaction, this histrionic ceremony of repression unfolding under the dim glow of flashlights.

New York removed its handcuffs and California produced theirs and locked them around my wrists. ❖

Copyright 1974 by Angela Davis. From the book ANGELA DAVIS: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY Random House, Inc. A Bernard Geis Associates Book


The Worst Prison System in America

Yearning to Breathe Free: A Voice Investigation
August 8, 1995

Lilian Loukakou stares at the cinder block walls of the York County jail in Pennsylvania, trying to make sense of the nightmare that has been her life since she traveled to the U.S. last December. What is she doing locked up in a maximum security cell? She has committed no crime. Why is the U.S. government treating her this way?

Loukakou, 26, came from the Republic of Congo last winter with a visa to study English in Colorado. She hoped to earn a degree in computer science. But hours after she landed in Chicago, the Immigration and Naturalization Ser­vice took her into custody. They accused Loukakou of lying on her visa application and intending to remain in the U.S. indefinitely. After a week in a local holding cell, she was sent to the immigration jail run by the notorious Esmor corpo­ration in Elizabeth, New Jersey. She was crammed in among some 240 men and 60 women from 40 countries, all nabbed at airports without proper documentation.

Most of these prisoners had applied for asylum as refugees from political repression, religious persecution, or ethnic warfare, only to find themselves jailed in a concrete former warehouse as they waited — typically months, possi­bly years — for their cases to be resolved. Loukakou’s only solace was finding another French-speaking detainee with whom she could communicate.

For four months she languished. Finally, in April, an­other detainee recommended an attorney, and a hearing date was set for July. If she could just hang on until then, Loukak­ou told herself — if she could endure Esmor’s spoiled food and freezing temperatures, the racial and sexual slurs from guards, the insect-infested bed and relentless stench from the open bathroom nearby — everything would be all right.

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Then in the wee hours of a Sunday morning toward the end of June, the jail erupted in a riot. A small group of male detainees led the charge, tearing up mattresses, yanking down sprinkler pipes, cutting electricity, smashing up chairs, all in a desperate attempt to protest the inhumane conditions of the jail and the Kafkaesquc process of getting their cases addressed. After a night of turmoil, local police stormed the jail at dawn.

The prisoners were moved to other INS detention facil­ities or to county and federal jails. For 18 hours, their wrists were shackled behind their backs, and they were deprived of food, water, and the me of a toilet. Three Cuban men were immediately put into solitary confinement, isolated for six days until their lawyer — after hounding the INS to learn the whereabouts of her clients — paid them a visit.

Several men report that they were beat­en during the transfer, stripped naked, and forced to sleep on the floor. Among them was a Finn whose body, according to a local prison-rights activist, was covered with bruis­es. He smiled dopily at his visitor, pointing wordlessly to his head and lower spine to in­dicate pain. A week after the transfer, he had neither seen a doctor nor spoken to anyone who understands Finnish.

Loukakou, separated from her French­-speaking friend, was taken to the county jail in York. Guards dismissed her protests and cut her hair. Lilian Loukakou’s shoulder-­length dreadlocks dropped onto the cement floor, like her silent tears.

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The riot shone a light on the govern­ment’s bizarre and often corrupt sys­tem of detaining immigrants. The case looked closed when the INS re­leased a scathing report on the Es­mor facility two weeks ago and an­nounced that it would not be renewing the company’s contract. The riot was treated as an object-lesson in the perils of privatization.

But a Voice investigation, including interviews with more than 50 INS detainees all over the country, has established that the in­humane practices at Esmor are common — ­whether facilities are operated privately or by the government. The 315 detainees from Eliz­abeth represent just a fraction of nearly 82,000 immigrants who were imprisoned by the U.S. last year in conditions that often fail to meet the standard set by the American Corrections Association, not to mention the UN.

In a labyrinthian system of 10 detention centers run by the INS, five contracted out to companies like Esmor, and hundreds of beds (an INS spokesperson could not say ex­actly how many) rented out for detainees in many of the country’s 900 county jails, im­migrants are subjected to human-rights violations that are the stuff of denunciations on the floor of Congress when they take place in Cuba or in refugee camps in Hong Kong. But here they go officially unchecked and un­challenged, as Congress makes increasingly restrictive immigration policy and the INS enforces it without having to account to any­one. In response to ongoing reports of abuse, INS Commissioner Doris Meissner ap­pointed a citizens’ Advisory Panel in March to review complaints. It is still too soon to gauge the impact this 15-member group will have on an entrenched system.

INS detention facilities have been investigated — and condemned — by the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, the UN High Commis­sioner for Refugees, and Amnesty Interna­tional. A national class-action lawsuit on be­half of detainees has been filed by attorney Peter Schey of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law. The case was grant­ed class standing in March — several months before Esmor exploded. The court, says Schey, “is signaling its belief that we’ve raised serious constitutional claims and its willing­ness to issue nationwide orders telling the INS how to run its facilities. Esmor was bad, but it’s hardly unique. No other correction­al institutions, state or federal, engage in such alarming practices. Only the INS.”

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Over the last decade, as Congress has made it easier to deport immi­grants, the number of detainees has increased —  from 57,000 in 1991 to a projected 88,800 in 1996 — crowding the jails and overwhelming the system. The average length of detention has increased from 11 days in 1986 to 26 days in 1994, but those figures are skewed by the inclusion of thousands of Mexicans who are detained for a day or two before they are thrown back over the border. Advocates estimate that hundreds have been held for more than six months and dozens for years. In 1994, taxpayers spent nearly $200 million on immigrant detention.

It’s not just the INS’s widely reported er­rors and excesses that allow abuses to persist. Detainees have little claim to such all-Amer­ican principles as due process and equal treatment under the law. Even the Eighth Amendment, with its provision against cruel and unusual punishment, does not apply to these prisoners because of their classification as civ­il, rather than criminal, detainees. As such, they are not guaranteed attorneys. Even Alexander Aleinikoff, now a top INS official who defends such policies, once scoffed that U.S. immigration law resides “in the back­waters of constitutional jurisprudence.”

There are three types of immigrant pris­oners: “excludable,” “deportable,” and “criminal aliens.” Each category is governed by a distinct set of harsh and byzantine laws. Ex­cludables are people who, like Lilian Loukak­ou and most of those detained in Elizabeth, New Jersey, are apprehended by the INS as they arrive at the border. The INS defines them as never having entered the country, and this legal fiction means they are not enti­tled to the basic rights that apply to anyone who touches down in America. (Which is why it was in the government’s interest to wade into the water to round up immigrants on the Golden Venture before they could make it ashore.)

When Loukakou arrived last December, INS officials doubted that the passport she presented was her own because her long braided hair did not resemble the short style in the photo taken a few years earlier. Some faxes from the embassy in the Congo, and a scar on her neck that matched the one visible in the photo, cleared up the confusion. But by then, INS officials had searched her bag and found letters from her boyfriend in Col­orado in which he addressed Loukakou as “my dear wife.” For that reason, the INS ac­cused her of fraud: On the visa form, she’d checked the “single” box for marital status.

“Ayyyyy,” moans the boyfriend, Loui­son. “That’s just a traditional way to call your loved one in our culture. Since when is a let­ter the equal of a marriage certificate?” Louison recalls his own days in detention as a student opposition leader during the Congolese dictatorship in the ’80s, before he came to the U.S. as a refugee. “They took me away and put me in jail,” he says. “But I never met a sys­tem like this one in the U.S., this land of freedom and democracy.”

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Ever since the Chinese Exclusion Act, more than a century ago, the Supreme Court has deferred to the “plenary power doctrine” — the prin­ciple that matters involving immi­grants should be determined by Congress and the president, not by the courts, limiting excludables’ access to due process. More recent laws call for the manda­tory detention of excludable aliens awaiting “further inquiry” into their right to step on American soil. That means virtually everyone arriving in the U.S. without proper documents goes directly to jail. (Parole is a distant, chancy possibility.)

These strict provisions were enacted in re­sponse to huge influxes of Haitians and Cubans arriving by boat in 1981. The Reagan administration sought to discourage refugees, and detention camps looked like a good way to do so. Then, in 1989, the INS announced it would detain all applicants for political asylum entering the country through Texas to deter others from joining them. The INS commis­sioner at the time said the policy would send a message to would-be Central American refugees: they would be held in conditions that “won’t be like the Ritz Carlton.”

In sum, before Reagan, detention was a short-term measure to assure that “flight risks” with pending cases would not disap­pear. Now it is an ideological matter: Putting immigrants in jail makes examples of them back home, the explanation goes. Only those with serious fear of persecution will risk de­tention. The INS asserts that this policy has worked, citing a decrease in attempted illegal entries at JFK, for example, from 14,700 in 1992 to 8,800 last year. So by its own logic, the INS is detaining thousands with credible asylum claims.

Nonetheless, the law is becoming even more restrictive. In an effort to expedite asy­lum hearings — in 1994 the INS reported a backlog of 425,000 applications — the agency set up entry interviews at airports. Anyone with false documents is excluded from the program, as if political refugees could always obtain official papers.

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Illegal immigrants who have made it past a port of entry, or those who came legal­ly and then violated the conditions of their visas, have a little more leeway if only because the state recognizes that they are actually here. These are the people deemed “deportable” and the INS is cracking down on any of them who fall into the system.

Anis Lalani is a 25-year-old man from Pakistan who had been living and working in the U.S. for six-and-a-half years. He had ap­plied for a green card with sponsorship from his employer at a Los Angeles printing press, and he was engaged to be married to a U.S. citizen. Last year, he and his fiancee went to visit her mother in Tucson, and they all decided to pop down to Mexico for supper. On the way home, they were stopped at the bor­der, and Lalani was surprised to learn that his work permit had expired a couple of weeks before. On the spot, Lalani was taken into INS custody; after some days in a federal prison, be ended up at an INS-run facility in Florence, Arizona.

Lalani sought various remedies, but after learning that his appeal could take months — if not years — he withdrew it. “I decided it was better to risk prison in Pakistan than to sit in this Arizona prison for one more day,” he said, after having been detained for two months. “This place is driving me crazy.” So he “signed out” — agreed to be deported. That was June 27, 1994. But it rook the INS until the following April to actually put him on a plane.

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The third category of detainees­ — “criminal aliens” — are immigrants (many of whom reside legally in the U.S.) who committed a criminal of­fense. As they complete their prison sentence, the INS takes them into custody and begins deportation pro­ceedings. Such immigrants are often shocked to find themselves shipped out to a new kind of jail just when they thought they had finished doing their time — and many who took plea bargains had no idea that deporta­tion was part of the deal.

If these detainees try to fight in the courts to stay in the U.S., they can spend years locked up while the case grinds along. In INS custody, the “sentence” is always indefinite. Lulseged Dhine, an Ethiopian Jew who has been resisting INS efforts to deport him to Ethiopia (where, despite the airlift of virtu­ally all Jews to Israel, an INS judge ruled he had no reason to fear persecution), has spent five years in INS detention — more than tripling the time he did for drug possession — ­and he sees no end in sight.

Ex-offenders comprise about 5 per cent of all those eligible for deportation — and about 60 per cent of those who are detained. In these days of inflamed anti-immigrant sen­timent and tough-on-crime mania, there’s no bigger bogeyman than these “criminal aliens.” The Republican “Contract With America” goes so far as to demand the summary deportation of all non-citizen criminals the moment their sentences are completed. Just this month, Governor Pataki deported 180 ille­gal immigrants with criminal records.

But despite a few notorious cases of vi­olent felons who have evaded the INS, most “criminal aliens” — like most of those incar­cerated in criminal jails nowadays — are guilty of drug possession and petty sales. The law says that all “aggravated felons” must be de­tained without bond and be deported — and Congress keeps widening the definition of a felony. The result is INS jails overflowing with detainees who would not have been considered deportable a decade ago. Serving their sentences paid their debt; there was no double jeopardy, no exile. What’s more, many of these immigrants have lived most of their lives in the U.S. and have no connection to the country where they were born. A young Vietnamese man, who came here as an infant with his refugee parents and, two decades later, got busted for drug possession, told the Voice he was terrified of being sent to a country where he didn’t know a soul and couldn’t speak the language.

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Arturo Garay Burgos, a legal permanent resident born in Mexico, did time for a 1978 conviction for possession of heroin. He was granted parole in 1984, and his case was closed two years later. He moved to Phoenix with his wife and three children and started a new life, working in a community service or­ganization developing programs for abused children and helping low-income families secure permanent housing. His record remained clean. “Then in ’88 out of the blue,” he says, “I get a letter from the INS saying I have to appear in court and I’m going to be deported. They had passed a law making the crime I’d done 10 years earlier an aggravated felony and now they want to punish me for it all over again.”

Garay, 42, has lived in the U.S. for 38 years. He was educated — from nursery school through college — here. His wife, children, and grandchildren are all citizens. “I don’t have anyone in Mexico,” he says.

Garay’s case dragged on until 1993, when the INS ordered him deported. His ap­peal is still pending. Nonetheless, the INS is­sued him a final deportation order on Janu­ary 10, 1994. Arguing that his case was not yet closed, Garay was granted a stay of deportation. Then, on March 13, “here come two INS agents out of the clear blue sky to my house and tell me I’m charged with failure to appear on January 10. Like a stupid fool I go with them to the office. That’s the last time I see the streets.”

Garay was taken to the Florence immigration jail and remained there for nearly four months until, about four weeks ago, he was released on a bond (which he was able to muster only because of a timely income tax return). Garay — like many “criminal aliens” interviewed for this piece — decried the conditions in the INS facility. “That place,” he snorted, “makes the state penitentiary look luxurious.”

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The Florence facility — or as the INS euphemistically puts it, Service Pro­cessing Center (SPC) — sits in a dusty, remote town whose primary industry is incarceration. Along the two-lane highway, federal, state, and INS jails have been sprouting like cacti.

The INS SPC holds about 500 men, most of them “criminal aliens.” Temperatures typically reach 102 degrees in the summer, but the men get clean shirts and underpants only every several days — and, they say, the clothing comes from the laundry still putrid with sweat. They worry that men are intro­duced into the population without being screened for communicable diseases like TB. But the chief complaint is that inmates are punished on a guard’s whim and sent to “the hold” — solitary, lock-down cells just large enough for a bed and toilet. Once there, they are denied visits, recreation, and phone calls.

Phone calls at Florence, as at most detention centers, can be made collect only. And the INS has contracted one of the most ex­pensive phone companies in the country, RCNA, for this facility. According to an RCNA operator, a 15-minute call to the East Coast costs $22 (compared to $8 charged by AT&T). Worse still, the INS gets 35 cents on every dollar charged to a call. (INS spokesper­son Daniel Kane says he was not aware that the INS profited by such arrangements.)

At other facilities, such as the SPC in El Paso, detainees can buy a $10 calling card to use on phones there. But few of them come in with $10, so they end up taking kitchen or custodial jobs in the jail, reaping $1 a day on these jobs. “This is particularly distasteful and probably illegal,” charges attorney Schey. “They work for the INS at slave wages as a quid pro quo for a seven-minute call to their attorney.”

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Florence is one of three INS detention facilities that has passed inspection by the American Corrections Asso­ciation, the body that monitors stan­dards in criminal prisons. But ac­cording to a guard at the Florence SPC, who had helped spruce the place up before the ACA looked it over, “They found things that didn’t measure up and just said, ‘Fix this before we come back next year.’ ”

The detention center in New York doesn’t come close to passing an inspection. It is filthy, airless, and right across the street from one of SoHo’s prime cultural attrac­tions — the Film Forum at Houston and Var­ick Streets. On the fourth floor of this feder­al office building, 185 immigrants are confined.

Almost two years ago, the ACLU published a blistering report on the facility, pointing out that it was ill-equipped and over­crowded. The jail was established in 1984 to hold detainees on a short-term basis — no more than one week. Since then, the length of time has increased more than twentyfold. As of 1992 (the last year for which figures are available) the average stay was 154 days.

No one is permitted outside (a violation of ACA — not to mention UN — confinement standards), and the windows  are sealed shut. That means that for upward of five months, most detainees never see the light of day or inhale fresh air. In the four years he was confined at Varick Street, Lulseged Dhine watched his brown skin turn a pasty gray.

Visiting hours are more restrictive than at a high-security prison. Visitors are herded into one line after another, and none of the procedures are ever explained. Minors who show up on weekdays to see a parent typically burst into tears when they are gruffly turned away — and no one tells them they may come back on the weekend. One day a guard urged the crowd to move faster through the sign-­in procedure. When a visitor suggested the process would be quicker if instructions were posted in a few languages, the guard snapped “Yeah, it would go faster if all these people learned English.”

Visitors can’t catch a glimpse of the liv­ing area, and the INS said it could not ac­commodate a tour for press. But Sun Tok Stegeman, a detainee originally from Korea, describes the women’s dorm as a small room crammed with a dozen beds. There’s barely room to walk between then, she says, but that hardly matters as there’s little to do but lie in bed and stare at the ceiling. Detainees can watch a single television set for up to two hours a day, but they are forbidden to have books. The temperature is so cold, Stegeman sleeps in long johns, socks, and a sweatsuit­ — which she possesses only because her boyfriend has brought them. Others are not so lucky. They yank their single blankets over their heads, she says, and whimper through the night.

Lilian Loukakou spent a night at Varick Street in June. She was taken there after the Esmor riot. She slept on the cold floor with­out a blanket.

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At a notorious INS SPC in Texas, where employees said supervisors and other personnel were sexually molesting female detainees and guards, it took years of pounding on government doors before the Justice Department would conduct an in­vestigation — and in the end little action resulted. Beginning in 1990, former guards at the Port Isabel SPC in Los Fresnos attempt­ed to publicize allegations of misconduct. In 1992 some brought a sexual harassment suit against private security companies the INS contracted for guard staff.

Reverend Anthony Hefner, who worked as a guard at Port Isabel from 1983 to 1990, says he saw supervisors pluck young women from the dorm late at night, bring them out to the parking lot, and take them into their cars. Another former guard (and a plaintiff in the sexual harassment case), Cyn­thia Rodriguez, says she was asked to escort a 16-year-old Salvadoran girl from her dorm to supervisors’ offices and then back to the dorm. “I was asked to take her three or four times that day and each time she’d come back all sweaty,” Rodriguez recalls. “I said to her, ‘What the hell were you doing, girl?’ and she said she was dancing the Lambada for the officers because they said if she did, they’d help her get out.”

All the charges were denied by the INS district director at the time. Nonetheless, these reports led to an investigation by the Office of the Inspector General in 1992 — which concluded that the allegations were unsubstantiated. But, former staff say, the probe was intentionally obstructed by officials. Several guards, says Reverend Hefner, were warned by superiors that they’d lose their jobs if they spoke to any investigators­ — and four signed affidavits attesting to these threats. Some detainees and staff who wit­nessed sexual misconduct were not inter­viewed, though their names had been sup­plied to the OIG. Meanwhile, the sexual harassment suit was thrown out on a technicality — the judge ruled that it had been filed after the statute of limitations had expired. An appeal is still pending.

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Most detainees at the Port Isabel SPC come from Mexico and Central America; indeed, guards must speak Spanish to be hired. Rodriguez remembers having to go through 40 hours of training for the $9-an­ hour job. Part of it, she says, was learning not to care about people. “They told us not to talk to these people unless we were giv­ing them an order, not to crack a joke or even smile at them, to treat them as they’re supposed to be treated — which is not like people at all.” Still, says Rodriguez, “you just can’t help it. There was this lady pass­ing out and spitting up blood and I couldn’t just sit there. Another officer and I carried her to a cell, but one of the immigration officers yelled at us and accused the lady of bluffing so she could be let out. He kicked her and told her to get up. She passed away that evening.”

Along with Hefner and other former employees, Rodriguez described such inci­dents in testimony before a House Judiciary committee on International Law, Immigra­tion and Refugees almost two years ago. They called for a new, complete investigation and for extensions of protections of the Whistleblower’s Act to any personnel work­ing for a contractor in government facilities.

The INS spokesperson had no informa­tion on the status of the investigation. “They haven’t gotten back to us” says Rogelio Nunez, executive director of Casa de Proyec­to Libertad, which provides legal services for detainees at Port Isabel. “Conditions remain the same.”

Olanrewaju Ajayi has been detained at Port Isabel for almost almost three years. He was tak­en into custody by the INS for lying about his immigration status on a $2500 student loan application in 1982. Back in Alabama, Ajayi’s wife tries to look after their three chil­dren as best she can, but her hands are para­lyzed and Ajayi worries about his oldest, 11- year-old Yinka, who is “doing everything for her and losing his own youth.” Ajayi has lost 30 pounds at Port Isabel, and at 5-11 weighs a scrawny 150 pounds. “This place,” he says, “is like a concentration camp.”

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Proyecto Libertad is one of a hand­ful of groups around the country that supplies free legal assistance to detained immigrants. Without the intervention of such organizations, attorneys, or the occasional jail­house lawyer, most detainees would never know they had any recourse at all. Indeed, one of the central points in the Schey class-action suit is that prisoners are de­nied meaningful access to legal assistance.

By law, they are supposed to be given a list of attorneys and phone numbers upon their apprehension. But according to dozens of detainees around the country, the lists are distributed without any explanation — prisoners, especially those who don’t read Eng­lish, don’t have a clue what they’ve been handed. Often, the lists are inaccurate or out date. And even if a detainee uses the list, there is no guarantee that a collect call from a stranger will be accepted. Especially if the law office has an automated voicemail system that can’t accept collect calls. A U.S. citizen was penned up at Varick Street for weeks in 1993, unable to obtain a copy of his birth cer­tificate because he couldn’t get a collect call through to the Department of Health for in­formation on how to obtain it.

Lawyers say that because there’s no way to contact detainees, their clients often arrive at meetings unprepared. And guards may take their time producing the clients for vis­its. One New York attorney says he has stopped representing inmates at Varick Street because he frequently had to wait nearly two hours before seeing them.

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If the client is even there. Often de­tainees are moved from one facility to another without the attorney being notified — even the day before a hearing. During his three­-year detention, Franklin C. Bart-Addison, a 49-year-old Ghanaian national with a green card, was moved 26 times, shuttled from Texas to Oklahoma and Louisiana. “There was never any explanation for all this,” he says. “On the way, I lost all my legal papers and personal property. I would try to call my wife to tell her where I was each time. The farther from home I got, the more difficult it was for my family to visit me.” For four years, Bart­-Addison didn’t see the youngest of his six children, now five years old.

When the INS rents beds in criminal jails, there is even less accountability. After Lil­ian Loukakou was transferred to York, it took almost a week for her lawyer, Carmen Men­diola, to locate her. Then, after Mendiola drove three and a half hours from Elizabeth to visit Loukakou (and other clients), the warden refused to let her in. After 90 min­utes of haggling on the phone with INS au­thorities, Mendiola finally persuaded them to give her the access that is her clients’ right. The warden relented, but would not permit the assistants who accompanied Mendiola to go in with her; in fact they were threatened with arrest if they did not leave the waiting room.

The most notorious county jail to take in INS detainees is the New Orleans Parish Prison, a 7000-bed complex where current litigation alleges sexual abuse of female in­mates and men subjected to beatings and electric shock. Many of the Chinese women who were fished up by the INS when the Golden Venture ran aground two years ago were taken there; they remain in custody (though some have been moved to a Cali­fornia jail).

This prison gets $45 per detainee from the INS — almost twice the amount the state of Louisiana pays for criminal inmates. Employees there refer to INS detainees as a “cash crop.”

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Medical access is often even worse than legal access, despite recent INS efforts to meet national standards on correctional health care. At Port Isabel, says Cynthia Rodriguez, “medical attention means Mylanta or Tylenol” — an assessment echoed by detainees across the country. A 22-year-old Russian man held at Varick Street who was HIV-positive was, despite repeated requests, unable to get his pre­scription filled. He became so depressed that he attempted suicide by slashing his arms, splattering blood all over his crowd­ed dorm. The INS had ordered him de­ported after he completed a criminal sen­tence for possession of stolen property, but couldn’t get him onto a plane because he had no travel document. For months he sat in the airless boredom of detention, fearing that he would die there. Finally, another de­tainee told a visitor about the Russian’s case and she contacted lawyers at the ACLU and GMHC. It took them three months to get him released — and only because the ACLU threatened a lawsuit.

One of the named plaintiffs in Schey’s class-action suit, Gladstone Jumbo, was de­tained for two years in a small jail outside Atlanta, all the while denied access to the walk­er he needed to get around and the care he needed to delay progressive paralysis. “Guards said he was faking it,” says Schey, “never mind that he had been getting treatment for two years before his detention, and was using a walker when the INS apprehended him. In his cold cell, his condition deteriorated. By the last few months of his two years there, he was dragging himself along the floor to get to the shower or visitation room. Just drag­ging himself along, and they said he was con­triving his condition.”

Stories like Gladstone Jumbo’s — along with the spreading fervor for legislation like California’s Proposition 187 — have spurred a grassroots movement for detention and im­migration policy reform. Contradicting the sweeping tide of anti-immigrant sentiment, private citizens, especially in counties where detainees are kept in local jails, have made reg­ular visits to detainees, pressed for their re­lease, and even offered to take people in until they can fend for themselves.

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A group called People of the Golden Vi­sion: An Interfaith Coalition for Immigrants’ Rights has organized a series of regional meet­ings around the country to bring together lawyers, human rights activists for immigrants, religious groups and others “to call national attention to the conditions” and “put an end to human rights abuses” within INS detention centers.

At the first such meeting in Washing­ton, D.C., in April, some activists warned that detention reform is a tricky goal, especially as there’s talk in Congress of moving INS detention centers offshore, putting them under the control of the U.S. mili­tary in closed bases, or building huge pris­ons in the boonies. “You think we have access problems now,” said Wendy Young of the Women’s Commission on Women Refugees. “Just imagine.”

ACLU attorney Judy Rabinovitz elabo­rated: “We could lose by winning. They could build a giant facility that’s clean and has a ful­ly stocked library and plenty of outdoor recre­ation — in Oakdale, Louisiana, where detainees would be out of the public eye, and away from family and attorneys. The goal is not to have beautiful, wonderful detention centers, but to make  detention at most a last resort.”

In the meantime, Lilian Loukakou re­mains in maximum security at York County jail, awaiting an appeal. The ruling last week, in the July hearing on which she’d pinned her hopes, was decided against her. The judge said he did not believe her story.

The eight-month confinement has taken a toll. Loukakou stares listlessly at the floor and fidgets in her chair. Her fingernails have grown long and her skin is breaking out. “She looks totally different from when I met her in April,” says attorney Mendiola. “Mentally, she’s had it.”

Says her boyfriend Louison: “She calls me almost every day, and all she does is cry and cry and cry.” ♦


#Prisonstrike: A Rebellion Inside America’s Profitable Gulag Archipelago

On the website for Unicor, the newly renamed Federal Prison Industries — the 84-year-old government-run corporation that utilizes incarcerated people for labor — there’s a section called “Shopping.” There, you can benefit from the fruits of the company’s “Factories With Fences” program, which produces items manufactured by the 182,797 inmates of the nation’s federal prisons: socks, solar panels, goggles, shelving, license plates, office furniture. For $139, you can buy the Chrome Frame Matrix HD Chair for your office or home in ebony, wine, sapphire, or indigo, knowing it was made by prisoners who serve Unicor at dozens of facilities from Canaan, Pennsylvania, to Atwater, California. If you are looking for labor, prisoners can also be contracted for your company, for services ranging from manufacturing to call center duties. After all, it’s a fantastic deal: The pay rate for inmates ranges from 23 cents to $1.15 an hour. This, partners are told, offers companies “minimized overhead costs to help drive bottom-line improvements. (Seeing this bargain laid out in the crisp, airless language of convenience capitalism both elides the skin-crawling horror of incarceration and somehow underscores it.) Unicor has a capsule history of the federal U.S. prison labor program on its website, which notes that prison work programs originated in the United States with the nation’s founding in the 1700s, and that “despite periods of criticism from detractors, increasingly constrictive procurement laws, misinformation and stigma,” they have “endured.”

The latest “test” to prison labor comes not from outside detractors or procurement laws, but from within the prisons themselves. On August 21, a loosely connected network of incarcerated activists, led by the group Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, announced a nationwide prison strike. One of the ten demands released by the protesters is an end to prison slavery – a demand for a full and fair wage just noting it specifies as based on the prevailing wage in their state or territory for any labor performed while incarcerated.

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The strike was inspired by a riot at the Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, South Carolina, on April 15, which left seven inmates — Corey Scott, Eddie Casey Gaskins, Raymond Angelo Scott, Damonte Rivera, Michael Milledge, Cornelius McClary, and Joshua Jenkins — dead. Prisoners stated that the surge of violence was due to inhumane living conditions, punitive sentences, and the prison warehousing rival gangs in the same units.

The date was set for August 21, the day Nat Turner’s slave revolt began in 1831. It’s meant to last until September 9, the anniversary of the Attica State Peniteniary uprising, a mass prisoner takeover of an upstate New York prison in 1971 that ultimately led to significant reforms in the New York carceral system.

“We are men! We are not beasts, and we do not intend to be beaten or driven as such,” said Attica inmate Elliot “L.D.” Barkley, in one of the first public statements made by the protesting prisoners in 1971. Barkley, the most visible face of the Attica uprising, was shot in the back and killed when authorities stormed the prison to quell the uprising, leaving thirty prisoners and ten prison guards dead.

The first demand of the 2018 strike echoes Barkley’s words across decades: It is a call for “immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.” The rest are concretizations of this demand: that the label of “violent offender” should not result in anyone being barred from rehabilitation programs; that current and former prisoners regain their voting rights; an end to racist over-charging of black and brown people; and an end to the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which severely restricts the ability of prisoners to file federal lawsuits, among others.

The strike is as sprawling and difficult to track as America’s prison state itself, a system that encompasses some 2.3 million people. Its participants are largely anonymized by the activists who publicize their resistance, for fear of retaliation by prison authorities. By its very nature, it vexes publications, as the incarcerated individuals taking part are purposefully tucked out of sight and kept from communicating with the press. But reports have trickled out — particularly in activist-aligned outlets like Democracy Now! and It’s Going Down — of ICE detainees hunger-striking in Washington State; prison work stoppages in South Carolina; boycotts of commissaries in Florida; and more hunger strikers, in Colorado, North Carolina, Georgia, and California. Many groups of strikers have released local demands. These reports are smuggled out like the contraband they are, to whichever ears on the outside are willing to receive them.

At New Folsom Prison in California, 26-year-old Heriberto Garcia, in the tenth year of a fifteen-years-to-life sentence for voluntary manslaughter, recorded himself refusing food in his cell and smuggled the video to a revolutionary press in Chicago, which posted the video to Twitter. “I was introduced to the gang life at the age of 11. I ended incarcerated at the age of 16 and have been down ever since,” he wrote to correspondents at True Leap Press last year. “I’m still evolving with the struggle and will continue as long as I’m alive.

Sympathizers on the outside have staged a variety of actions to show solidarity to incarcerated strikers. In Minneapolis, protesters set off fireworks outside one of the city’s juvenile detention centers, accompanied by music by the anarchist marching band Unlawful Assembly. In Brooklyn, marchers banged drums while Metropolitan Detention Center inmates flashed contraband cellphones through narrow windows; in other states, activists have participated in banner drops, created solidarity graffiti, and clashed with police in marches.

Inside prison walls, incarcerated individuals who engage in active resistance must contend with a system designed to impose punishment and tighten the vice of privation. Activists have reported retaliatory solitary confinement, transfers, and the deprivation of clean clothes and showers for prisoners who have helped to organize hunger strikes and work stoppages. In America’s prisons — the gray archipelago of warehoused men and women tucked in towns, behind great casements of cement — a great shadow economy moves forward. Every consumer annoyance in the outside world — phone-company fees, health insurance premiums — has a parallel that exists in the prison economy, only contractors are free to exploit a captive audience. Prisoners stripped of their liberty have to further contend with exorbitant fees for outside phone calls; charges for medical care; erratic or extortionate prices in prison commissaries; and perhaps most grotesquely, in 43 states, “room and board fees” for incarceration itself.

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Imprisoned men and women are the drivers of this multibillion-dollar shadow economy: its laborers and its prey. The work stoppages and hunger strikes are the weapons of those from whom all others have been stripped. The hands that assemble thousands of chairs and tables and solar panels, that sew socks and table linens, that print and bind books for pennies, have no recourse beyond stilling themselves from that work, in the face of fearful punishment. Over the past decades, prisoners have packaged holiday coffees for Starbucks, stitched lingerie for Victoria’s Secret, and answered calls for AT&T, and farmed tilapia for Whole Foods, among dozens of other blue-chip brands. The small luxuries — cheese, chocolate, soap — of the commissary are all they have to boycott, and those who can are doing so. Hunger itself is the last offensive of the incarcerated person, when the only freedom left for a body is the freedom to devour itself. It’s the freedom once expressed by the poet Marina Tsvetaeva, who wrote, after her husband was shot and her daughter imprisoned by Stalin:

In this madhouse of the inhuman
I refuse to live. With the wolves of the marketplace
I refuse to be. I refuse to swim
with the sharks, on a current of human spines.

In America, our gulags are run not just to punish, but for private companies’ profit, for the sake of the smooth and ugly Chrome Frame Matrix HD Office Chair and its buyers, made in prison. The act of striking is a rebuke not just of individual prison conditions, but of the grinding, predatory march of the prison economy itself. America is punitive — we have the largest number of incarcerated individuals in the world — and it is harsh to those it punishes. It is not a coincidence that those subject to the abysmal conditions of the carceral state are disproportionately racial minorities. Black Americans are incarcerated at five times the rate of whites across the country, and at ten times the rate of whites in some states. Modern prison slavery, as criminal-justice reform advocates have pointed out again and again, is an extension of our nation’s original sin, the forced labor of black bodies. The acts of defiance smuggled to our eyes and ears from within the system are necessarily small, necessarily isolated from one another, necessarily borne of the cramped and violent framework in which they are contained. It is on us to amplify them to their appropriate enormity, to let the fire of that fierce, noble hunger rise in us, and turn insatiably to justice.


One Nation, Behind Bars: Examining Prison Culture Through Photography

Forty years ago the situation in U.S. prisons was still, in some ways, normal. The War on Drugs was yet to begin (1982); federal mandatory minimum sentences were not yet in place (1986), though some states had gotten a jump on the concept — notably New York, where the Rockefeller Drug Laws took effect in 1973. Since then, the U.S. prison and jail population has ballooned fivefold, reaching some 2.3 million people now (of whom 40 percent are Black and 19 percent Latino), plus many more on parole or probation. Mass incarceration — and the explosion of related businesses that make up the prison-industrial complex — is entrenched in American life. In the late Seventies, by contrast, in some facilities and if you looked the right way, prison life could seem borderline quaint.

When Jack Lueders-Booth ran a photography workshop at the Massachusetts women’s prison in Framingham, from 1978 to ’85, the institution still allowed inmates to wear their own clothes. The velour sweaters and layered hairstyles in his portraits of the workshop participants give away the era. The women wear makeup, pose in cells decorated with memorabilia, or in pairs of friends. One holds the book Mick Jagger: Everybody’s Lucifer. It is still a prison. There are cold brick walls, peeling pipes. But these are warm, soulful portraits that express individual personalities and bespeak a fundamental human dignity.

Lueders-Booth’s is one of fourteen photo-based projects that make up “Prison Nation,” an exhibition now on view at the Aperture Foundation gallery in Chelsea, and the theme of the spring issue of Aperture, the foundation’s quarterly. The initiative addresses a dilemma: The U.S. has, by far, the world’s highest incarceration rates. Yet little about prison life is widely known outside — the fictional portrayals of Oz or Orange Is the New Black notwithstanding — and authorities have, if anything, bottled up access over the years. The exhibition’s crisp, effective wall text poses the problem: “How can photographs visualize a reality that, for many, remains out of view?”

The answer: By using every possible tactic, getting inside the walls through education programs or by the favor of cooperative wardens; or finding oblique ways to convey the enormousness of the prison system and its impact on every canvas, from the individual psychologies of inmates and officers to the landscapes and local economies where prisons are spatial behemoths and anchor employers.

Bruce Jackson, “Cummins Prison, Arkansas,” (1975)

Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick began shooting in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola in 1980, and continued until 2013; their project has appeared, among other venues, in the Venice Biennale. The time-series nature of their work helps dispense with any romanticism about prisons of yore; the exhibition juxtaposes black-and-white photographs of prisoners doing field labor in 1980 and 2004, and the similarities — lines of men bearing heavy tools, guards on horseback — underscore a legacy of brutality going back to the prison’s roots as a plantation. The prison photographs Bruce Jackson made in Texas and Arkansas in the 1960s and 1970s extend the message, stark documentary compositions inhabited by a chilly, apprehensive feel. (Jackson also helped gain prison access for Danny Lyon, whose lyrical 1971 book Conversations With the Dead, a classic of U.S. prison photography, is not represented here.)

Photographer unknown: A guard at San Quentin State Prison, April 8, 1961

Less familiar is the remarkable archive of thousands of photos that the artist Nigel Poor came across through her work at San Quentin State Prison in California. Most recently, Poor co-created the revelatory podcast Ear Hustle with two incarcerated men, Earlonne Woods and Antwan Williams. The trove of photos pulls us back several decades, presenting life as seen by the now-anonymous prison guards who took them. These are often violent images — bruised faces, the impact of assaults and brawls — along with snapshots of prison ceremonies, football teams, a Christmas tree. One photo shows the dummy a prisoner left in his bunk during an escape attempt; another, a crude tunnel, presumably for the same purpose.

Jamel Shabazz: Pretrial detainees posing, Rikers Island, 1986

Beginning in 1982, the photographer Jamel Shabazz worked seven years as a correctional officer on Rikers Island. Shabazz is known for vivid, often joyous images of Black and Latino life in New York, particularly in the early days of hip-hop culture. But with the escalating crack wars, young people began to bounce between the island jail and the streets. Back from the Army and offered civil-service jobs in the post office and the correction department, Shabazz chose the latter. “Correction was the best place for me, because a lot of young brothers were being locked up and I had a desire to make a difference,” he explains in an Aperture interview. A 1986 image of four pre-trial detainees, young men in casual clothes striking an artfully casual pose — one crouches in front, hands open with a luminous smile — has the body language and easy energy of similar shots Shabazz made on Lenox Avenue or the Fulton Mall.

Emily Kinni, Untitled, Huntsville, Texas , 2017

As we move to the present, we see fewer images from inside, and more from life surrounding the core fact of mass incarceration. In Huntsville, Texas, site of nine prisons housing over 15,000 inmates, Emily Kinni went to the Greyhound station and invited men newly released to pose for portraits, sharing Polaroids with them and often keeping in touch. These affecting images are likely the first time the subjects control their own depiction after years inside. In one, a young man has removed his shirt and stands in profile, revealing a tattoo of Abraham Lincoln on his arm. Another shows the lower body of a man readying to board the bus. He totes his belongings in two onion bags; his wrinkled hand marks him as quite old.

Stephen Tourlentes, “Wyoming State Death House Prison, Rawlins, Wyoming” (2000)

A different pathos haunts the long-exposure nighttime photography of Stephen Tourlentes, who has made a series of images of prisons in their landscape, sometimes up close — as in an image from Waupun, Wisconsin, where placid little houses on tree-lined streets give way to the halo-lit walls of a prison at the end of the block — and sometimes from a great distance, ultra-bright lights on the horizon in the Wyoming plateau or backlighting a row of palm trees that surrounds a prison in the barren Arizona desert. There are no humans in these compositions, just institutions that mark the land, harsh disruptions of the ecology.

There is not enough prison-related photography; at the same time, it is a renewing field, broader than one might deduce from this exhibition, in part thanks to the dissemination potential of social media. Everyday Incarceration, a curated feed on Instagram, is one place to scout projects on the prison-industrial complex and its community impacts. More broadly, the system’s injustice and racial bias has become the subject of influential scholarship (such as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness) and activist mass-media projects (such as Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th). Prison abolitionists, long toiling in the activist underbrush, may be starting to get a fair hearing.

Zora J Murff, Megan at 16 , 2014, from the series Corrections , 2013–15

But a strength of this show is how it depicts artists as participants, not just documentarians. Shabazz worked in the system; so did Zora Murff, who spent time as a tracker for a country juvenile justice system in Iowa, and made portraits — blurred or posed so as to conceal the subject’s identity — of youth he dealt with. Deborah Luster, who presents large-format portraits of inmates dressed for a prison Passion Play performance, has worked on prisons and violence since the 1990s, spurred by her mother’s assassination in 1988 by a contract killer. The multimedia artist Sable Elyse Smith shares pages from her artist’s book that centers on her relationship with her long-incarcerated father. Here, the material spills out of photography and into the epistolary, with a cheery handwritten letter (“What it do daughter!”) signed “Love, Dad A.K.A. Pa.” These artists are implicated. Ultimately, so are we all.

Lucas Foglia, Vanessa and Lauren watering, GreenHouse Program, Rikers Island

‘Prison Nation’
Aperture Foundation
547 West 27th Street

Through March 7


New York Department of Corrections Defends — but Is Reviewing — Solitary-Confinement Policies

The New York Civil Liberties Union released a report yesterday detailing the “inhumane, arbitrary use of solitary confinement” in New
York state prisons. Based on the report, the group is now calling for drastic reforms in how the New York State Department of Corrections deals with inmates in segregated housing units, where prisoners are often kept alone in their cells for 23 hours a day.

The DOC has since responded to the report, and while Commissioner Brian Fischer defends the need for segregated housing units, he says his office already has launched a review of the DOC’s policies when it comes to solitary confinement.

“As society removes those individuals who commit crimes, so too must we
remove from general population inmates who violate the Department’s code
of conduct and who threaten the safety and security of our facilities,” Fischer says in a statement the DOC provided to the Voice.
“The possession of drugs, cell phones, and weapons pose a serious threat
within this and any other prison system.”

Following the year-long study, NYCLU researchers came to the following
conclusions regarding the DOC’s segregated housing policies:

  • New York’s use of extreme isolation is arbitrary and unjustified.
    Extreme isolation is too frequently used as a disciplinary tool of
    first resort. Corrections officials have enormous discretion to impose
    extreme isolation. Prisoners can be sent to the SHU for prolonged
    periods of time for violating a broad range of prison rules, including
    for minor, non-violent misbehavior.
  • Extreme isolation harms prisoners and corrections staff.
    It causes grave emotional and psychological harm even to healthy and
    mentally stable inmates. For the vulnerable, particularly those
    suffering from mental illness, extreme isolation can be
    life-threatening. The formal and informal deprivation of human
    necessities, including food, exercise and basic hygiene, compounds the
    emotional and psychological harm. Prisoners in extreme isolation often
    lack access to adequate medical and mental health care. For corrections
    staff, working in extreme isolation has lasting negative consequences
    that affect their lives at work and home.
  • Extreme isolation negatively impacts prison and community safety.
    The psychological effects of extreme isolation can fuel unpredictable
    and sometimes violent outbursts that endanger prisoners and corrections
    staff. Prisoners carry the effects of extreme isolation into the general
    prison population. They also carry them home. Nearly 2,000 people in
    New York are released directly from extreme isolation to the streets
    each year. While in the SHU, prisoners receive no educational,
    vocational, rehabilitative or transitional programming, leaving them
    less prepared to successfully rejoin society.

however, maintains that solitary confinement is necessary part of the
prison system, noting that, “it is our duty to protect those in our
custody, as well as our employees. . . . The use of disciplinary segregation
is important to the
overall well-being of any of our prisons.”

That said, Fischer says he recognizes “the need
to constantly review our policies to determine if what we’re doing is
effective and beneficial to everyone.”

He says that his office has been reviewing SHU policies since the beginning of September and will provide a list of recommendations “based upon sound penological principles” as soon as the review is complete.


Willard Lanham, Former DOE Consultant Who Stole Millions, Hit With Three-Year Prison Sentence

Willard “Ross” Lanham, 58, learned yesterday that embezzling millions of dollars in funds meant to bring Internet access to kids is not only a despicable thing to do, but it will also earn you more than three years in prison.

A Manhattan federal court judge sentenced Lanham to 37 months in jail for orchestrating an embezzlement scheme that netted him $1.7 million from the New York City Department of Education.

Lanham served as a consultant for the DOE from 2002 to 2008 on three projects designed to upgrade the technological infrastructure in city public schools. It was through the Power Connect project, which the DOE launched to bring Internet access to city public schools, that Lanham devised a scheme to skim the city out of the large sum of money.


Lanham set up his own — unauthorized and unnecessary — consulting company, hired out its consultants to contractors and subcontractors working on the Power Connect project, and had these companies bill one another (and ultimately the DOE) at high rates for the shadow company’s consultant “services.” This web of deceit made him millions in profits over the course of his tenure as the Power Connect point man.

“The Department of Education entrusted [Lanham] with the vitally important task of helping young students get connected to the Internet — thereby connecting them to the world around them and the infinite resources that can be found online,” Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a statement obtained by Voice. “Instead, Lanham chose to steal precious dollars from DOE to help underwrite his lifestyle, and he will now pay for his crimes.”

This lifestyle included the purchase of a large plot of land in East Northport — where he built high-end homes and amassed a collection of luxury cars worth an estimated $600,000 (the collection included a Lexus, Corvette, Porsche, Cadillac Escalade, and a Mercedes, according to the investigator’s report).

You might think that the $200,000/year salary Lanham received from the DOE, which was part of the roughly $1.4 million in total pay for his work with the department, would’ve been enough. That, apparently, is not the case.

Lanham was hired in 2002 by a consultant company the DOE hired to oversee its entire technology upgrade initiative. Through a complex billing process — between Lanham, the two main contractors for the project, Verizon and IBM, and numerous subcontractors — Lanham was able to skim millions from the DOE.

According to court documents, Lanham’s scam was pretty elaborate — he set up his own consulting company, Lanham Enterprises, of which the DOE had no knowledge. In one such scenario, Lanham told one of the subcontractors to hire two consultants for the work they’d be doing on Project Connect, pay them, and then bill Lanhman Enterprises for reimbursement for a rate of $70/hour and $30/hour, respectively. This is in spite of the fact that the two consultants didn’t provide the subcontractor with any direct services — and really were just pawns of Lanham’s.

Lanham then instructed a different subcontractor to pay the same two consultants $187.50/hour and $125/hour, respectively. The subcontractor paid the consultants, but unlike the other subcontractor, it billed one of the main contractors instead of Lanham Enterprises. The main contractor then billed the DOE at rates up to 15 percent higher than what the subcontractor normally billed.

Thus Lanham was able to profit from the large difference between what Lanham Enterprises had to pay in reimbursements and what the second subcontractor paid the two consultants. When the main contractor grew suspicious of the payment system, Lanham assured the company that the DOE had authorized the billing process.

In all, from 2002 to 2008, the two consultants made $3.2 million dollars from the scheme —
much of that went to Lanham. Lanham perpetrated similar forms of his scheme during his time working on the project. He eventually added more consultants — including his brother — and changed how and in what way the subcontractors and contractors passed through the unauthorized payments.

In calculating the sum of these unauthorized profits, Lanham Enterprises made $5.3 million, and only paid out $1.7 million. Yesterday, the court ordered Lanham to forfeit his more than $1.7 million in salary earnings and pay back more than $1.7 million dollars to the DOE.


State Senator Malcolm Smith: An Illegal Gun Should Cost You 8 Years In Prison. About That…

As it currently stands, anyone caught with an illegal gun in New York is looking at a maximum of two years in prison. Two years, apparently, is chump change — according to Democratic state Senator Malcolm Smith, anyway, who now wants to up the ante for those busted with less-than-legal firearms.

“We believe the message that that sends to those who have illegal guns is ‘I can go away for a year, maybe two years. I’ll come back on good behavior in a year and I have a badge of honor,” Smith said at a press conference this afternoon.

If Smith has his way, anyone caught illegally possessing a gun would face a minimum sentence of five years in prison. The maximum sentence would be eight years.

“You get caught with your gun, you’re gone,” he continues. “You’re not coming back in a year, six months, five months. By the time you come back, these kids here will have graduated from high school, maybe gone on to college.”

Just for the record, Smith’s plan would have landed former New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress — who was busted with a kind of illegal gun — behind bars for up to eight years (more on Plax below).

New York already has some of the toughest gun laws in the country. But most of those laws are in regards to purchasing guns. Smith’s law would apply to those who already have illegal firearms.

“This particular legislation is for those guns that are on the street that are just hanging out on the corner some place,” he said.

Smith’s proposal is in response to a spike in gun violence in New York recently, including 69 shootings in the Brownsville section of the Brooklyn in what has been dubbed the “Summer of the Gun.”

Locking up thugs who callously take aim at innocent people is great, and all, but the mandatory minimums seem to offer no grey area for those who get busted with an illegal gun, but aren’t necessarily gang-banging creeps.

For example, Burress was busted with an “illegal” gun a few years ago after shooting himself in the leg at a Manhattan night club. He spent nearly two years in prison — during the prime of his career.

Burress’ gun wasn’t registered in New York. It was, at one point, registered in Florida, though. However, when he popped a cap into his own leg, the Florida permit was expired.

Expired or not, the gun was illegal in New York. However, it’s not like Burress bought the gun out of the back of some guy’s car and was using it to hold up liquor stores — he bought it legally in a different state, and failed to re-register the gun when his permit expired.

Not to mention, Burress is a multi-millionaire celebrity in a sport with a history of its athletes being the targets of robberies, you can’t blame the guy for thinking he needed a little extra protection.

Then there’s the case of former U.S. Marine Ryan Jerome, who was busted with a weapon that’s registered in Indiana, where he has a concealed weapons permit. That permit, as he learned the hard way, doesn’t extend to New York — he was arrested while visiting the Empire State Building after alerting security that he had a gun on him.

Jerome told police he checked New York’s gun laws before bringing his weapon on his trip to the Big Apple — he claims he must have mis-read them.

He also told police that, as someone who makes a living dealing in precious metals, he carries the gun on him for protection from people who may want to rob him.

Unlike Burress, Jerome avoided jail time — he was sentence to 10 hours of community service and required to pay a $1,000 fine — despite initially getting charged with the same felony gun charge that landed Burress in the hoosegow.

Under Smith’s proposal, both men would have been sent to prison for at least five years.