by Kevin “Rashid” Johnson
Brutality by Design
As was the focus of a recent article (1), the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) has been recognized by the federal courts to be among Amerika’s most abusive prison systems, where a “culture of sadistic and malicious violence” reigns, involving the seeming inability of correctional officers to keep their hands off prisoners. (2) Though this is acknowledged, Texas officials have done nothing to rein these abuses in. And why? Because, like the inherently abusive and oppressive nature of the overall Amerikan criminal injustice system – it’s all by design.
Compelling Submission to Slavery
Government sanctioned brutality underlies the U.S. prison system; just as it did the U.S. chattel slave system of which the prison system is a continuation; and just as it did the German Nazi concentration camp system. Under the old North Amerikan slave system it was openly admitted that people simply will not willingly submit to bondage and unremunerated forced labor. The human spirit naturally rebels against such a condition. Therefore the wealthy interests whose economic domination, power, prestige and wealth itself relied on slave labor, had to devise a system which would compel the submission of those to be kept in bondage.
So they dehumanized their victims to strip them of all claims of entitlement to human dignity, compassion and consideration. But this alone was not enough to force them to submit to slavery. “This was to be done… by means of beatings, whippings, or any other similar form of violent and mutilative punishment or humiliation. Sociologically speaking, this then illustrates clearly that the South had become a society that was compelled to resort to the use of coercive force because of the ultimate failure of law to support or enforce subservient behavior in slaves.” (3) And because slavery is the basis of the U.S. prison system, (as embodied in the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution), this same resort to brutality and violence to exert “control” pervades it. So as was done with the slaves of yesterday, U.S. prisoners are projected to the broader public as objects of suspicion, fear, ridicule and hate.
In this sense, we are the new “niggers”. And when guards wish to demean us, we’re often told that we’re only “inmates”, “offenders”, etc., which means, something less than human. Yet in reality, the only thing that differentiates us from the ‘public’ (and who among them can honestly say they’ve never violated any of the innumerable laws of the oppressive state?), is we’ve suffered the formal indignity of having the government brand and stigmatize us ‘criminals’. But on the other hand, the same guards who run these prisons frequently admit to us, the only difference between us and them is they’ve “never been caught”, which makes them the worse sort of hypocrites, who devote their lives to punishing others (breaking up homes, families and communities, and subjecting us to all manner of abuses in the process) for violating laws that they don’t respect themselves.
There’s also the fact that in Amerika people of color and the poor (the traditional “niggers” and poor social “trash”) are the primary targets of aggressive policing of their communities, criminal prosecution and mass imprisonment. Criminal injustice in Amerika is far from blind – and definitely ain’t colorblind. Indeed the boon of mass imprisonment on the last several decades is aptly recognized as a “New Jim Crow” system for disparaging and disposing of marginalized racial and national minorities. But what accompanies this system, that many aren’t aware of, is raw slavery, which could not exist without dehumanizing and brutalizing its victims. Once U.S. prisons are recognized to be a system of enslavement, and the lie is exposed that slavery in Amerika was ever abolished, the abusive conditions that pervades them make perfect sense. Let’s take the TDCJ where I’m presently imprisoned for example.
With 109 prisons and over 152,000 prisoners, Texas operates Amerika’s largest state prison system. And every prisoner confined in Texas is forced to work without pay… Only those very few with documented serious medical or mental health conditions which impair work performance, and those held in the TDCJ’s torturous segregation units, are not made to work. Often those with documented medical and mental health exemptions are still forced to work – their exemptions being simply ignored.
Those who refuse to work are punished, thrown in segregated confinement, and their imprisonment is typically extended. The entire Texas prison system is organized around its prisoner labor, with the prisoners literally performing every job short of running the cell blocks. Actually, until the federal courts banned it in the 1980’s, prisoners were doing this too, working as “building tenders” whom the guards armed with pipes, street knives and bats, and gave impunity to terrorize other prisoners (through stabbings, beatings, rapes and extortion) to keep order for the TDCJ administrators. (4) The same sort of unholy and oft denied alliance that police have long maintained with ‘organized’ criminal elements in poor urban communities, to supply, protect and secure graft from drug operations and other ‘crimes’ and to remove competitors and compel residents’ submission.
TDCJ prisoners also substituted for licensed medical staff.(5) Otherwise today TDCJ prisoners still do everything from growing all the food we eat (and which the TDCJ also sells commercially for profit), raising livestock and crops on hundreds of thousands of acres of TDCJ-owned farmland (which are aptly called “colonies”), to building and maintaining the prisons that hold us. The prisoners plant, tend and harvest everything from cotton, beans, carrots and potatoes, to peanuts and more. This work is performed by “hoe squads” of prisoners using primitive manual labor methods like those of the field slaves of yesterday or Third World peasants, while armed guards on horseback “oversee” them.
The prisoners, like the old slaves, refer to these overseers as “bossman”. To see one of these terms at work is to witness a scene like something ripped from an old slave movie. The TDCJ also runs an in-house enterprise called Texas Correctional Industries, which uses prisoners’ slave labor to make everything from the clothes we and the guards wear (which are made from the prisoner-grown cotton) and also commercially sold garments, boots, state and U.S. flags, linen, etc., to the steel cell doors, beds, lockers, sink/commode units, and even walls and other fixtures that go into the prisons’ constructions and cells. Texas prisoners literally forge the chains that bind them.
As a further abuse and insult, the TDCJ does not provide its prisoners with seasonal clothing for cold winters or Texas’s scorching summers, like long underwear (thermals), gloves, hats, shorts, t-shirts, etc. Instead we must purchase such items from the prison commissaries (remember these are clothes the prisoners make themselves without payment), using whatever money we can manage to get friends and family to send us. Most prisoners have little to no outside support, and the TDCJ doesn’t encourage our developing or maintaining communication lines to the outside.
Those of us who don’t receive money are allowed to mail only five one-ounce letters per month, the cost of which is set up as an outstanding debt that we must repay if and whenever we may receive any money. Prisoners are therefore forced to devise all sorts of hustles and schemes to generate means of acquiring clothes, hygiene supplies (which the TDCJ also does not give us), and even food (I will discuss the grossly inadequate nutrition we receive below).
Also, most TDCJ prisons lack air-conditioning, so this slave labor is performed in the sweltering Texas heat, which is of course worse for those who work inside unventilated buildings. Even the guards who serve as little more than overseers (armed watchers and disciplinarians), protest the lack of climate-control in the prisons. (6) Indeed prisoners have been dropping dead from these conditions and have been forced to refuse life-sustaining medications to avoid the potentially fatal effects that these medicines can cause from extreme exertions in hot weather. And of course, TDCJ administrators, who ensure their own offices are air-conditioned, could care less.
Which brings us to the cruelest feature typical of such mean systems of enslavement. Namely the ‘owners’ who live in luxury and comfort at the slaves’ expense, generally care nothing about the health of their workers, especially when, as here, the slaves are easily and readily replaced from a steady supply of surplus workers; as was also the case during the trans-Atlantic slave trade and in the Nazi concentration camps. Which is why those slaves were starved, denied health care, and literally worked to death. But it was only called genocide when its focus was on ‘white’ people.
Many overlook or don’t realize that it was the exploitation of slave labor that helped drive the German Nazi’s genocidal program against Poles Gypsies (Sintis and Romanis), Jews, Slavs, the mentally disturbed, and others. These people were swept up en masse into concentration camps where many were worked to death, performing forced labor to enrich and sustain German corporations and the Nazi state and military that served them. Similarly TDCJ’s prisoner health care system has long been recognized to be unresponsive to the health needs of its prisoners. As said, but for federal court intervention in the 1980’s, prisoners were made to rely on only their peers for health care. (7)
And just as the Nazis did to those they captured under their Aryanization programs, the property of U.S. prisoners is typically confiscated and kept by arresting police under “civil forfeiture” laws. We should remember that the Nazis, as did the slavers of yesterday’s North Amerika, legitimized their inhumane practices by embedding them in law. Then too there’s the high incidence of communicable deadly diseases like chronic hepatitis (HCV), HIV and AIDS, which commonly circulate in U.S. prisons at pandemic levels and go largely untreated.
One documented example was found in the Virginia Department of Corrections where I was originally confined (for 21 years), and for whom Texas is presently holding me. The situation was exposed by the ACLU in a 2003 report which found the VDOC was deliberately allowing such deadly diseases as HCV to circulate untreated among its prisoners, while in violation of Virginia’s laws VDOC officials deliberately falsified reports on the levels of prisoner HCV infection and those dying from it. (8) The report, which was hushed up, revealed that the VDOC was outright refusing to treat over 10,000 known HCV cases (over a full third of its entire prison population).
It stated: “Although it is estimated that up to half of chronic HCV patients can be cured if treated early with an appropriate regimen of interferon and ribavirin, only 50 Virginia inmates out of an estimated 12,800 infected were receiving Hepatitis C treatment as of November 1, 2002, and only 320 have received the therapy since the treatment protocol was implemented. Liver biopsies – procedures performed to assess liver damage prior to initiating HCV treatment – have fallen considerably in recent years. Only 33 inmates were scheduled for biopsies as of November 1, and the number of liver biopsies dipped dramatically last year, from 204 in 2000 to 127 in 2011.” (9) It should be noted that one of the practices for which the Nazis were found guilty of “crimes against humanity” during the Nuremberg Trials for war crimes, was their confining German citizens and others under conditions where epidemics ran rampant. (10)
If such acts were crimes for which German leaders were punished with executions, they are no less crimes when committed by U.S. officials. Indeed U.S. Supreme Court Justice and Nuremberg prosecutor Robert H. Jackson stated this as a basic principle: “If certain acts and violations of treaties are crimes they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them. We are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.” (11) But of course this is typical U.S. rhetoric, since as the present case among many others demonstrates, as admitted in a Washington Monthly editorial: “War crimes tribunals would be the worst thing that could happen, [because] they would amount to… a system of legal guilt for top [U.S.] officials.” (12)
And just as the Nazi propaganda industry did, the Amerikan government and media join together in villainizing minority groups by perpetuating criminal images of them to the national ‘majority’. And they selectively criminalize actions stereotyped as behaviors typical of these groups. Too, both these societies systematically used prisons to dispose of mentally disabled people, and angled to portray ‘criminal’ inclinations as biologically innate to certain undesirable minority groups. More telling is the fact that while New Afrikans/Blacks are only 13% of the U.S. social population, we are over half the prison population, a population that is forbidden to procreate.
This per se has genocidal implications. While the Nazis were explicit in their eugenics policies, the U.S. objectively carries out similar practices in imprisoning Black males at their most fertile ages and thereby undermining births within this social group. (13) Legal scholar Michelle Alexander revealed the economic incentive behind mass imprisonment/disappearances of New Afrikan/Black males, because we no longer have any economic worth to Amerika on the streets.
She also observed that genocidal policies have been historically applied to those peoples who find themselves in this unfortunate position. “The collapse of inner-city economies coincided with the conservative backlash against the Civil Rights Movement, resulting in the perfect storm. Almost overnight, black men found themselves unnecessary to the American economy and demonized by mainstream society. No longer needed to pick cotton in the fields or labor in factories, lower-class black men were hauled off to prison in droves. They were vilified in the media and condemned for their condition as part of a well-orchestrated political campaign to build a new white, Republican majority in the South. Decades later, curious onlookers in the grips of denial would wonder aloud, “where have all the black men gone?”
“…The new system does not seek primarily to benefit unfairly from black labor, as earlier caste systems have, but instead views African Americans (sic) as largely irrelevant and unnecessary to the newly structured economy – an economy that is no longer driven by unskilled labor. “It is fair to say that we have witnessed an evolution in the U.S. from a racial caste system based entirely on exploitation (slavery), to one based largely on subordination (Jim Crow), to one defined by marginalization (mass incarceration).
While marginalization may sound far preferable to exploitation, it may prove to be even more dangerous. Extreme marginalization, as we have seen throughout world history, poses the risk of extermination. Tragedies such as the Holocaust in Germany or the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia [or the genocide against Native peoples here in North Amerika – Rashid] are traceable to extreme marginalization and stigmatization of racial and ethnic groups. As legal scholar John A. Powell once commented only half in jest, “It’s actually better to be exploited than marginalized in some respects, because if you’re exploited presumably you’re still needed.”
“Viewed in this light, the frantic accusations of genocide by poor blacks in the early years of the War on Drugs seem less paranoid. The intuition of those residing in ghetto communities that they had suddenly become disposable was rooted in real changes in the economy – changes that have been devastating to poor black communities as factories have closed, low- skilled jobs have disappeared, and all those who had the means to flee the ghetto did. The sense among those left behind that society no longer has use for them, and that the government now aims to simply get rid of them, reflects a reality that many of us who claim to care prefer to avoid simply by changing channels.” (14)
Slavery Does Not Teach Freedom
As one Texas prisoner recently pointed out to me, the TDCJ’s slave system teaches prisoners how to become thieves, swindlers and predators. As already noted, most prisoners have little or no outside financial support, and where the TDCJ doesn’t pay them any wages for work, they can only obtain things they need and want by stealing, conning or preying on others. In some cases they are driven by necessity. Like in the Nazi ghettoes and prison camps, TDCJ prisoners do not receive nutrition adequate to maintain good health under conditions of hard labor. Per its own policy, the daily calorie intake of TDCJ prisoner diet plans does not exceed 2500 calories, which is the minimum daily calorie intake needed for a sedentary to only moderately active adult to maintain good health.
Remember, these prisoners are performing the same grueling labor as yesterday’s chattel slaves, and thus require at least the same level of daily nutrition. Yet TDCJ prisoners are provided less nutrition than were the slaves of yesterday. Chattel slaves were recognized as needing 4200 to 5400 calories per day to remain fit to perform their labor, particularly as field hands. (15) The TDCJ also does not serve any fresh fruits to its prisoners, and serves desserts at only one meal per week.
This denies basic nutrients and daily glucose needed for health and energy. Leaving prisoners hard pressed to find ways to supplement their diets and get sweets from the prison commissaries which, as I’ve noted, calls for their engaging in side hustles, theft and preying on other prisoners – anti-social behaviors that will follow them back to society. This is what so-called rehabilitation boils down to. Slavery doesn’t teach people how to be free. It only dehumanizes, which is why international law to which the U.S. is a signatory outlaws slavery in all its forms.
With the vast majority of Texas’s prison population being people of color and Texas being one of the country’s most notoriously racist states, and its prisons openly practicing old style slavery, it requires no major stretch of the imagination to recognize that a large percentage of its staff are the worst sort of racists. In fact in a recent New York Times article written by a TDCJ guard, it was admitted that in Texas, “Employment screening for correctional officers is inadequate.” (16) But prison systems don’t screen their employees to determine racial views. In Virginia I often heard racist white guards sarcastically confess, “it’s not against the law [or rules] to be racist.”
Furthermore, TDCJ guards have the nation’s highest arrest rate for prison employees, (17) demonstrating that there’s indeed no difference between us and them, with quite a few of them even getting caught. So when we hear tough-on-crime and prison industry financed politicians howling about the need for more prisons and to stay the course of mass incarceration we should remember (as hard as it may be for some to accept) that what they’re really promoting is slavery, genocide, crimes against humanity and a system that only teaches and reinforces criminality, not rehabilitation.
Dare to Struggle Dare to Win!
All Power to the People!
1) Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, “U.S. Prison Practices would Disgrace A Nation of Savages Texas. A Case on Record” (2013)
2) Ruiz v Johnson 154 F. supp. 2d 925, 986 (S.D. Tex. 2001)
3) “Securing the Leg Irons: Restrictions of Legal Rights in Virginia and Maryland”
4) See, Ruiz vs Estelle, 503 F supp. 1265 (1980)
6) Larie Lowry, “In Texas, Inmates and Officers Swelter.” New York Times, November 22, 2013
7) Op cite, note 4
8) Laura Lafay, Accountable to No One: The Virginia Department of Corrections and Prisoner Medical Care (ACLU, 2003)
9) Ibid, p. 9
10) See, “Four Power Agreement”, 59 Stat. 1544, 82 U.N.T.S. 279, Sept. 10, 1945, in Burns H. Weston. et al., eds., Basic Documents in International Law and World Order (St. Paul, MN West, 1990)
11) Richard A Falk, “The Circle of Responsibility,” Nation, January 20, 1970. p 27 (quoting Jackson).
12) Townsend Hoopes, “The Nuremberg Suggestion.” Washington Monthly, January 1970
13) The international Convention on Genocide defines the crime of genocide as “imposing measures intended to prevent births within” any national, or ethnic or racial group, such as destroy that group in part or whole.
14) Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Era of Colorblindness (The New Press, N.Y. 2010) pp 207-08
15) Richard Sutch , “The Care and Feeding of Slaves”, in Paul A. David, et al. Reckoning With Slavery: A Critical Study in the Quantitative History of American Negro Slavery (N.Y.), Oxford University Press 1976)
16) Op cite note 6
17) Matthew T. Clarke “Record Number of Texas Prison Guards Arrested,” Prison Legal News (May 2007), p. 26