Social critic and playwright Bernard Shaw once stated that, “America was the only society that went from barbarism to decadence without going through civilization.” Nowhere is this truth more evident than in the penal colony system of the United States. The sheer number of people who are caged in the American gulag, the brutal and inhumane conditions in which they are warehoused, and the overall lack of concern for incarcerated people places the U.S. in a class of barbarity of its own.
The system is evidence that slavery here never ended; it merely transformed. Therefore, we must become more resolved than ever to finally abolish this vestige of chattel enslavement that masquerades as an institution that ensures public safety, security and protection from victimization.
Caging human beings helps no one. In fact, caging someone after they have committed a crime is the most reactionary and counterproductive measure we can take to reduce crime and violence. This society should be investing in people long before they are convicted of a crime instead of spending billions of dollars on war annually. The level of violence and brutality exemplified in American prisons begets more violence outside prison walls.
The hellish conditions in jails and prisons have reached a tipping point. Fed up with the myriad of constant human-rights abuses, people incarcerated in jails, prisons and immigrant detention centers across the U.S. have banded together and called a nationwide prison strike demanding “humane living conditions, access to rehabilitation, sentencing reform and the end of modern day slavery.” Incarcerated people could be the most oppressed and exploited demographic within the U.S. Although for the time being, they have chosen to take a nonviolent approach in responding to the brute force and degradation of the American penal colony system, it is a powder keg waiting to explode, as history has illustrated.
Facing oppressive conditions that mirror those facing incarcerated people nationwide today, in 1971, incarcerated men warehoused in Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York who became known as the Attica Brothers, overpowered correctional officers, took them hostage and took control of the prison. The Attica prison uprising took place along the backdrop of the political assassination of famed revolutionary, political prisoner and author George Jackson in San Quentin prison in California.
For decades, people incarcerated in Attica had been faced with deplorable living conditions, brute force from correctional officers, solitary confinement, poor food, a lack of rehabilitative and developmental services, political repression and poor health care.
In negotiations with then-Governor of New York Nelson Rockefeller, it was clear that the Attica Brothers’ demands were reasonable ones for human rights and dignity. Nonetheless, after a four-day stand-off, the state met their demands with an onslaught of violence. Rockefeller sent in local and state police and the National Guard to put down the uprising. Those who stormed into Attica used wanton violence that resulted in the murder of a number of the Attica Brothers and hostages. The incarcerated men were defenseless against the fusillade of bullets raining down on them.
In the aftermath of the prison uprising, Attica Brothers who survived the melee brought on a number of civil lawsuits, which resulted in some reforms to the American penal colony system nation wide; however, given the fact that incarcerated people are raising the same contentions that caused the Attica Brothers to rebel, it appears that like many reforms, those of the American penal colony system have been rolled back. This is evident in the issues incarcerated people and their families face on both a state and local level. As we look at the tortuous conditions of oppression incarcerated people face throughout the state of Mississippi, we must ask ourselves, are we headed toward another Attica uprising?
In the month of August alone, 12 people have died while in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections. As Mississippi Today reported in 2017, the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman had a higher mortality rate than the general public in the state. In recent years, incarcerated people have engaged in hunger strikes and a number of other political actions designed to change the conditions under which they are forced to live, and to alleviate their exploitation and repressive subjugation. By and large, their actions garnered little to no support from mainstream civil-rights organizations or the public at large. This must change.
Locally, detainees in the Hinds County Detention Center in Raymond have faced their own deplorable living conditions and brutality. The conditions of the detention facilities, their understaffing and the level of violence present resulted in the U.S. Department of Justice placing the county under a consent decree.
Elizabeth Simpson, who is tasked with monitoring the progress Hinds has made in reaching the benchmarks outlined in the federal consent decree settlement agreement, has produced several reports showing the county has made very little progress in reaching the benchmarks. Recently, Simpson recommended that the county shutdown its downtown Jackson detention facility, citing a lack of funds to complete necessary renovations, hire and maintain proper staffing, and ongoing safety issues at the county-operated detention facilities. In recent years, the county detention facility at Raymond has experienced its own uprisings, deaths and human-rights abuses in the form of medical neglect.
The county detention facilities only house individuals who are awaiting disposition of their cases through trial or plea, and are still presumed innocent, which makes the human rights catastrophe that is pre-trial detention in Hinds County even more disheartening.
The historical and contemporaneous violence and oppression exacted on men and women in America’s jails and prisons makes it evident that reform is insufficient. The American penal colony system as we know it must be completely abolished. No longer can we be content with the practice of warehousing human beings in cages in hopes that they will somehow return home whole after being exposed to the nightmarishly violent experience of the American prison gulag. People of conscience must act swiftly and decisively to ensure that all people’s human rights are respected, protected and fulfilled before the powder keg that is America’s prisons explodes.
Adofo Minka is a defense attorney in Jackson and a regular JFP columnist.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Jackson Free Press.