Thursday, March 31, 2016

In Memoriam

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By Eduardo Ramirez

The business of the Restricted Housing Unit is to separate dangerous individuals from the rest of the population. But there's some unofficial business too. The RHU forces a prisoner to consider just how lonely things can get.

The first time I went to the hole I spent thirty days there. My second trip was slated for sixty but my stay was extended to 120 days. The next time I would see the hole it would last for seven months. All in all, in a thirteen month span, I spent twelve of those months in a Restricted Housing Unit.

A person can be sent to the hole for any number of specified infractions; sometimes the infraction need not be specified.

Any violation of DOC policy not specifically outlined by DC ADM-801 will be considered a Class II Misconduct.

This is one of those catch-all clauses that can, and does, catch all. 

The first step is processing. Under a video camera you are stripped and told to face the wall and warned that any sudden movements will be considered an aggressive act and will be met with physical force. You are ordered to present the underside of your right foot, followed by your left foot; spread the cheeks of your backside and squat; stand, face the officers, extend your arms forward and present your splayed fingers; open your mouth wide, stick out your tongue, and with fingers hooked, you present the inside of your mouth; turn your head to one side, bend your ear, turn to the other side, bend that ear; run your fingers through your hair; finally, reach between your legs and present the undersides of your penis and scrotum.

I read a poem once that distinguished nudity from nakedness by describing the former as sacred and the latter as profane. Standing naked before strangers as they ask you if you are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, if you have been assaulted by staff or other inmates, if you are experiencing depression, if you are considering suicide—this is a level of profanity that I doubt poetic words take into consideration. Most hope to avoid this experience. But too many have; and too many more will.

There's a cold vibration that bounces off the steel doors. The buzz of electricity that powers halogen lights sets off a monotone hum throughout the cinder blocks that sings twenty-four hours a day. Everything is cold in the hole. Cold metal sink attached to a cold metal toilet. A cold metal stool swivels out from beneath a cold metal desk. Cold concrete floor, cold metal shelves. The cold metal bunk is topped by a vinyl mattress that is cold to the touch.

There is no mirror in the cell, so while you know your facial hair is growing you cannot see its growth. The windows are covered by an opaque screen that lets light in but prevents any view of the outside. To see any activity you have to look out on the interior of the block. Mostly you'll see nothing but the section officer doing his rounds. Sometimes a pretty nurse will come by to dispense medication. The men will hoot and holler and cat call her until she either hurries off the unit or teases the crowd with a strut they will later dream about. Sometimes you'll see a one-sided battle play out before your eyes.

There are plenty of reasons to lose your cool in the hole. Your neighbor might be up all night flushing the toilet and you can't imagine someone defecating so much. You might think you can sleep away the time, but that usually lasts about a week before sleep becomes a wishful dream. Without drugs the deprivation causes irritability and impulsiveness. The mail isn't coming in and you convince yourself that the guards are intentionally holding out on you—or worse, that whoever once loved you has come to forget about you. Some guys do nothing but fall deeper into the folds of depression. Some guys bark and grumble, but they know where to draw the line. But some guys go all in and call forth the dogs of war; and they find that some guards are all too happy to let loose.

A pseudo-revolutionary named Woods who had been in the Special Management Unit had had his fill. He was being denied showers and being passed by for meals. Maybe he didn't have the best attitude, his racist tirades suggested as much. Maybe he was too litigious for the DOC's liking and they were getting him with a little unofficial payback. Whatever the case was it resulted in a standoff with Woods refusing to come out of his cell and the guards chomping at the bit to suit up for an "extraction."

A five-man team of storm troopers came marching in a column formation, with the lead man carrying an electrified shield. When the cell door was thrown open the lead man rushed in and blasted Woods with 4,000 volts. The other four officers push the lead man, creating enough force to overpower a powerless Woods. In less than a minute Woods is restrained with zip-ties binding his wrists and ankles. Using their batons as a truss, Woods was carried out before the audience of residents and staff.

This exercise didn't last long, just long enough to shake up the vibrato hum of electricity into a dissonant tremulo of insane cheers from men who have nothing else to cheer for, shouts from those who still believe in the solidarity of convicts, and the syncopated stomp of boot heels making an orderly beeline to the nearest exit. As the radio chatter dies down and the concerned watchers return to their quiet place, only the howls of those whose blood has been stirred into a frenzy continues for a little while longer.

Trauma changes people. Even when others can't see the change—or refuse to acknowledge it—it's there. Even if things were not all good before the trauma, the traumatic event certainly makes things worse.

There's this story of a kid who was out one night just having a good time with his friend. The cops pull up and detain the party on a report that someone has identified these kids as robbery suspects. These kids profess their innocence and as expected the police tell them that if that's true then they have nothing to worry about. They're taken in to the district to be processed and for a hearing before a bail judge. The one kid, Kerry Brown, has a few priors and is on probation. Kerry is held and sent to the youth detention center. Before that night he had never been in police custody for more than a few hours—long enough for the police to contact Mrs. Brown so she can pick up her son. This time, however, Hrs. Brown cannot pick up her baby boy. The days turn into weeks and slowly bleed into months. Kerry has to face youth gangs and less-than-professional guards who routinely physically and mentally abuse the boys on the unit. For Kerry, what is worse is that he has to miss his senior prom and graduation. And all because of a false identification.

It would take a total of three years before the State would decide to drop the charges against Kerry. Their witness had decided that justice wasn't worth sticking around for and had relocated. Meanwhile, Kerry got into fights with both the other residents and the staff. He spent half his time in the hole and had even once attempted to take his own life.

When he got out of jail nothing was the same. He was twenty years old and the world had moved on. His friends were either in college or busy at their jobs. They couldn't wrap their heads around what Kerry had been through. Even his family came up short when they tried to attend to Kerry's emotional health. All their prayers couldn't overcome the damage that was done. Kerry tried to move on with his life but he couldn't help feeling like an outsider; he couldn't stop thinking about the way that he was locked up and thrown in the hole only to have the State dismiss the charges and then let him go without even an apology.

Like I said, trauma changes people. Earlier this year Kerry decided he couldn't take the pain anymore. He tied a rope outside of his mother's bedroom window and let his body drop until the weight separated his spinal column and crushed his larynx.

It's easy to think of prisoners as getting all that they deserve. But some of those prisoners have been so affected by the prison that they are products of it. Woods wasn't a particularly bad guy—he was just a guy whose moral compass might have needed a little adjusting. Being in the hole didn't help things any. Kerry was just a kid who had a future filled with unlimited potential. That he was so easily changed—and not for the better—by the criminal justice system suggests a serious flaw that deserves more attention. Yeah, Kerry's death made the national news for a day, but after that what?

Business as usual is what.

Edward Ramirez DN6284
SCI Graterford
P.O. Box 244
Graterford, PA 19426

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Anonymous said...

Very thought provoking. Thanks for sharing. Be well - Ken

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article.

Kendra Landry said...

So very tragic! Thank you for sharing with us! I have been locked up and know all too well the trauma it conflicts