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By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker
On the morning of June 27, 1833, inmate Mathias Maccumsey heard the sentence that would directly usher in his demise. We know these words, because Samuel Wood, warden of the Eastern State Penitentiary, recorded them in his daily journal, and this record has been maintained by the Pennsylvania Museum and Historical commission in Harrisburg. Specifically, the words ordered that Maccumsey have the "iron gag" placed upon him. The gag consisted of an "iron instrument resembling the stiff bit of a blind bridle, having an iron palet in the centre, about an inch square, and chains at each end to pass round the neck and fasten behind," which was, in this instance, "placed in the prisoner's mouth, the iron palet over his tongue, the bit forced in as far as possible, the chains brought round the jaws to the back of the neck; the end of one chain was passed through the ring in the end of the other chain to 'the fourth link,' and fastened with a lock." Maccumsey's hands were "then forced into leather gloves in which were iron staples and crossed behind his back; leather straps were passed through the staples, and from thence round the chains of the gag between the neck and the chains; the straps were drawn tight, the hands forced up towards the head." If that wasn't a clear enough description for you, imagine being forced to your knees. Imagine someone then sticking a piece of metal in your mouth, and the chains from this wrapped around your neck. Imagine having your hands forced into gloves, and then your arms being forced to cross behind your back, until your fists have been drawn up to the base of your neck. Imagine the chains locking this contortion in place. For hours, maybe as long as a day. This wasn't Maccumsey's first experience with the iron gag, or even the first violence he had suffered at the hands of Warden Wood: the testimony of William Griffith makes it abundantly clear that the good warden had a habit of beating inmates, especially Maccumsey. Shortly after the gag had been secured, Maccumsey began having seizures and collapsed. He was dead within minutes.
The prison physician, one Franklin Bache, reported that the prisoner had died of "apoplexy." Maccumsey was forty-four at the time of his murder.
During the investigation that followed, the prison authorities responded to charges of cruelty in two ways: first, by stating that the iron gag had been used without fatality before, and second, that Maccumsey's death was really his own fault. Physician George McClellan testified that "If the man had remained cool, and patiently submitted to the punishment, it could not have produced apoplexy." William Gibson, another medical man, claimed that "if drawn with moderate tightness," the gag would cause no "more effect than a common mouthing bit upon a horse." Who could argue with such deep, obviously Hippocrates-inspired wisdom? Prisoners, submit to your tortures, because they are for your own good and you are little better than a horse in any case. Got that? Good.
There is an irony here that Maccumsey might have appreciated, had he, you know, not been killed. The whole reason for the existence of the new penitentiaries like Eastern State was to put the Old World's concept of punishment to death. Penal reformers of the early 19th Century had long understood that the public procession to the gallows at Tyburn had long since ceased to be a powerful symbol of the monarch's power, and had instead been converted into a spectacle where the criminal was revered. Instead of focusing on the consequences of crime, the reformers felt that the scene on the scaffold focused on a false identification: with the criminals, with crime, with violence. So they erected walls to disconnect the public from the punishment of offenders, severing, they hoped, any possibility of sympathizing with deviants. The model of the new penitentiaries was supposed to mirror that of the Christian resurrection: the prisoner would "die" (to law, at any rate: he would lose his right to vote, to own property, etc.), he would spend a brief time in the grave, his body mortified, eventually to be triumphantly reborn as a citizen again.
The central pillar of the disciplinary regimen at Eastern State was complete solitary confinement, which used an architectural mechanism to create a space for reformation. The prisoner was to see his soul in the concrete walls, to view the immensity of his sin, which would lead to rebirth. The resulting wave of madness and death would eventually doom the Pennsylvania model, though this was not yet apparent in Maccumsey's day, at least to the authorities. Maccumsey no doubt understood the psychological torment of his confinement, as his "crime"—the disciplinary infraction for which the iron gag had been ordered—dealt with his attempts to get "the men next him talking." This was a fundamental challenge to the design of the prison. Clearly, the man had to go.
I no longer have any idea what people in the freeworld think about when they read stories like that of Maccumsey. I completed my tenth anniversary behind bars in September (a little over nine of those in solitary confinement), and your world is pretty much theoretical to me by this point. Beatings or gassings don't even move the metronome in my head anymore; I've just seen too many of them to get my heart rate up, unless I am the one the goon squad is aiming for. In quiet moments I do try to project myself into the minds of the wolves in the pack. Not the administrators, not the alphas; them, I understand. I'm more interested in the guards that I've known since they started working here, when I could still see the humanity in their eyes. I clearly remember many of them dealing in small kindnesses—and now, here they are, swinging a baton or a shield like they were born to it, or holding a food tray outside the door of a man on restriction, "Mmm-mmming" to grab his attention, and then laughing as they take the tray away to be tossed in the garbage uneaten. I don't understand how this happens, not really. I've done terrible things—a terrible thing, at any rate—but that species of sustained cruelty is foreign territory for me. It's too simple to call these people assholes. Something did this to them. Something is still doing this to them.
For many years I thought that the increasing rationalization of the TDCJ was the problem. In the old days—and there were still remnants of this when I arrived—the guards were brawlers. They'd bash your grill in for any reason, or for no reason at all save that it amused them. At the same time, they were lazy and had no oversight, so if you faked the respect they were craving, you could make deals with them. Hell, they pretty much let you run the place. They were like bears. If you understood the bear, gave the bear the space and the food it desired, you could live with it. Nowadays the bears have mostly been replaced by bureaucrats and lemmings. The bureaucrats invent Holy Policy, the lemmings follow it blindly. The sociologist Max Weber worked on the concepts of authority and bureaucracy for many years, and he came to see the increasing rationalization of the West as a major problem. In fact, he saw it as a cage that alters the way people think and act, and which ultimately destroys non-rationalized sectors of life—everything that is not bureaucratized. I still believe this is part of the problem. When an officer quotes you BP 3189.17 instead of giving you a second glass of drink-mix with supper (which is going to be dumped down the drain if not consumed anyway), this is rationalization rampaging over decency.
There's also a great deal of cognitive dissonance going on. People are highly motivated to avoid having their various thoughts colliding in dissonant relationships, so people tend to quickly change their attitudes in order to make them consonant with their behavior. Prisons in Texas are built in rural areas. This means that when guards leave, they move out into communities where the norms and practices of Prison Land are still respected, seen as normal. The Polunsky Unit makes up a significant portion of the tax base for Livingston, so even those people who do not work here tend to feel positive about the ideology that reigns here—or they keep their mouths shut in order to run their businesses in peace. Communities are made up of guards and the church pews are full of them; there are literally few opportunities for contact with anyone that might say, "Hey, maybe you people want to open your eyes a little to the broader world around you, because what you are doing isn't normal. In fact, it's f-ing weird." When a guard first comes into the system, they have already spent a few weeks at the academy, drinking the Kool-Aid. They are wearing the uniform; they feel an emotional connection to the team (especially if this is the first uniform they've ever worn). When they see a fellow guard beat an inmate and then lie about it, they are conflicted: on one hand, they know what they witnessed is wrong, yet they also have been told that inmates are evil. They resolve the dissonance in predictable ways: they continue to drink the elixir, or they quit.
Most of the people you'd call "good" leave, either to a completely different occupation, or at least out into the general population buildings. I know there are some terrible officers out there, too, but the real problem I'm discussing deals with ad-seg, the prison within the prison. I was going to include my usual disclaimer here about how the majority of guards are "normal people, just working a job," but I think I have been doing a disservice to the reform community with my attempts to be civil. I no longer think it is normal for anyone to want to work here. I'm not saying they are all evil, but there's something . . . narrow . . . about these people. They know so little of politics, or culture, or even the state they call home. They have all of these blinders on towards stories on exonerations, or movements in blue states to rehabilitate prisoners instead of constantly demonizing them. To learn of such things would puzzle and shock them. It's sad.
Still, I don't think that ignorance, dissonance, or rationalization add up to the beast that slowly eats into their souls. Right now—at the very moment that I am typing these words—a prisoner named Syed Rabbani is screaming and gibbering in the cell beneath me. He is covered in feces, as are the walls of his cell, a fact that all of us living in B-Pod, B-section are painfully aware of. Syed has been on death row since 1988, most of that time having been spent at the Jester IV Unit, the home of the criminally insane in this region. He will never be executed. Despite this fact, the cowards in the TCCA won't dismiss his death sentence, the authorities routinely send him back to Polunsky to devolve into his psychosis, and the guards regularly mock him and deny him access to the showers. And yet some of these same guards once had some modicum of decency in them. Somehow, every single day, they manage to convince themselves that they are "good." Don't ask me how they perform this moral Legerdemain. I haven't a clue.
The psychologist Craig Haney blames "ideological toxicity" for Syed's treatment. He says that an ecology of cruelty is created in these halls, where guards are implicitly encouraged to respond and react to prisoners in essentially negative ways. I agree, and I think it helps to understand how ad-seg prisons (also called Super Max, Secure Housing Units, Control Units, Close Management, etc.) came to be created. During the rise of muscular conservatism in the 1980s, the myth of the "super predator" was born. I call it a myth because, despite admittedly rising crime rates, this new class of hyper-violent sociopath never actually materialized. (The most highly publicized case during this era, that of the raping, "wilding" kids in Central Park, NYC, imploded when all of those convicted were shown to be innocent by DNA testing. Oops.) Nonetheless, America entered a phase where a rage to punish became de rigueur. Harsh punishments and eternal sentences became something to brag about: chain gangs were reinstated, "room and board" fees were charged to prisoners for their upkeep, and "three strikes" laws sent tens of thousands of human beings to prison for life—sometimes for nonviolent offenses such as stealing a pizza. America cheered these things, and nearly every state got on board the bandwagon. If you voted for Reagan or the "Moral Majority," pat yourself on the back, because you did this.
The supermax prisons were born in this context. Prison authorities viewed this wave of new prisoners with Mt. Everest sentences with alarm, not because they were suddenly gripped by a heretofore undiscovered compassion for inmates, but because they realized that they didn't have the space or the budgets to manage them. The supermaxes became the screws they used to keep the pressure cooker of the prison units from exploding. In any case, these places synced up perfectly with the punitive ideology of the so-called "penal harm movement," where what passed for penal philosophy basically added up to devising creative strategies to make inmates suffer. Readers of this site probably already understand this, but I will say it again for any newcomers: the penal harm movement had nothing to do with any objective conditions in the real world. It was based on rhetoric provided by political partisans, mostly from the Republican Party, though many Dems certainly got swept up in their wake.
Freed from the longstanding mandate to rehabilitate, prisons implemented the political ideology rampaging outside the fences to prisoners on the inside. No longer would they attempt to further the social and personal transformations of prisoners; instead, they would manage costs and control dangerous populations. The combination of the effects of this new penal ideology and the rather obvious effects of the massive overcrowding of long-sentenced prisoners produced environments of utter misery. When the prisoners protested these new conditions, this new reality, this troublemaking was perceived by the prisons as evidence of an even more wicked prisoner class. Even more punishment was the obvious remedy. Prison rule violations became viewed in decontextualized terms: circumstances (such as mental illness, four prisoners being housed in a space built for one, an elimination of art and educational classes, reduced food budgets, etc.) were ignored, and disciplinary violations became purely the fault of intrinsic evilness on the part of the prisoner. Despite our rhetoric of living in a kinder, more enlightened time, we have returned to the exact same views of punishment that killed Mathias Maccumsey, who was, if you recall, unable to resist the need to talk to someone—and therefore his punishment and his death was his fault. The notion that misbehavior might be a symptom of human nature, placement in a dysfunctional prison environment, or mental illness became irrelevant. Worse, as this ideology became the norm, the idea that environmental causes might affect behavior became inconceivable. What do you call people so disconnected from even a basic understanding of human nature? Incredibly ignorant, to be sure, but when those same people convert their ignorance into a club that they then use to beat other human beings, I'd settle for "evil" without too many qualms. And the worst part is, because they are trapped within the confines of this ideology, they can't even begin to understand much of anything I just wrote. I'm scum. I'm evil. Therefore so are my ideas.
I still don't think this really explains everything, but, as I said earlier, this species of cruelty is beyond my ken. That should give someone pause, but this is not generally a place known for thoughtful pauses.
There's no one silver bullet capable of slaying this beast. It's going to take a lot of people doing a lot of different things. Many of these people are already at work, and have been for years. If criminal justice reform is on your radar, you know who you need to vote for. That is the most important part of this. If you have the activist gene, there are plenty of great organizations out there who are on the battlefield right now. If that isn't your thing, you can still donate money to one of these groups. More importantly, you have to engage in the culture wars. When you hear some right-wing nut engaged in the same liturgy of banalities they normal spew, counter them with data, or remind them of their religious duty to those without power. Starve the prisons of officers by denigrating the prisons—make it so that not even the desperate would violate their moral consciences by working here. Engage in juror nullification. It's a big menu, with something for people of any budget. History is watching. You get to stand with the Mathias Maccumseys of the world, or you automatically end up supporting the Samuel Woods with your silence. There is no middle ground.
|Thomas Whitaker 999522|
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351
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