Waiting to Die - The American Prison Experience
A low moan escapes from the prisoner's throat as he is half carried, half dragged down the dimly lit hall. The two burly guards escorting the unfortunate creature stop as one reaches up to adjust the black hood placed over the prisoner's head. Both are stone faced and detached, as they ready the man for the transport to another facility.
A momentary glimpse of the prisoner's face reveals the frightened and desperate eyes of a feral animal caught in a trap. Upon reaching the rear door of the drab complex, he will be trussed up hog-style and unceremoniously dumped in the rear of an unmarked van and driven away.
Abu Ghraib? Guantanamo Bay, Cuba? Far from it. Welcome to Kern Valley State Prison, Delano, California. Once the heart of California's lush agricultural basin, its onion fields and groves or fruit trees have now been replaced by monoliths of steel and stone.
Within the last 25 years an explosive growth in the building of new prisons has occurred in California. This unprecedented expansion can be attributed to a host of factors; a rise in violent inner city crime, a sensationalist media, America's mindless war on drugs, not to mention the criminalization of the mentally ill offender. Yet the most noteworthy and important factor of them all would be the demonization of prisoners by a powerfully emerging force in California's conservative political arena. The California Correctional peace officers Association, the CCPAA, has an annual budget or 25 million dollars and contributes heavily to the political campaigns of those candidates who ascribe to their self serving interests. To this date, all that appears to be is 'lock 'em all up and to hell with rehabilitation.'
It is little wonder that prison administration officials in California's capital city of Sacramento have chosen to look the other way, giving prison officials at K.V.S.P. apparent free rein to single out, beat, torture and frame any prisoner who dares refuse to kowtow before the imperialistic tyranny and iron fisted policies of its current administration.
The guards who operate the cellblocks and man the interior gun turrets do so with seemingly total impunity. No system of checks and balances seems to be in place to deter these officers from issuing threats and violent, intimidation tactics against any prisoners who refuse to fawn and cringe before their apparent sovereign authority. Corporal punishment in the administrative segregation units, and to a lesser degree amongst the general population is a daily occurrence. Officers in the segregation units will spray a prisoner for the simple crime of door battering, leaving the unfortunate soul to writhe in agonizing pain as the chemicals burn the skin.
The totality of control exercised over each hour of a prisoner's day is a psychological horror. What little recreational yard time the prisoners are allowed is limited and severely restricted to the same cellblock a prisoner lives in. As a result, you see the same faces each and every meal, each and every recreational yard session. Each day is a nightmare of bleak and horribly despairing déjà vu. While on the prison yard, any incident, however slight, will cause an officer to sound an alarm, forcing all prisoners to hit the deck and prone out whilst a phalanx of green suited guards, wielding lethal steel tipped batons rush to that particular incident. The guards response in most cases is exaggerated, no doubt to document on the facility's official log, proof of 'the toughest beat' they walk daily; an obvious political strategy to wrest more monies from the state of California and who votes to give it to them? Why, the very state legislators who fed heavily at the CCPAA's treasury trough in the beginning of their candidacy. Is it little wonder that the state of California now houses 33 prisons? The rehabilitation concept at K.V.S.P. and at all California's prisons is nonexistent. The highly touted 'vocational rehabilitation' classes are no more than rooms with ageing and decrepit equipment; classrooms whose sole mission, it seems, is to prepare the prisoners to man the galley oars, teaching only those skills which lend support to California's state prison industry. Menial tasks which enslave the prisoner, earning him paltry wages for the remainder of his prison term.
At Kern Valley State Prison, the message given the prisoners is clear. 'Toe the line' the beast silently intones, 'lest you be tortured, beaten and trod underfoot.'
One of the many tactics of control favored by correctional officers is to immediately target an individual they perceive as a threat against their authority. This threat may indeed be real or it may be imagined. Be you a prison activist, religious radical or just plain insolent towards staff, sooner or later you will find yourself facing grossly exaggerated rule violation charges and living in the sterile environment of the prison's administration segregation unit: a unit with one sole purpose - to disable an individual utilizing physical and psychological torture techniques. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, American Friends Service Committee, the National Lawyers Guild and California Prison Focus are but a few of the organizations who have raised their voices in opposition to the daily torture individuals experience while living in the barren atmosphere of these sensory deprivation units.
A ticket to this concrete hell is easily obtained. Assert your humanity and refuse to give ground when the dignity of your person is breached and you will be targeted.
Many of the prisoners who are currently in the administrative segregation units at Kern Valley State Prison are facing trumped up charges, stemming from minor incidents. Toss a plastic dinner tray thoughtlessly through the cell door's metal tray slot and accidentally strike an officer, and you find yourself charged with 'assault with a dangerous weapon'. In a well documented case, a prisoner out of sheer frustration threw his liquid medication against the cell wall. A drop or two inadvertently splashed the nurse's shoe. This individual was charged with assault and subsequently given a ten-month term to be served in Corcoran's infamous Secure Housing Unit.
Statistical tabulations such as 'assault on staff' incidents look very impressive imprinted upon colorful graph charts. When presented to state approbation committees in Sacramento, the sympathy vote is more easily garnered, granting more and more monies to the California Department of Corrections, to combat a nonexistent threat. This money later translates into overtime for correctional officers, thus costing California's taxpayers millions of dollars each year and furthering the pecuniary interest of the prison guards union. The political strategy is chilling when one takes into account the immense suffering prisoners undergo who find themselves unjustly charged and accused as part of a political ruse to obtain more and more money from the State of California.