To be imprisoned during a natural disaster is a source of pure fear for many of us who are kept in cages and rightfully so. Time and time again imprisoned people needlessly die in the face of environmental destruction, be it a hurricane, flood or fire, because our lives have been devalued to a subhuman standard; keeping prisoners safe in a emergencies is seldom any community’s priority.
It must at least be a priority of prison officials, but it is not.
In my first weeks here, a guard saw me crying. He callously asked, “what’s the matter, you scared of doin’ time?” I was crying because I was scared, but the fear was of my life being in the hands of embittered angry people who do not believe I have any right to exist. I remembered the loss of life in New Orleans and Honduran prisons, where people were left to die without any fighting chances, and I became very afraid.
Only recently, after having filed a formal complaint did GVI explain to us what our fire evacuation protocol is. They explained that in the event of a fire our doors would unlock and we would independently exit into the yard. Management said guards would enable the lock steel doors which imprison us from a nearby control post so we could evacuate our cells. But would they enable the doors? Or would they desert us?
At Rikers Prison in New York, there was certainly no evacuation order in place as hurricane Sandy rapidly approached. Public outcry sparked after it was learned that during hurricane Irene, the prison had not even a plan in place. The reaction form Irene seemed enough to spark officials to respond that this time a plan was in place; still, no evacuation order was made. Those imprisoned in Rikers were left to wait, and to hope.
Being imprisoned, it is frighting to witness how such disregard for human life develops. Many paid staff at this prison express worse than a blatant disregard for our humanity. Not all, but most staff express a contempt for us who they imprison. Their mentalities become clear through their actions and their comments. Never does a week go by where I am not made fun of or condescended for attempting to take university-level courses, which I am also neither financially nor structurally supported in doing. And I am what they consider a “low maintenance prisoner”, “high needs prisoners” hear far worse from staff regularly. I have even heard staff tell women to commit suicide. And rarely does a day go by without the staff referring in one way or another to how privileged we are.
Well, as far as education and prisons go, there are currently nine of us who can take, through outside support, sporadic university-level correspondence courses. Nine out of a 181 women. And CSC requires getting a high school diploma to be on every woman’s correctional plan, the set of objectives one must complete to get parole, yet many of the courses women take cost $40. $40 is more than most women earn in a month. And the teachers regularly suspend women who cannot complete enough work; suspensions last for 90 days at GVI. We are kept hungry, isolated, without adequate sunlight and with no opportunities. We are far from privileged, yet staff seem to need to feel like we are. Sometimes their notions of what our lives are like border delusional.
I argued in front of a correctional investigator at length with a guard who works regularly in the max who insisted we received “egg breakfast everyday”. At the time however, we barely received breakfast at all, what we did receive was not hearty egg breakfast, but individual packets of regular oatmeal once or twice a week. The living conditions in prison also coincide with our permanent exposure to receiving whatever emotions that staff wish to unload on us, which are overwhelmingly negative and not infrequently abusive.
Indeed, the clear message this system sends to us through prison’s structure and staff mentalities is that we will never again be full citizens, nor do we deserve to be. I recently read an apt characterization of the penal process which states, ‘a person starts out as one status, a person or citizen, and emerges at the other end, an offender or criminal’ (Garfinkel, 1956).
“Rehabilitation” is a notion contrary to every aspect of this building. Instead, through our treatment by staff, demonization in mainstream media and lack of ability to further our lives, the penal system tells us that we are inherently and permanently deviant and different from “free” people, and that we are wholly undeserving of ever returning to an equal social status.
Is it such a surprise then, with such mentalities dominant in such a vengeful and destructive system that there also exists a disregard for imprisoned people’s lives in emergency situations?
It is as if sentence length’s matter no more; once convicted of a crime one is a convict for ever. And whether one becomes a convict by a violent act or by stealing to put food on the table; whether one becomes a convict for a crime they did not commit or for an addiction that harms no others, the label of convict evokes the same undeserving and apathetic attitude in too many of us!
The “convict” does not deserve to eat well, sleep well, dress well, or feel well. The convict inherently deserves less by label alone.
But is our society so cold that we feel imprisoned people deserve to be left to die?
It makes me very sad that labels hold such power in our minds and culture. Even though it is well proven that people become imprisoned by socio-economic factors far more often than do they by any factors of “criminality”, people become enraged when imprison people experience nourishing living conditions or are released.
Imprisonment is a complex social issue. There are no prisons full of bad people run by officials who are well intended. As canada embraces an americanized, industrial approach to penality, more and more people of all natures will experience prison. We urgently need an informed public discourse on our resort to and reliance on imprisonment.
Prisons cannot privately remain a permanent stigmatizer and truamatizer of already disadvantaged individuals, while being publicly touted as a solution to crime where the violent and bad folks go to be punished and forgotten.
We cannot condemn one another like this. We are not this bad of a species. Instances of imprisoned populations being disregarded and deserted in the face of environmental emergencies highlight the dangerous extent to which we have forgotten to care for one another. I know issues of crime effect people on an emotional level, but valid emotions cannot be left to overrun the fact that there are just as many innocent, mislead, afraid, strong, confused, angry, bright and loving human beings inside prisons as there are in every neighborhood in every community.
There are red flags flying at society’s level of comfortability with leaving some humans locked in cages during imminent threats to their lives while other humans are cared for and moved to safety.
The treatment of imprisoned people during environmental emergencies is but on clear manifestation of the deep social illness that is the system of mass imprisonment and the dominant mentalities about it which we falsely refer to as justice.