A Landslide of Evil

May 10, 2020

Written by: Robert LaBarr
Edited by: Cody Stuhltrager

“For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children
of light (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth),
finding out what is acceptable to the Lord. And have no fellowship with unfruitful
works of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of
those things which are done by them in secret. But all things that are exposed
are made manifest by the light, for whatever makes manifest is light.” —
Ephesians 5: 8–13

History provides many examples of evil committed on a mass scale by humans against other
human beings. Some of the most infamous atrocities are the Holocaust; the genocide of the
Cambodian people by Pol Pot; the genocide in the Sudanese region of Darfur; the
enslavement of the Jews by the Egyptians and the Babylonians; the Romans’ barbaric
gladiator games, in which enslaved people were forced to fight to the death; and the
enslavement of Africans in the Americas. For such acts to be carried out, there had to be a
system in place that convinced large numbers of people to buy in and accept the horrific
outcomes. Philip Zimbardo, a psychologist and organizer of the Stanford Prison Study,
explained this process in “The Psychology of Evil: The Seven Social Processes that Grease the
Slippery Slope of Evil.” In it he describes seven sequential stages through which people are
brainwashed to believe that their evil actions are just:

1) Mindlessly Taking the First Small Step; 2) Dehumanization of Others; 3) De-Individuation
of Self; 4) Diffusion of Personal Responsibility; 5) Blind Obedience to Authority; 6) Uncritical
Conformity to Group Norms; and 7) Passive Tolerance of Evil Through Inaction or
Indifference. He goes on to say, “Evil is the exercise of power. And that’s the key: it’s about
power. To intentionally harm people psychologically, to hurt people physically, to commit
crimes against humanity.” One of the large-scale, ongoing evils of our day is mass
incarceration, or as Pope Francis calls it, “an evil structure of sin.”

The seeds of mass incarceration were planted in the 70’s by President Nixon; they were
fertilized by Reagan with his “War on Drugs” in the 80’s; and the plant came to full fruition
with Clinton and the passage of the “Crime Bill of 94.” The Bill withdrew hundreds of millions
of dollars from public housing, which assisted people in poverty, and from rehabilitative
efforts in prisons, and transferred this money to more retributive efforts. Some of the money
went toward militarizing local police forces and some was used to incentivize States to build
more prisons. This set the stage for local police to hire more people and enforce a carceral
state in many urban communities — one of the byproducts of this is the recent escalation of
the historical evil of Black folks being killed by police: more police equals more Black deaths.
A carceral state equals more arrests and more people in prisons. The US now keeps more
than 2 million locked in cages, more than any other nation in the world. There are many
factors that contribute to the disease of mass incarceration, thus making Zimbardo’s seven
steps applicable to many facets of such an intricately structured social problem. So, to
narrow the scope of such a complex problem, I’m going to do my best to focus the majority
of this essay on the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) and its staff — mainly
Correctional Officers (COs), since they are the ones that enforce DOC policies.

It is not hard to see how Zimbrano’s concept is utilized in the diabolical institution of the
DOC. First, I would like to say that writing this essay does not come without risk. I have great
concern of retaliation from the DOC. It has operated in secrecy for so long that unveiling the
truth is bound to ruffle some feathers. There are some in the system who believe that what
they are doing is righteous, necessary work, and there are others who are dead set against a
reckoning because the status quo serves them very well. For these reasons, they have sought
to silence and censor people in their custody in every way possible, and they have forced us
to suffer in silence. For decades, they have blurred our faces and shortened our names in the
media — except when doing otherwise would benefit them, of course. All our phone calls
and emails are monitored. We have no access to the internet. We can’t have cameras or tape
recorders. They say it’s all for the sake of security, and there is some validity to that, but it is
more about hiding any truths that could disrupt the smooth operation of this evil machine.
I’m well aware that there may be some who are dedicated to the maintenance of the status
quo who will try to discredit me by using one of the many labels they use for incarcerated
people, or by trying to paint me as just another bitter “inmate.” I’m not going to let this deter
me from giving an honest, first-hand account of my experience in this destructive broken
system over the past 22½ years. Now, I’m no credentialed sociologist or psychologist, but
I’ve been in the system long enough to see it for what it is, and I believe it’s my duty to bring
to light the reality of what’s going on in here. I owe it to taxpayers, people who have been
harmed, people who are incarcerated, genuine people who work for the DOC, and to
humanity as a whole.

One thing I am very big on is personal responsibility. I have been incarcerated since I was an
18-year-old adolescent. I am now a 41-year-old man. During my time in here I have
accumulated over 6,000 hours of vocational training with 4 different trades: Architectural
Drafting, Computer Business, Custodial Maintenance, and I’m getting ready to take the test
to become a state licensed Barber. I have also earned my Theology degree from Swanee, The
College of the South; completed over 20 programs (some prescribed; most voluntary);
earned my certification as a Yoga Instructor (I currently teach classes); am currently enrolled
at Villanova University, working towards my Bachelor’s Degree in Interdisciplinary Studies;
and I haven’t had a class 1 or 2 misconduct in 19 years. Currently, I facilitate and mentor 4
different groups — the theology course I graduated from, Education for Ministry (EfM); a
conflict resolution program called Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP); a restorative
justice project called Let’s Circle Up (LCU); and a social justice group called The Graterford
Think Tank.

It’s important to note that the DOC has provided zero funding toward both my education at
Villanova and my Theology degree; also, all of the groups I am active in are part of entities
that operate and/or were created outside of the DOC. We just use the space provided by the
DOC to do our work. As a member of these groups, I’m able to pay forward the things that
were generously given to me by others. As I serve others, the impact is reciprocal, as I get as
much out of it as the people I help. The transformation I’ve made is NOT a credit to the DOC,
it is in spite of it. This environment is not conducive to positive change; my change came from
my faith, relationships, and by educating myself. So, now that I’ve made a habit of holding
myself accountable and taking steps to right my wrongs, it’s time to hold the DOC responsible
for their invisible actions.

The DOC has gotten away with abominable actions for a long time. One of the ways they’ve
been able to do so is by sugar coating the harm they inflict. Case in point: the cage they lock
us in for 15 hours a day under normal operations. They call it a “cell.” The word “cell” makes
what they are doing sound more acceptable. They know that if they called it what it really is
— a cage — it would be harder for the public to turn a blind eye to what they’re doing. They
use plush phrases like “they got cable in their cells” to try to convince people to see it as
something other than a cage. You can’t dress up a cage & call it something it’s not, no more
than you can put lipstick on a pig & call it something other than a pig. Last time I checked, a
7′ x 13′ enclosed space made of concrete & steel, with a computer operated fortified door
(that can only be opened by the overseer), is a cage. So, going forward, there isn’t going to be
any chaser with the truth. I want it to sting; I want it to make you uncomfortable, & I want to
thereby inspire you to do something about these injustices. Enough of the DOC’s poisonous
pandering to ignorance!

We moved here to State Correctional Institution (SCI) Phoenix, from SCI Graterford, in July
of 2018. This brought about many changes, one of which is that they now have a public
address system that allows them to make announcements throughout the whole prison.
When we first got here, every announcement would begin with “Attention on the
‘compound.'” But now they don’t use “compound” anymore because, in their estimation, “It
sounds too much like slavery.” Instead, they use “facility.” I wish I could believe that this is
out of complete ignorance of their history, but it’s a prime example of how they try to deny
their connection to slavery, & it shows how the DOC uses divergence propaganda: molding
the opinions of the public through the media & public relations in order to accomplish an
agenda. It also proves how they manipulate staff & people in their custody alike. It goes to
show that they’re embarrassed about who they truly are — if they were proud of it, they
wouldn’t try to deny their pedigree. I agree they should’ve changed the lingo, but it should’ve
been changed to the more accurate word: “plantation.”

Somewhere along the line, American citizens came to accept the prison industrial complex
as a tolerable institution, just as societies in the past accepted systems that carried out the
unspeakable acts of their day. This is due in part to the DOC continuously using divergence
propaganda to distort reality. The truth is, the DOC can trace its roots back to the once
prominent, legalized practice of slavery — which still is legal via this clause in the 13th
Amendment of the US Constitution: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, EXCEPT AS
A PUNISHMENT FOR CRIME… shall exist within the United States…” (emphasis mine). With
its roots in slavery, it isn’t any surprise that this disease carrying, parasitic system displays
such deplorable trademarks: racism, divisiveness, retribution, incapacitation, cruelty,
stripping of individualization, and the degradation of one’s humanity and dignity. Such
trademarks in turn cause many symptoms: fear, trauma, grief, pain, distrust, despair,
anguish, and hopelessness. Given this fact, it’s only logical that it was bound to treat people
inhumanely, and that it was doomed to fail from its inception. And this has proven to be the
case: just look at the current demand for prison “reform.”

Let it be clear that when I speak about the evil of the DOC, I’m speaking about the institution
itself, and not necessarily about the people who work for it. Zimbrano says, “The power is in
the system. The system creates the situation that corrupts the individuals, and the system is
the legal, political, economic, cultural background. And this is where the power is of the badbarrel (apples) makers.” I tend to think that all people are good at their core. We all make
mistakes and have done things we wish we could take back. I try to separate a person’s
actions from who they personally ARE at their core, which is someone who wants to be
understood, loved and respected. There are countless reasons why people make bad choices:
ignorance, impulsivity, desperation, immaturity, greed, peer pressure, etc. I believe that
many of the staff here have bought into this system out of ignorance and/or desperation.
Many of them lack a clear understanding regarding the foundations upon which the DOC was
built. I think most of their initial intentions are good, but as Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK)
said, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute
misunderstanding from people of ill will” (Letter from a Birmingham Jail). Some have
themselves been failed by society. Many come from poverty, which is often correlated with
low educational achievement. This aligns with the fact that one is not required to possess
even a GED to be hired as a CO. Given a lack of education, one can easily be duped to adopt
the ideals of the DOC. Additionally, many COs have a military background, which means they
were trained to be subordinate to authority. They come in here thinking that because they’ve
risked their lives protecting our rights, & we committed crimes, then we deserve whatever
we get. They often do this without giving much thought to why people do the things they do.
In either case, many of them just see an easy job that requires no formal or higher education,
a job where they can sit behind a computer screen all day & cash in on decent pay & state

So, what exactly are the duties of a CO? I’ve been trying to figure this out for years. One would
think that with the title of “Correctional Officer,” their job would be to positively influence
the behavior of people in their custody. In order to accomplish this, they would need to
exemplify a high moral standard & be versatile in life & social skills, as they will be dealing
with a large number of people. The reality is this is rarely the case. I first would like to say
that I have met some COs who are genuine and good people. They see the system for what it
is, have empathy for us, and complete their shifts and duties without abusing their power or
aggravating the situation. These are the few and far between COs. Still, I believe they are
complicit, because they are aware of what’s going on, yet they continue to cash that paycheck
every week without doing anything to change the system. On the other hand, some believe
it’s their personal duty to punish us for what we did. Their self-professed job description can
be wrapped up by the three C’s they use: custody, control, & “care” — if what they do is care,
then I wouldn’t want to see what not caring looks like. These are the ones who drank the
juice of the system. The following will hopefully give some insight on how & why staff adopt
DOC ideals.

1) Mindlessly Taking the First Small Step

We would all like to think that we fully analyze all of our decisions; that we weigh the pros &
cons & think about the consequences of our actions. There are a number of reasons why
someone would decide to work for the DOC, whether it be economic, family tradition,
passion, the idea of social ambition, &/or desperation as a last resort for employment. Many
times, decision-making power is preempted by a lack of options — I can’t get a Big Mac at
Burger King. So, many of the decisions we make are based on the choices that are available
to us. Recently, I was talking to a CO about some of the conditions of this current institutional
quarantine (which I’ll speak about later). Instead of making any concessions, he blamed the
“higher ups” for making all the calls. I told him, “Yeah, you’re on the front lines, taking the
brunt of aggravation & can’t make any logical calls.” He said he bends the rules for us where
he can, but has to deal with the bullcrap because, as he said, “I have to pay my mortgage.”
That’s the key here. Becoming a CO involves a conflict between what they know is morally
right & paying their bills. Unfortunately, paying their bills comes out on the winning end
99.9% of the time.

Before working for the DOC, many potential COs lack the skills to get a job that is equal in
pay & benefits to the DOC. Many of them have families & bills just like most of us do. So,
they’re blinded by the opportunity to become financially stable with minimal credentials.
They don’t have to further their education, which could take years, to get a decent paying
job. All they have to go through are some basic tests (civil service, psychological, and
medical), a background check, and a 5-week training and, bam, they’re put right on the job
(employment.pa.gov). As a recruitment strategy, the DOC at some point dropped the GED
requirement because they were having trouble hiring people. This opened the door to a
broader labor pool, but it also enabled the DOC to hire people who are for the most part naive
to their own history.

2) Dehumanization of Others

In order to oppress someone, there needs to be some type of recognition by the oppressor
that the person they’re oppressing deserves mistreatment and is something other than
themselves. The DOC simply does this through their training & by pouncing on preexisting
perceptions of people who are incarcerated. During the training of new staff, the DOC
emphasizes that “all inmates are manipulators,” & thus can’t be trusted. When I was forced
to work as an indentured servant, for .19¢ an hour in the chow hall, I overheard a training
Sergeant telling a trainee CO, “I lost any type of sympathy for any of these animals in here a
long time ago.” Training Sergeants help trainee COs acclimate to the job. This is the mindset
being passed down to new generations of staff. This coupled with the many labels — inmate,
convict, murderer, rapist, a state ID number — they use to identify imprisoned people, helps
to strip incarcerated people of their humanity. This enables staff to deactivate any sympathy
or empathy they would naturally feel for a fellow human being, & this in turn makes it easier
& more acceptable to abuse human beings.

Now, with the majority of prisons being built in the past two decades or so, everything is
computerized. The DANGER in this cannot be overstated. Before all of these “state of the art”
prisons were built, everything was manual. COs had more interaction with incarcerated
people, and there was more of a human element at play. They had to look you in the face
when they locked you in a cage. They had to manually let you in and out of fortified doors.
With the computerization of everything, we are nothing but a switch, a button, a number, a
little flashing light on a screen. Staff don’t have to look you in the eye when locking you in a
cage anymore. They can simply communicate with you through a speaker in the cage and
buzz you in and out of it remotely, while sitting at a desk.

3) De-Individuation of Self

Compared to many of the past atrocities I mentioned in the beginning, this current atrocity
is easier to sell to employees and the public. All the DOC has to say is, “They are criminals
who deserve to be punished.” I met an ex-federal prosecutor, Mr. Robert Reed, who said,
“When I worked as a prosecutor, in the beginning, I did it with pride, thinking I was wearing
the white hat of God. But after a while I realized what I was doing wasn’t right.” It’s easy to
vilify a person who committed a crime, and any action against a “criminal” is quickly justified
by bringing up the crime, without taking into consideration any mitigating circumstances
behind why a person did what they did. Most people don’t just wake up one day and decide
to commit crime. In most cases, there are environmental factors behind why people do what
they do. But this is rarely heard. The crime is the beginning and the end of the discussion.
This is one of the most reliable tools the DOC uses, a misinformation campaign of distorted
truths to keep employees and the public in the dark, so they can keep the wheels of their
heinous machine going. It’s fueled by such things as having people who work for the system
believe they are working for something bigger than themselves.

Many people who work for the system are ignorant to the ugly historical foundation the DOC
is built on: slavery, racism and oppression. So, most come to the job with grand illusions that
they are bearers of justice, that they are keeping society safe, providing justice for people
who’ve been harmed, and upholding the law — “wearing the white hat of GOD.” They think
it’s not about them, that it’s about doing what’s “right” for the greater good. With time, wrong
actions come to be seen as “right” actions. They see other staff members do it, so it must be
OK. This is the beginning of detaching themselves from personal responsibility.

4) Diffusion of Personal Responsibility

To absolve oneself of personal responsibility, a transition is vital: one that induces a sort of
blindness and enables staff to believe that their actions are just, necessary, and acceptable:
the social duties required to get the job done. Within the DOC, I’m sure there are rules and
policies that staff members don’t agree with. I’ve had personal conversations with some of
them about “stupid rules.” But this doesn’t stop them from enforcing them, as it is part of
their job to do so. To come to work to lock people in cages day after day, they have to convince
themselves that it’s a justifiable duty. If not, they wouldn’t be able to show up to commit such
incomprehensible actions every day. The only way many of them can continue to maintain
this ugly status quo is to deflect accountability onto the system and/or individuals who are
incarcerated. I hear them talk about the system as if it is something other than themselves
— “This is how THEY (not we) want us to run things.” By distancing themselves from the
system, it becomes easier to justify their actions: “It’s not I who wants to violate the inherent
Rights and dignity of fellow humans; it’s the system that requires me to do it.” Also, COs
constantly defend their duties by telling incarcerated people, “You did what you did to bring
yourself here.” I’m always baffled by this logic because, while the harm most incarcerated
people committed is an action in the past (although the impact of it may be ongoing), the
harm COs inflict is an everyday occurrence, in the present. But this is the self-fed narrative
they use to justify to themselves the harm they inflict every day when they come to work.
Sadly, most COs don’t realize that it catches up with them later: studies have shown that
many have massive heart attacks soon after retirement, and the suicide rate is astronomical
among prison employees, when compared to the overall rate.

5) Blind Obedience to Authority

There are a lot of COs who have military backgrounds and are thus accustomed to accepting
orders from authority without question. It is no coincidence that many high-ranking DOC
employees have a history in the military, as either former or active members. They subscribe
to, and impose on others, this mindset: “You obey your senior officers without question if
you’re a lower ranking officer.” It’s not a coincidence that training Sergeants are most likely
to be White males who are either active or ex-military. This is not only indicative of blind
obedience, but of a racist patriarchal system as well. It’s designed this way to groom future
generations of staff to keep the status quo going. This indoctrination process is designed to
have people put unequivocal faith in the system they work for. But, beware staff members of
the DOC: as Zimbrano describes the reaction of the Bush administration to the abuse of
people in their custody at the hands of soldiers at the Abu Ghraib Iraq Prison, “What all
administrations say when there’s a scandal: ‘Don’t blame us. It’s not the system. It’s the few
bad apples, the few rogue soldiers.’ My hypothesis is, American soldiers are good, usually.
Maybe it was the barrel that was bad.” All people who work for the DOC should question
everything they’re doing. They shouldn’t blindly accept any order. COs are the ones on the
front lines getting their hands bloody while the puppet masters are pulling the strings from
the comfort of their cushy offices. I can’t help but think about the Nuremberg trials, during
which the Nazis tried to defend themselves by saying, “I was just doing what I was told.” That
sounds eerily similar to what I’ve heard countless times from COs: “I’m just doing my job.”

6) Uncritical Conformity to Group Norms

The Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrated that people in authoritative positions tend to
abuse their power. The experiment showed how people would devolve from making
personal decisions and consent to what the group decided as a whole even if it was against
their personal intuition. There are many social ideals at play here — peer pressure, wanting
to fit in, normalizing oppression (if the group is doing it, it must be OK), and not wanting to
be ostracized. As Reinhold Niebuhr, a Theologian, states “groups tend to be more immoral
than individuals.”

This became more apparent in actual prisons when women COs started to become more
prevalent in the 90’s and early 2000’s. Before I mention the apparent plight of some women
COs, I’d like to mention that a lot of it is rooted in patriarchy. When some women COs start
as trainees, they come here timid & with a bit of fear — which is no surprise given their
training and the general perception of prisons and prisoners in US culture. They wear a
loose-fitting uniform with no makeup on their face. Their hair is put up in a bun. Fingernails
are trimmed and unpolished. After about a month you start to see their clothes get a little bit
snugger, and they wear a little makeup. And before you know it, their uniforms are skintight,
they have all types of makeup on, their hair is freshly styled from the salon, and they have
fake nails and a manicure. A year later, after you haven’t seen them for a while, you find out
they’re out on maternity leave — usually impregnated by a male CO.

Now, a large percentage of the staff here at SCI Phoenix are women. I’m not saying that
women are the followers here: they’re the initiators in many cases as well. I hear staff, both
men and women, talk about how they have relationships with one another. They’ve had their
share of bouts over each other in the parking lot. It’s like a big dating service. So, what all this
has to do with this stage is, if they’re having relationships with one another, of course they’re
going to conform to committing evil in their group practices! Which begs the question: how
do you have a bunch of immoral people hired to be “Correctional” Officers? As people become
accustomed to common actions in group settings, wrong actions become second nature.
Their mechanism to listen to their gut when they’re doing something wrong becomes
disengaged and calloused by their repetitive actions. A prime example is the common
practice of how many of them conspire to lie on misconducts.

7) Passive Tolerance of Evil Through Inaction, or Indifference

Once evil becomes accepted by repetitive actions it becomes normalized. The DOC has so
deeply implanted the idea that what they’re doing is normal that it has become accepted by
the US culture. They’ve accomplished this by controlling the narrative and by silencing
incarcerated people. Once it is brought to light what the DOC is REALLY doing, and it becomes
more evident to more people, I believe it’ll prod people to do something to change it. Those
who are aware — DOC employees and others — exacerbate the problem by their inaction,
which is evil. Just as Zimbrano says, “Most people are guilty of the evil of inaction, because
your mother said, ‘Don’t get involved. Mind your business.’ And you have to say, ‘Mama,
humanity is my business.'” To say that you tolerate what the DOC is doing because “it’s only
being done to criminals” is an asinine hypocritical excuse. By doing nothing, you’re enabling
a system that, I’d vow to say, if you REALLY knew what it stood for, would be against all of
your morals and principles.

One thing I think about a lot is, how the system is set up to force incarcerated people to
contribute to the funding of their own incarceration. The DOC has contracts for medical, food,
cable, phone, commissary, mail, e-mails, and money transfer. The companies who have the
contracts with the DOC monopolize the market and overcharge us for almost everything. So,
if I want to talk to my family, I have to pay .90¢ for a 15 min. phone call. Which is expensive
when you take into consideration that local collect calls are free for people in society — and
let us not forget that, for years, phone calls were $7.00 each, until a class action lawsuit was
won a few years ago. To put this into perspective, incarcerated people make an average of
.25¢ an hour, so we have to work four hours for one phone call. To buy a TV, I pay $230 for a
TV that cost a member in society $80. If I want basic cable, I pay $17.00 a month. If my family
wants to send me money, they pay a $5.00 surcharge for the transaction. If I want to send a
message, I must pay .25¢ an e-mail. If I want a video game on my tablet it costs $4.91. A song
costs $1.91. So, with over 50,000 people incarcerated in PA, the profit being made from some
of the poorest people in the nation is enormous.

The kick is the corporations with the contracts invest in politicians and policies that
exacerbate the problem of mass incarceration. The more people incarcerated, the more
profit they make. So, in essence, the more I buy overpriced electronics, talk to my family,
watch cable, get money sent to me, send messages, and buy games and songs, the more I
contribute to the factors that perpetuate the problems of my incarceration. These firms are
the beneficiaries of a system that, with their help, manipulates the public into turning a blind
eye, by controlling the narrative with their web of lies, while they make excessive profits at
the expense of society — taxpayers pay $42,000 a year to incarcerate one person. The
travesty in all this is the slave labor peanuts we are forced to work for go right back to big
corporations involved with the DOC, making sure the cycle sustains itself.

Another way these corporations keep the cycle going is by having a budget to lobby to
organizations such as the American Legislative Exchange Committee (ALEC). ALEC is an
organization made up of mainly ex-legislators — this is tactical because legislators know the
ins and outs of the legislative process — who develop laws to keep people locked-up for long
periods of time. Once they create legislation, they shop it around to States. ALEC designed
the heinous “stop & frisk” laws, which prey on people of color and have put countless people
in cages. Many of the mandatory sentences we have, for almost every charge, are due in part
to ALEC. Mandatory sentences force people to take plea bargains — making the process of
locking more people up cheaper because it saves States the expense of jury trials — and takes
any discretion out of the hands of judges. People plead out in fear of getting a lot more time
if found guilty at trial. The scary part is, of all cases in the US, about 97% are pled out. ALEC
receives most of their funding from special interest corporations and staff unions involved
with the DOC — Aramark, GlobelTelLink, Securus, Keefe, JPay, Access, and COs’ unions
throughout the country. So, the corporations in bed with the DOC not only invest in the
campaigns of politicians who are “tough on crime,” but they fund organizations like ALEC
which develop legislation for politicians to pass to lock more people up for long terms. In the
end, the well-fed machine sustains its “commodity” by scaring people to do years in a cage,
and the corporations & shareholders laugh all the way to the bank.

The DOC is so entrenched with politics and capitalism that when Tom Ridge was the
Governor of PA, he consolidated all rights to the contracts of the DOC’s vendors into a
monopoly involving a few companies. Ridge pulled the ole political maneuver — “I wash your
back, you wash mine” — with then President George W. Bush. The companies Ridge sold the
contracts to — cable & phone (this is when phone calls were $7.00 each)— were located in
Texas, which is where Bush is from & was Governor. The rights to commissary were sold to
Keefe, which just happens to count Mrs. Laura Bush as a part owner. In turn, Ridge was the
first appointee to a brand-new position, “Director of Homeland Security,” after the 9/11
attacks. If this isn’t one of the most egregious examples of justice commandeered by politics,
cronyism, and capitalism, then I don’t what is.

Another devious method of punishment used by the DOC is the separation of families. I don’t
have kids, but there are plenty of parents in here who are absent from their kid’s lives. As
you can imagine, this has devastating effects on the development of kids. Even though I don’t
have kids of my own, I do have 3 nieces and 2 nephews to whose maturation I could greatly
contribute if I weren’t trapped in prison. I haven’t been home with my family for the past 23
Christmases. I’ve missed countless special occasions with my loved ones. I’ve lost my
younger brother and numerous friends throughout the years and still haven’t been able to
grieve these losses properly. I’ve spent the prime years of my life in a cage: all of my 20’s and
30’s. Every day, I’m told when to eat; shower; go to sleep; wake up; go to work; get on the
phone; and when to stay in line with their petty rules — tuck in my shirt; walk on the right
side of the walkway; take off my hat in the chow hall; endure the blinding fluorescent light,
suddenly turned on at 6:00am, for one of 4 daily standing counts. It’s not necessarily the
micromanaging itself that is evil; it’s the stress and trauma caused by the incessant nature of
it, day in & day out, and the loss of the dignity & individualization of making my own
decisions that is evil.

The urgency in abolishing this current system is reinforced by covid-19. This pandemic has
highlighted the repulsive, inhumane way we are treated, housed and commodified. It’s
extremely dangerous being housed on a unit with 143 other people in the middle of a
pandemic. This environment is highly conducive to the spread of such a contagious and
deadly disease. There are people who’ve been suspected of having the corona virus on the
unit, but the DOC is notoriously opaque with the info, so we don’t know who has it or not.
We’ve been locked in the cages assigned to us since March 30, 2020 for 23 hrs & 20 mins per
day, under an institutional quarantine. We only get out for 40 minutes a day to get on the
phone, exercise, take a shower and use the toilet without our roommate in the cage. The
majority of us have roommates, so there is no privacy. The cage is the size of an average
bathroom with a bunk bed, sink & toilet, desk with 2 stools, 2 shelves and 2 cabinets all made
of steel. We have to tip toe around each other as a form of common courtesy in such a
confined space. Example: my roommate and I sit down facing the wall to urinate. If not, the
splash would reach my bed 2′ away.

Meanwhile, the DOC is trying to put the image out there that they’re providing humane
treatment. They’re handing out a flyer called, “SCI-Phoenix Covid-19 Updates.” In it they have
a section that gives a list of everything they’ve done for us — patting themselves on the back
(or is it a preemptive strategy for the lawsuits to come?). This flyer is an example of how they
try to cover up the trail of blood they left behind from years of mistreatment. Just as luminol
exposes the proteins in wiped up blood, corona is bringing to light the legacy of the DOC’s
dehumanizing practices. They can’t conceal something that is rotten at its core. It eventually
bleeds through.

If things get too intense between staff and the population, the administration plays
psychological appeasement games, as they are right now: we’re getting “free” cable, video
visits, 5 free phone calls & emails per week and they started selling 5 new styles of sneakers
because of the institutional quarantine. In the past they’ve used other pacifiers like incentive
meals, rewards for cleanest block, etc. Another prime example of this occurred in 2008, when
the DOC put a moratorium on parole after 2 cops were killed in Philly by people on parole
(this is also an example of how they make everyone pay for the bad actions of a few, which
I’ll speak about below). We were locked in for a few days. They placated us by giving us things
we’ve been requesting for years — fans, TV remote controls & flat screen TVs. Such
appeasement is nothing, but a strategy employed to distract us from their oppressive actions
and the atmosphere of bondage they are forcefully holding us in. They try to lull you into a
false sense of security. It’s not a mishap that some administrators have psychology degrees.
Their evil diversionary games never fly over my head, but they’ve been effective and have
gone undetected by most.

The DOC is notorious for lumping us all together in everything they do. For the most part,
they have a cookie cutter process by which they don’t treat people individually: If one person
does something wrong, everyone must be punished. This is part of their strategy: to not only
have us do their job for them by holding each other accountable, but also to create
divisiveness — blame your peer(s) for the lockdown, the parole moratorium, and everything
else. They stir the pot of animosity among incarcerated people and thereby create an
atmosphere full of tension. Then when there’s an altercation they say, “Do you see how
violent they are? This is why we need so many prisons.” Forget that they institute the policies
that create such a hostile environment.

Some of the most sinister practices of the DOC are its retributive nature and its facade of
“rehabilitating” (correcting) people. I don’t know whether to categorize this as an oxymoron
or insanity. It may be a little bit of both. The high crime rate in the US is a direct reflection of
the way “justice” is carried out in this country. How does a legal system — I never use “justice
system,” because what they’re doing is NOT justice — that models harm expects people who
come through its destructive walls to change their ways? Better yet, if the people who run
the system claim to be the standard of morality — Department Of “Corrections” — then isn’t
this beyond evil? As MLK exclaims, “…it is just as wrong or perhaps even more so, to use
moral means to preserve immoral ends.” It’s a debauchery of justice that they use “morality”
as an excuse to inflict harm. Or is it for some other reason? I can barely fathom the idea that
they just don’t want things to change because it’s too lucrative. I mean, it’s unconscionable
that they can be this evil, or can they? This is what happens when justice is hijacked by
politics and money — people who’ve been harmed are not having their needs met,
incarcerated people are treated less than human, and society is paying the price so special
interests can make huge profits. Their methods make you question their motives. A just
system would operate independent of politics and capitalism, and be aimed at restoration,
reconciliation, and healing — not perpetuating harm!

I know that there are going to be people who read this and say, “You committed a crime, and
these are the repercussions.” But I know also that this system and its justifications have come
to be accepted by a misguided populace through decades of propaganda by the US. It’s how
we’ve been conditioned. The normalization of this system is imbedded in our culture —
movies, books, songs, television and the internet all reflect this, so much so that some
incarcerated people don’t see anything wrong with what’s being done to them. This is how
normalized this system has become, that even the oppressed have accepted their oppression
as being normal or “just.” I don’t know about you, but I think slavery should NEVER be legal,
under ANY and ALL circumstances! St. Thomas Aquinas says, “Any Law that uplifts human
personality is just. Any Law that degrades human personality is unjust.” The DOC tries to
drain people of self-respect. You’re given a degrading brown outfit identical to other
incarcerated people and a state number to wear, all in an attempt to strip you of your name
and individual identity. They try to relegate you to becoming an obedient nobody to make it
easier to deal with you. If society REALLY knew of the sadistic operation of the DOC, I have
faith that people would take steps to make it unlawful. This is why I tend to agree with St.
Augustine’s assertion: “An unjust law is no law at all.”

The astonishing part is that every year PA misspends an estimated $900 million for salaries,
$600 million for benefits, $400 million for pensions, and $97 million in overtime to staff the
DOC (Budget Testimony, PADOC, Secretary John Wetzel). In Governor Tom Wolf’s reelection
campaign, he pointed out that the DOC’s pensions are a serious problem. He emphasized how
much they are bleeding the annual budget. The worst part is, for the amount of money
taxpayers are investing in the DOC, the returns are terrible. I don’t know if there is any better
metric than the recidivism rate. For every 3 people who are paroled, 2 return to prison within
the first 3 years. Every year, PA wastes about $400 million on recidivism (Budget
Testimony). This is primarily because the DOC’s focus isn’t on rehabilitation: it’s on the other
three facets of the theory of punishment: retribution, incapacitation and deterrence. Couple
this with the stigma that “formerly” incarcerated people have to deal with, and it’s easy to
see why there is so much recidivism. I don’t know about you, but I find a 33% “success” rate
completely unacceptable! Especially when PA allocates over 2 billion dollars to the DOC
every year. The results DO NOT justify this amount of funding!

The truth is, there is no real political will to do anything to change the system in PA. This is
partly because many politicians in rural PA, where most of the State’s prisons are located,
are sitting back in their cozy office’s w/o any pressure from their constituency. Such
legislators have a constituency that desires to keep this going, because prisons produce
employment & prosperity in these otherwise economically depressed rural areas. So, in their
eyes, trying to pass legislation to change the system would be political suicide. The disgusting
part is, most people who are incarcerated are poor people from urban communities, while
most of the State’s lawmakers come from rural areas, which have enough power in the PA
Senate to pass laws, or not, w/o the consent of the urban voice. So, the people they’re
capitalizing on are people who don’t have a direct link to their communities. In turn, they
don’t have to deal with the social impact of children being raised w/o their incarcerated
parent(s), like urban communities do. They don’t have any political motivation to change it
whatsoever — because it works in their favor.

It’s become about maintaining jobs. In 2018, Schuylkill County, Pa residents created an
uproar when word spread about the possibility of closing one of the two State prisons
located there. The residents had their local representative(s) draft legislation stating that
prisons can’t close w/o the input of local residents. Are we to then keep those prison beds
full, just to save jobs, whether people need to be imprisoned or not? As ALEC & nonrehabilitative practices already do a pretty good job of overcrowding prisons, we don’t need
lawmakers bent on job preservation to compound the problem. This goes to show that a big
factor in all of this is job security. But jobs are no excuse to continue to lock people in cages!
Is this what taxpayers are busting their butts for? To have their hard-earned money wasted
on a system that schemes to lock up as many as possible in an effort to provide jobs in rural

Sadly, most people are unknowingly funding this inhumane system that capitalizes on
human suffering. We are essentially dumping in billions of dollars to throw human beings
away. We’re disposing of their potential, possibilities for a second chance, & their humanity
— all in the name of retributive justice that only compounds harm, & at a high financial &
moral cost. As long as we continue to support this system, we’re going to continue to corrupt
our own values & humanity. As Martin Luther King proclaims, “We are caught in an
inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one
directly, affects all indirectly.” So, if we know harm is being committed & we turn a blind eye
to it, we lose little pieces of our own humanity & damage our collective society at the same
time. Not doing anything about it is essentially condoning an inhumane system that strips
people of their human dignity. Is this what you believe in? We have a moral obligation to see
this system for what it is: EVIL! We can’t continue to accept it, fund it and turn a blind eye to
it! We should question the way “justice” is being carried out in this country. The current
system is immoral, dangerous, expensive and not producing good results. We can’t keep
talking about “reform” and only make cosmetic and patchwork changes. Eventually, major
leaks are going to occur, and that is exactly what is happening — because it’s BROKEN! We
need to abolish it and start from scratch. Someone once asked me the question: In 50 to 100
years from now, what institution do you think we will look back on, like slavery, and say,
“What in the world were we thinking?” Let us not fall into the trap of waiting way too long,
like we did with slavery, to abolish the evil practice of mass incarceration! And let us not
confuse “legal” with “right and just,” because as MLK says, “We should never forget that
everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’…”

Many times, the first reaction I get when I talk of prison abolition is, “Well what do we do
with a cannibalistic serial killer?” That is one of the exact problems with the system. They
pick out the worst of the worst, the exception rather than the more commonplace case. This
is how we’ve gotten to the place we’re at right now, where too many people are given
sentences that were designed for “exceptional” crimes. I could easily ask, “Well what about
the getaway driver who didn’t kill anybody, or the young woman who was being sexually
abused and pimped out by her stepfather until she killed him? Both received the same exact
Death by Incarceration sentence as the serial killer, after all.” But neither case is the point
here. The real point is: why is it that this country has accepted that human beings be forced
to live in such horrendous conditions regardless of what they did? What does that say about
us? Better yet, WHY ARE WE OK WITH CAGING HUMAN BEINGS, PERIOD? Placing people in
cages is not only dehumanizing, but it hamstrings rehabilitative efforts — this is evident in
the recidivism rate I spoke about earlier. Because of its flawed state, it obviously needs to
change. As long as it models the trademarks of slavery it is going to continue to produce
results that describe exactly what it is displaying: inhumane, cruel, unusual, and
unacceptable. If the goal is to help people change and better themselves, then we need to
reimagine a criminal JUSTICE system that truly takes into account the humanity of ALL
parties involved. If morality were the barometer, it would model and promote Healing,
Forgiveness, Reconciliation, Respect, Dignity, Love, and Redemption.

Here’s the conundrum: money and politics are far too involved with the DOC. If things are to
change, a big part of that is replacing jobs in rural areas where most of PA’s 27 state prisons
are located. In order for this to happen the focus needs to be on rehabilitation. It should be
an individualized approach that meets the needs of ALL stakeholders — people who
committed harm, people who are harmed, and the community. Instead of locking people in
cages, and employing a lazy, one size fits all approach, we should recognize the complexity
of each person. Peel back the layers of why a person did what they did and treat them
accordingly. I understand this current system is just a symptom of the bigger root cause
problems of racism and poverty. It would be ideal to abolish all of these social plagues
together, but I don’t know that the current US is capable of that. So, in order to deal with the
problem at hand, we need QUALITY drug and alcohol treatment; mental health treatment;
vocational training; opportunities for higher education; life skills training for parenting,
stress and anger management, money management; and we simply need to treat people like
humans, not like caged animals. Also, people who are harmed by crime are shamefully
retraumatized and discarded after trials. They have needs that should be met as well — free
counseling and therapy (individual & group); financial support for loss of assets; free medical
for injuries and/or rehab; opportunities to further their education and for reconciliation
(restorative justice). We can train people who currently work for the DOC to facilitate most
of these rehabilitative efforts, and then transfer them over, so no jobs are lost. This would
secure the support of politicians in these rural areas because they wouldn’t have to worry
about any backlash from their constituency. Yes, there is so much more to it, for it to change,
but this could be a start.

Now that our level of consciousness has been raised, we have a moral obligation to do
something to change this immoral system. We are no longer ignorant to what’s going on in
the DOC. An enlightened person is either a complicit one, or they take seriously the
responsibility that comes with knowledge. Let’s hold the DOC responsible for their
dehumanizing actions. There are REAL people who are REALLY suffering. We’ve been
invisible long enough. People have grown apathetic because we’re out of sight, out of mind.
So, let’s come out of the dark dungeons of apathy and complacency. If you want to do
something, you can. You can spur politicians along. You can get in touch with your local
representative and let them know, as one of their constituents and a taxpayer, that you would
like for them to stop wasting your hard earned cash on a system as demonic as the DOC.
Assuming that slavery does not align with your morals, tell them: if they would like your vote,
then you would like for the clause in the 13th Amendment — the one that legalizes slavery
for people who have been convicted of a crime — to be removed from the Constitution.
Politicians tend to fear Election Day consequences. One thing they will definitely respond to
is your vote — to them, it equals power and money!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s