Time to Strengthen the Fabric of Our Movement

April 25, 2020

Written by: Robert LaBarr
Edited by: Cody Stuhltrager

With lockup time looming, I approached the kiosk (bank) of 3 touchscreens via which I can
send and receive messages. As usual, I had to dodge through a group of 4 or 5 young men
who were hanging out, shootin’ the breeze. Just as I was entering my password, I heard the
female Correctional Officer (CO) say, “Yo! It’s lockup time, take it to your cell.” Because I
neither thought she was talking to me nor respond to ignorant “attention getters” such as
“Yo,” I paid her no mind and proceeded to check my messages. This time, she shouted: “Yo! I
said it’s lockup time, take it to your cell!” This is when I turned to look at her and realized
she was singling me out of the multitude scrambling about trying to get last minute things
done before they got locked in cages. So, I asked her if she was indeed talking to me. She said
“yes.” I told her I still had a few minutes before it was time to lock up, and that I could check
my messages and be out of sight before those minutes ran out. She said, “No, take it to your
cell right now!” I told her there are better ways to talk to people to gain their respect and get
them to comply with what you’re telling them. She said, “Your mutha.” In utter disbelief, I
asked, “What did you just say?” She said, “I said, your mutha!” As I started to walk away from
her, I told her she would never be half the person my mother is, and that she was being
completely unprofessional.

This unpleasant exchange might not be worth mentioning, if it were not for the obvious racial
context: the young men who were milling about and the CO alike were Black, while I am
White. I couldn’t help but feel I was being discriminated against for the color of my skin as
this sort of interaction is common when you are White and in prison. Discrimination does
not only come from some Black women CO’s, it is also expressed by other (but not all) staff
members who are of different ethnicities and genders, and by people who are incarcerated.
This incident has many conscious and subconscious roots which can be traced back to the
inception of the US. The ugly untold truth about this country is that it was founded, by White
people, on the genocide of the Indigenous Indians, the slavery of Black people, and the
oppression of all the different ethnic groups that have migrated here — Chinese, Italian,
Korean, Irish, Mexican, etc. These vile acts — genocide, slavery & oppression — are woven
into the very fabric that makes up the American culture. They are so imbedded in our culture
that they still stain our institutions, human relations, personal morals & beliefs and society.
The one stain that we seem to not be able to get out of our blanket of problems is racism.
Some people may confuse the incident I mentioned above as racism, but it’s not, it’s
discrimination. Racism was developed from the beginning as a social structure, throughout
our society, to give White people an advantage over people of color. Most notably, racism is
a social construct set up in institutions to benefit White people more than others and, in some
cases, to prey on people of color. The criminal legal system is a textbook example of this.
Discrimination, on the other hand, is unfair treatment/bias based solely on being part of a
perceived class or group; unlike racism, it is not a manufactured function to give a certain
group of people more opportunity over others. So, the interaction I described would be
better defined as discrimination based on skin color, but it wasn’t racism. But I do believe it
was a reaction to the historical racism in this country.

Peggy McIntosh, an educator, expounded on the unfair advantage that racism gives to White
people with her concepts of privilege, in particular “White privilege.” She explains that
privilege, in its many forms — race, gender, sexual orientation, faith, able-bodied, etc. —
inherently gives certain groups of people an unfair advantage over other groups of people.
The conceptualization aims to give people an understanding that they naturally possess
privileges others don’t, which puts them ahead of the game so to speak. The intention is to
have people benefitting from their privilege, to first be aware of it, and then how it may be at
the expense of causing others to suffer with the hope it creates empathetic pathways. So, if
you are a white straight male who happens to be Christian and able-bodied, then you embody
the qualities of all of the dominant groups in the said categories. I just happen to be all of the
above. So, you would probably question: If I had all of these assumed privileges throughout
my life, how did I end up in my current predicament of being incarcerated.

This is the exact question that impedes unity around creating changes to the criminal legal
system. I have a clear understanding of the history of this country, and how that history leads
to divisiveness. But I don’t know that people who oppress others understand, like the CO I
mentioned earlier, and for this I empathize with them. I know for some, I’m the face — being
a White male — of the many atrocities that occurred in the past and the face to blame for
some of their personal problems. This coupled with the thinking, that since I didn’t take full
advantage of my privileges then I get what I deserve, when others had to work harder than
I, to be successful. This is the byproduct of a system, in this case the criminal legal system,
that pits people with the same interests against one another. I’m talking about Black people
and poor Whites, who should be allies in abolishing the prison industrial complex, but
instead we are preoccupied with devouring one another while our oppressors’ profit from
our suffering.

In the US, the topic of race relations, whether it be racism or discrimination, is a sensitive
issue that most people would rather not discuss. It’s a difficult topic to navigate due to the
many landmines that can explode in your face. It’s obvious that racism is a plague in the US,
and there is no denying that the criminal legal system disproportionately incarcerates
minorities, especially Black folks. As a result, the conversation on “criminal justice reform”
tends to focus on this disparity, often at the expense of all other concerns. What you rarely
hear about is discrimination against Whites who are incarcerated. We seem to base all of our
arguments for “reform” on racism, while we ignore both the discrimination other ethnicities
endure and the many other atrocities perpetrated by the act of caging a human being.
Because I feel that this impedes progressive movement (change), I’m going to express my
candid perspective of what it means to be White in prison, with the intention to not offend
anyone, while making a case for why we need to change the narrative.

A day in the life of being White in prison has many challenges. Throughout the 12 years I
spent at State Correctional Institution (SCI) Rockview, a prison in rural PA , I experienced
discrimination at the hands of White staff members who felt that I, a White man from South
Philly, wasn’t what White should be; I was discriminated against by Black and Hispanic
people with whom I was incarcerated as well. The majority of the staff in rural prisons are
White, and most of them hold inflexible ideas of what a White person should be. Seemingly
combining this with notions of the “White privilege” I possessed, it was as though they felt
that I was more deserving of the punishment of incarceration because I had squandered the
opportunities “White privilege” had afforded me — as though my path through life couldn’t
possibly have been as difficult as a non-White person’s path.

To those who would judge me in this manner, I say this: you don’t know what I’ve been
through, and you don’t know how hard I’ve struggled to become who I am today. I was raised
by a 15-year-old mother of 2 on welfare. At the age of 4, I witnessed my stepfather and his
brother assault my father, after he beat up my mother. Throughout my childhood I was
physically and emotionally abused by my stepfather. At 13, I dropped out of school after I
began experimenting with drugs. During my adolescence, I sold drugs for family members to
make ends meet, and I consistently witnessed violence in my neighborhood. At age 18, I faced
the death penalty & eventually was handed a Death by Incarceration (DBI) sentence. I’ve
spent the past 22½ years in prison. During my incarceration, I’ve endured many hardships,
including the loss of my younger brother, Auggie, who was accidentally shot by my other
younger brother. Against strong odds, I’ve worked hard to transform myself. I’ve spent
countless days reading, writing, studying, creating, reflecting, praying and planning. I’ve
accomplished many things by the sheer Will to gain my freedom and redeem myself.
This is why I put “White privilege” in quotation marks. It is not to say that “White Privilege”
doesn’t exist, I acknowledge that it does. But there are plenty of non-White people to whom
life has been kinder than it’s been to me. I know that Black people face discrimination in ways
that White people don’t and would never understand; and that I have privileges Black people
don’t. But I think what needs to be understood about White people like me, who feel like they
had the deck stacked against them, is that people who think I squandered the opportunities
“White privilege” afforded me discount everything I’ve had to endure. My pain and suffering
are just as real as that of a person of color who is suspiciously looked at while walking in a
store just because of the color their skin. I believe the term “White privilege” has been
distorted by the system. It has been misused and weaponized to create inner turmoil
amongst people directly affected by it. It’s just another tool the system utilizes, as it is rooted
in divisiveness. The system preys on people who don’t know the history of this country,
people who have animosity towards White people, people who are racist, and people who
want to place blame on any and/or all of the perceived faces of their oppression. It capitalizes
on newly formed and/or preexisting hate. It turns the oppressed against each other. While
we waste energy on inflicting harm on each other, they continue to tighten the vice. This is
how these injustices continue to grow and thrive.

In order to come together in a more cohesive way and strengthen the movement to abolish
this unjust system, we need to be more careful and take into account the difficult path of poor
White people, many of whom could be potential allies, and many of whom feel
disenfranchised themselves. If we don’t, we fall into the trap of pushing away people who
could be of great help in the fight against mass incarceration. We need to band together and
not allow ourselves to be fragmented & conquered by a system that preys on the internal
divides of its adversaries. So, we should think before we unthinkingly assume that all White
people should have benefited from “White privilege,” because we run the risk of offending
and alienating people who’ve been through some terrible things. Since my transfer to SCI
Graterford in 2010, and then to SCI Phoenix in 2018, the discrimination I face has evolved,
due in part to the majority of the staff here being Black. The episode I explained in the
beginning is just one of many examples I can give. Other examples include: constantly being
the one in the crowd picked out to be randomly patted down; thinly-veiled, racially-based
discriminatory interactions with some Black staff members; and the overzealous
enforcement of petty rules that I face while my Black peers tend to get a pass. Now, it isn’t
only I who suffers from such discrimination: my family does as well. The last time my family
visited me, they sat in the visiting waiting room for almost 2 hours, while other families, who
came after them, got right in. It just so happened that the staff member working that day was
Black and the families who got there after my family were Black.

Discrimination induced by other incarcerated people is quite common as well. Among
incarcerated people, of all ethnicities, there exists this perception that most White people are
“soft” — meaning they are less likely to stand up for themselves and thus are easier to
disrespect without any repercussions. It is no surprise then that this perception brings about
daily acts of insult and injury, especially when you consider that White people are the
minority in most prison settings, and that some act as though White people in general are
responsible for the incarceration of anyone who is not White. The acts themselves come in
many forms. The use of inappropriate and insulting language — cracker, honky, white boy,
hillbilly — is common. There is a double standard here, because most White people wouldn’t
dare say the n-word or “black boy” in earshot of anybody who’s Black, as this would
definitely (and rightly) lead to a dispute.

Other examples abound: The constant butting in line for the phone, at chow, and at
commissary. The entitlement of walking space and the shoulder you receive if YOU are not
the one who gets out of the way. People constantly peeping in your living area and creating
deafening noise right outside of it. The nepotism of Black people who are in positions to
assure other Black people benefit more than others, e.g. organizational leaders assuring
“their” people are put first on the list for any outside meetings with state legislators or other
“important” people. In many cases, if you’re White, you are last in line to get anything, except
if you can pay your way. These are examples of what a White person in prison deals with, for
sure, but they are also examples of the output of a people-dividing machine at peak
performance.

Still, on the ground floor, some may judge these discriminatory interactions with both staff
and incarcerated folks as minute and even trivial. But it is no laughing matter having to deal
with it day after day after day. It takes a psychological toll on you. Compound the
repetitiveness of discriminatory attacks with all of the other agonies of incarceration and it
becomes overbearing at times. On any given day I don’t know if I’m going to have to verbally
or physically defend myself from an onslaught of discrimination by my peers. I don’t know if
a Black CO is going to show up to work looking to scratch some historical itch via a lying pen
on a misconduct, as forging misconducts is common practice. Am I going to be the target of
that itch? The thought of jeopardizing everything I’ve worked for, to deal with something so
avoidable, yet so present, weighs on me every day. Energy wasted on this stress has a
detrimental effect on my studies, legal work, relationships, health and common everyday
activities.

I know all too well the horrors of the criminal legal system: I live it every day! The system is
rooted in the historical racism in this country. Mass incarceration is just the current iteration
of slavery and indentured servitude. After slavery was “abolished” — there’s a clause in it
that says “except as a punishment for crime” — in 1865 by the 13 Amendment in the
American Constitution, it went through different stages of evolution from the Black code law,
to Jim Crow laws of the South, and now to mass incarceration. It’s all constructed for
population control. The majority of the people you see behind bars are people of color and
poor White people. If you get them out the way — and simultaneously create a parasitic
industry — that’s just more employment for the middle class. Meanwhile, some poor people
might make it out of poverty, and some will at least avoid the cage. Ironically, many of the
people who work for the system just happen to be other poor people.

The system is pretty sinister if you think about it. Depending on where a prison is located —
if rural: the majority of new hires are poor and White; if urban: the majority of new hires are
poor and Black or Latino. This is no coincidence when you take into account that CO’s don’t
even need a GED to be hired, and that employment is scarce in so much of today’s rural
America. So, the Department of Corrections (DOC) hires uneducated (not all) poor people,
offers them decent pay with the promise of promotion, state medical coverage, and a great
pension, and voilà: the poor oppress the poor while big corporations get in bed with the DOC
and bleed the oppressed to death.

The shame in all of this is, many people who are employed by the system don’t know the
history of the institution they work for and have been blinded by moving their way out of
poverty. As investigative journalist Upton Sinclair wrote, “It is difficult to get a man to
understand something when his salary depends on not understanding it.” Let’s face it, being
a CO is no dream job! The DOC has a history of having trouble hiring new staff. This is why
they dropped the GED requirement for potential employees. So, at the end of the day I think
a lot of the discrimination I’ve suffered at the hands of staff members is due, in large part, to
their being uneducated (ignorant), and brain washed by their training. As far as they know,
they are serving the community by carrying out justice for those who’ve been harmed. This
in itself is an injustice to the people who work for the system. Couple this with the fact that
CO’s, knowingly or unknowingly, lose a little piece of their own humanity every time they
come to work to lock human beings in cages and oppress them, makes it a real travesty of
justice. With this understanding, I try to have empathy for them every time they discriminate
against me, although I’m not always successful.

This is why a singular and exclusive focus on race places us in REAL danger of 1)undermining
the countless other inhumane cruelties caused by incarceration, and 2)alienating the
suffering of people who are not of color, yet still harmed by mass incarceration. There is no
monopoly on the grief caused by a system that sanctions harm. The system is a beast. It
doesn’t care what color you are and will eat you alive if you allow it to. The suffering it inflicts
is all valid, and unique to each person’s pain. Arguments based on ALL the realities of
incarceration, while not excluding ANYONE, have sufficient merit to enable rationale people
to see that locking people in cages might not align with their morals. This is not to say we
shouldn’t point out the race disparity of those incarcerated, because it has its place and is a
disgrace!

I just want to warn us going forward that we need to change our tone a bit. We need to
emphasize that locking ANY person in a cage is unnatural. It robs people of their human
dignity and is damaging to a society that purports to be the model when it comes to human
rights. If we fail to question the ways we’ve tended to challenge mass incarceration, we run
the risk of having some White people — incarcerated or not — say to themselves, “Here we
go again, Black people blaming White people for something else that went wrong in their
lives.” In contrast, there are going to be some Black people who read this and say, “Good! It’s
about time you’re on the receiving end.” This way of thinking is unfortunate. It is both a
shame and counterproductive, but it is part of the harsh reality of the situation. These are
the ignorant and apathetic attitudes we need to educate about the criminal legal system and
abolish. Just as in the bowels of the crack epidemic, which affected mainly Black people, and
many White people didn’t care about, we are in the same place with the fight against mass
incarceration. White people didn’t start caring until the opioid epidemic came around and
took hold of other White people. Well mass incarceration does affect White people. We need
to shift their mindset and show them the ways they are impacted. We need their help. If not,
things may never change. I think by having a more inclusive approach can make this possible.
We need to validate the harm mass incarceration inflicts on ALL people! In turn, this could
possibly have more people feel invested in the fight against mass incarceration and stand up
to do something about it.

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