Open Prison Initiative

Outside-Looking-In-Mobile-Ala-by-Gordon-Parks-pubd-in-Life-magazine-1956, Open Prison Initiative, Behind Enemy Lines
In this famous photo by the great Black photographer Gordon Parks, “six Black children face a chain-link fence, peering into a park on the opposite side. Two of them clutch the gate, hoping to gain access. But because of segregation, they can’t – they all simply stare at the well-tended park and its white occupants,” notes Life magazine when it was published in 1956. Here is the other perspective of being outside looking in – you can see in plain view the inconceivable injustice and pain caused by witnessing such violations to one’s humanity. So, I ask, what are the implications of the continued view of such egregious injustices if they fail to make the urgent changes necessary for our moral standing in the nation and abroad? Is seeing enough?

by Steve McCain

On March 10, 2021…

… in the absence of public oversight,

… in the absence of press reporting,

… in the absence of advocacy support,

… in the absence of witnesses (prisoners don’t count),

a grave incident of abuse struck the prisoners on the Eastham plantation. This event was met head on by dozens of these prisoners phoning outside supporters – family mostly – to plead for their help. Many of these supporters, in turn, called the prison warden to report the incident and some contacted the prison director. 

At least one prisoner wrote a letter to the director and scores of prisoners’ grievances were filed. A formal complaint was raised against the perpetrator – a prison sergeant – which may yet result in criminal charges being filed. 

It must be noted that this was an extraordinary event. Anything less – and there are many things less – would not have elicited the unified response that this event elicited. This incident went too far; it crossed an unseen threshold that most incidents do not cross.

Within 10 days, and without giving rise to nearly such extraordinary outrage, two other prisoners were beat, nearly to death, by over-reactive prison guards, whom the prison will duly protect.

Why? Because every prisoner both needs and deserves a voice that is on neither the prison nor the state’s payroll. Justice alone dictates. No longer can the custodial entity be allowed to be judge, jury, prosecutor and executioner.

How long will this continue? It will continue as long as the public is kept blind to it. The age of prison opacity must give way to the age of transparency.

Open the prisons to the public! 

This must be the war cry on the lips of every prison reformer. No other message can be allowed to overshadow this one. Every U.S. prison, be it state, federal or other must be required to host one or more prisoner advocacy organizations. 

Why? Because every prisoner both needs and deserves a voice that is on neither the prison nor the state’s payroll. Justice alone dictates. No longer can the custodial entity be allowed to be judge, jury, prosecutor and executioner.

Following in this vein, public affairs offices must be staples in every prison, for it is through this office that the public and the press would coordinate site visits and other activities. It is in this landscape that the keys to the kingdom of reform will be found.

Beneath the spotlights of the public and the press, prison reform will, in all likelihood, become a moot issue. Prison leadership will almost certainly move to reform their respective institutions of their own volition – no one wishes to air their dirty laundry in the presence of a curious audience – likely in ways heretofore unimagined and more quickly than might be imagined. 

The flesh of these institutions laid open, every examiner will have an unobstructed view of the diseases festering within and consuming their bowels.

Lifting prison’s iron curtain would transform the enterprise nationwide.

An open prison makes available for the proving what is today but hearsay and conjecture – that is to say, what is alleged but remains unproven. 

And how many prisons, one might ask, are likely to embrace the prospect of having this hearsay and these conjectures and allegations investigated? Prisons are closed institutions for a reason – what happens in Vegas is intended to stay in Vegas.

“There is, in fact, a long history of the public being kept away from prisons so that corrections officials could run them as they wished. Prison authorities, it was understood, had the right to do what they wanted to those in their charge.” – Dr. Heather Ann Thompson, “What’s Hidden Behind the Walls of America’s Prisons,” Prison Legal News, Vol. 29 No. 4, April 2018, p. 22

Lifting prison’s iron curtain would transform the enterprise nationwide. Rather than face the public as their judge, incriminating evidence indicting them, the leadership’s most reasonable and probable course would be to choose reform, as it would ostensibly be the least undesirable of the options available to them. This they would do to defeat their antagonists but in so doing would grant them the victory they seek.

To yield to any government interest secreting its operation from public scrutiny is a dangerous proposition, as it fosters not only neglectful attitudes, but also abusive, violent and even murderous behaviors among the staff members. 

To illustrate, the whole nation knows about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The public has heard nearly as much about them as coronavirus.

But how many know about Carlos Perez who, in 2014, was a prisoner in Nevada? A prison guard shot him multiple times with a shotgun, hitting him in the head, neck and chest. His hands were cuffed behind his back. He died as a result of his injuries. The story behind this incident is nothing less than chilling.

chipped away at the rights of prisoners in rulings that have both favored and empowered the prison institution

Similarly, how many know of Robert Richardson, a Montgomery County, Ohio, prisoner who was crushed to death when his jailors placed him on his stomach, cuffed his hands behind his back and then knelt down on top of him. 

This story sounds hauntingly similar to that of George Floyd, does it not? But did anyone rise up against the prison institution? Did anyone scream or chant “Defund the prisons!?” 

No. Why not? Because virtually no one knew about it. There is no media coverage behind the iron curtain.

The dangers involved with a secreted operation are nowhere more apparent than in the prison environment, where there is a disproportionate distribution of power, and the temptation for those who have it to abuse it is ever present and inseparable from the institution itself. 

Power is a corrupting force and one to be reckoned with. In the hands of the ill-prepared, unskilled or immature, it is no less dangerous than a sharp knife or a loaded gun in the hands of a child. 

Worse, power is as addictive as it is intoxicating and mind altering and more so than the most potent of drinks or drugs. And under its influence, many known-to-be good people have become inescapably entangled in a web of licentious bad behavior.

Furthermore, to permit a government interest to operate in secrecy denies the public not only its right of oversight but also its responsibility to exercise that right. Private corporations must suffer the government’s oversight, but the government must be obliged to suffer the oversight of the public. 

the absence of oversight is to grant its principals and staff not qualified but near absolute immunity from the consequences of bad behavior

In the words of James Madison: “No man is allowed to be a judge in his own case because his interest would certainly bias his judgment.” – The Federalist Papers, No. 10

This truism can be seen played out time and again in history as the courts have relentlessly chipped away at the rights of prisoners in rulings that have both favored and empowered the prison institution; rulings which have steadily diminished not only the public’s access to prisons and their prisoners but also prisoners’ access to the public and the press.

To surrender such unrestrained operational freedom to the prison institution is to grant it carte blanche to do as it pleases in the absence of oversight; it is to grant its principals and staff not qualified but near absolute immunity from the consequences of bad behavior; it is to invite into our midst and to welcome tyranny.

To suffer the prison institution to continue operating behind a wall of secrecy is to throw more than 2 million Americans, in any given year, into shark-infested waters and then turn and walk away.

Are you willing to do this today? The American public has been doing just this for far too long now but “the times they are a changin’.”

Note: Dr. Heather Ann Thompson, quoted above, is a professor of history and Afro-American and African Studies at the University of Michigan and the author of “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy,” winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in history. Here, Dr. Thompson gives us her parting words: “It is past time that the public has unfettered access to these public institutions.”

Send our brother some love and light: Steve McCain, 2096064, Wainwright State Plantation, 2665 Prison Road 1, Lovelady, TX 75851.