Cell Division

Posted on 30. Oct, 2000 by in Uncategorized

Dazenia Henry’s son was awakened in the middle of a cold December
night last year, shackled, hog-tied, and put on a bus heading
south. Twenty-two hours later, he arrived at Wallens Ridge State
Prison, a super-maximum ("supermax") security facility
in Virginia, and was placed in a cell where he would spend 23
hours of each day for the next six months. Neither Marcus Henry,
a 23-year-old New Haven man who is serving the sixth year of
a 45-year prison sentence, nor his family was warned that he
would be moved out of state. Only when one of Marcus’s friends
called Ms. Henry did she learn that her son was in Virginia.
"I liken it to slavery," she told me. "They sold
our families 200 years ago, and they’re doing it again now, selling
black men to the lowest bidder. They used to sell to the highest
bidder; now it’s the lowest."
I made plans to meet Ms. Henry at her home one day in late September.
Walking along Tilton Street in New Haven’s Dixwell neighborhood,
I passed children riding bikes and neighbors sitting on their
porches, enjoying the weather and each other’s company. Ms. Henry
had not yet returned from work when I arrived, so I waited on
the cement steps in front of her home, a grey and maroon Victorian
split into six apartments. Soon, a cream-colored car pulled up,
and Ms. Henry, a plump 42-year-old black woman, got out and approached
me. Her face wore a smile and no makeup, and a loose plaid shirt
covered the top of her blue spandex pants. Her home was a mess,
she told me apologetically. Did I mind if we went for coffee
or sat outside? She joined me on the top ledge of the steps and
told me the story of her son’s transfer to Virginia.
Marcus Henry was one of 484 Connecticut inmates sent to Wallens
Ridge last year. The Connecticut Department of Correction (DOC)
has described the transfer, which took place in three installments,
as "an immediate response to prison overcrowding in the
state of Connecticut." The proposal to send prisoners out
of state, however, was made before overcrowding was a pressing
concern. In 1995, the Connecticut Legislature unanimously passed
Public Act Number 95-229, which authorized the "commissioner
of correction . . . to improve the operation of the state’s correctional
facilities by entering into contracts with any governmental or
private vendor for supervision of not more than five hundred
inmates outside the state." The Act sat silently on the
books until last fall, when the prison population swelled to
dangerous levels. In October 1999, Connecticut signed a one-year
contract with the state of Virginia to house up to 500 of its
inmates, and the transfer began.
Governor John G. Rowland and DOC Commissioner John J. Armstrong
assured the public that only the "worst of the worst"
criminals-those with the highest security levels, longest sentences,
and disciplinary problems-were being sent, a fitting group for
a supermax prison. But a brief look at the list of transferred
inmates belies the use of these criteria. Many have sentences
of between one and three years, and over 40 are serving time
for non-violent drug offenses. It’s difficult to call even Marcus
Henry, who is serving 45 years, the "worst of the worst."
When Marcus was 17, he and some friends got high and went to
an after-hours club to steal drug money, his mother told me.
During the robbery, a man inside the club shot at them, and they
fired back, killing him. Marcus was charged with felony murder
and robbery, and his court-appointed attorney encouraged him
to accept a plea bargain, a typical recommendation of over-burdened
public defenders. Marcus pled guilty to manslaughter and two
counts of robbery. "I love my child dearly," Ms. Henry
told me. "The last place I expected him to end up was in
jail. He’s not the monster the Department of Correction is making
him out to be."
Marcus is no longer incarcerated at Wallens Ridge. This past
July, he and 156 other transferred Connecticut inmates were moved
to Greensville Correctional Center in Jaratt, Virginia. Greensville
is intended to house prisoners with mid-level security classifications,
and it offers educational, religious, and rehabilitative programs,
which Wallens Ridge does not. Ostensibly, inmates were transferred
as a reward for good behavior, but their transfer raises an important
question: If these inmates can be safely housed in a mid-level
security prison, why were they ever locked up in a harsh supermax?
The answer has a lot to do with the booming $40 billion-a-year
corrections business, which many opponents brand the "prison-industrial
complex." These critics argue that prisons are being built,
regardless of need, because prison-building serves bureaucratic,
political, and economic interests in post-Cold War America. Most
complaints about the prison-industrial complex have been launched
at the privatization of prisons, but private companies are not
the only ones turning a profit. State governments are also players
in the industry-customers and "vendors," as Connecticut’s
1995 Act labels them. Connecticut sees its $11 million-a-year
contract with Virginia as a money-saver, because it pays $64
a day for each prisoner instead of the $92 it would spend to
house these "high security risks" in Connecticut. When
I asked Ms. Henry why she believes Marcus was sent to Virginia,
she answered with surprising readiness: "It’s less expensive
for them to farm our children out."
If the contract is a money-saver for Connecticut, it’s a money-maker
for Virginia, a proud entrepreneur in today’s corrections business.
Some six years ago, Republican George Allen’s get-tough-on-crime
rhetoric won him Virginia’s gubernatorial election. Although
crime had been on the decline in the state since 1993, Governor
Allen introduced harsher sentencing laws and massive prison construction.
Prison spending grew twice as fast as spending on higher education,
totaling over $1 billion in less than a decade. Today, Virginia
incarcerates roughly 30,000 of its citizens, and nearly 40 percent
of this prison population is classified as maximum-security,
the second-highest percentage in the United States. Nonetheless,
Allen’s prison-building spree over-projected the number of beds
the state would need by about 4,500. At an average construction
cost of $50,000 per bed, that meant Virginia had wasted $225
million. So, beginning in 1998, the Old Dominion State opened
its doors and began importing human beings to fill its empty
beds and replenish the state treasury. Today, Virginia has contracted
not only with Connecticut, but also Michigan, Vermont, Delaware,
New Mexico, Iowa, and the District of Columbia, and has filled
approximately 3,500 of those wasted beds with out-of-state inmates.
The prison industry has stuffed not only Virginia’s coffers,
but the pockets of several towns and their residents. Prisons
mean jobs for depressed regions. They offer year-round employment
and are recession-proof, even recession-friendly, because prison
populations tend to grow during hard times. A few years ago,
Big Stone Gap, va, was urgently in need of a new industry. Nestled
in the heart of Appalachia, the town is home to fewer than 4,800
people. Its web-page offers the mayor’s greeting, information
about the town government and churches, and area football schedules.
But the site doesn’t mention the layoffs at Westmoreland Coal
Company in the early 1990s or the devastation these layoffs caused.
Once dependent on the dying coal-mining industry, the people
of Big Stone Gap were desperate for jobs, and a prison offered
them just that. In April 1999, Wallens Ridge-Virginia’s second
supermax prison-was completed. The razor-wire-enclosed complex,
which sits atop a 2,900 foot rocky ridge noted by locals for
its rattlesnakes, gave the people of Big Stone Gap steady jobs
with benefits and high salaries.
The new industry also gave people inexperienced as guards badges,
guns, and authority over more than 1,000 prisoners, half of whom
were not from Virginia. Critics, including politicians, prison
issues groups, and the NAACP, have called the mix of these guards
and prisoners a disaster waiting to happen. Nearly all of the
guards are white, while roughly 80 percent of the prisoners transferred
from Connecticut are black or Latino. Prisoners claim they have
been taunted with racial slurs, and Confederate flags and memorabilia
decorate guards’ cars and the warden’s office. But racism is
only part of the reason inmates have had difficulty adapting
to Virginia’s prison system. Wallens Ridge does not provide any
educational, religious, or rehabilitative programs, on which
the Connecticut prison system prides itself. Inmates who were
only classes away from receiving geds were whisked off to Virginia
and lost their chance at the degree. Reading materials, including
Bibles, are frequently confiscated, and inmates are locked in
solitary confinement for all but one hour a day-and that only
if they behave well. Wallens Ridge also violates privacy and
attorney-client privilege, monitoring and taping phone conversations
between inmates and their attorneys. Prisoners at Wallens Ridge
tell disturbing stories about their conditions. Almost all allege
improper hygiene and medical attention. Some say that female
guards watch them shower and that guards have pretended to sodomize
inmates with metal pipes. Others talk of being tied to beds,
spread-eagled and naked, for up to 72 hours.
According to prisoners, however, even these abuses pale in comparison
to the guards’ use of guns with rubber bullets and electric shocks,
which are illegal in many states. Connecticut Prison Watch reports
that, during Wallens Ridge’s first year of operation, guards
fired 80 rubber bullets and used stun guns 112 times, allegedly
shocking inmates for such minor infractions as refusing to return
a paper cup and verbal insolence. The shocks are far from harmless.
Lawrence James Frazier, a Bridgeport man serving a sentence for
rape, died on July 4 after guards shocked him repeatedly with
a stun gun and he lapsed into a coma. When Amnesty International
asked to investigate conditions at Wallens Ridge following his
death, Virginia prison officials barred the international human
rights group from visiting the facility. Frazier’s death was
not the first at Wallens Ridge. Two months earlier, David Tracy,
a 20-year-old Bridgeport resident sentenced to 30 months on a
cocaine charge, died at Wallens Ridge four months before his
release. His death was ruled a suicide, but his family and Connecticut
newspapers have alleged that he was killed.
One abuse undeniably suffered by all of the transferred inmates
is the distance they have been taken from their families. Big
Stone Gap is roughly 720 miles from New Haven, which makes visiting
difficult or impossible for prisoners’ families. Ms. Henry has
only been able to visit Marcus once since he was moved to Virginia,
and the trip cost her about $200. The cost of phone calls is
another burden. Phone companies know a profit-maker when they
see it, and prisoners are perfect customers: Phone calls are
one of their few links to family and friends, and they must make
most of their calls collect using whatever carrier the prison
chooses. So, entering into mutually-profitable contracts with
docs across the nation, phone companies charge inmates up to
six times the normal rate for a call. Ms. Henry and Marcus spoke
daily when he was incarcerated in Connecticut, but since he was
moved to Virginia, they have only been able to speak once every
two weeks. Still, Ms. Henry has been spending thousands of dollars
to maintain this minimal contact.
The transfer of inmates from Connecticut to Virginia has generated
vocal opposition, not only from inmates’ families and prison
issues groups, but also from the Prison Guards’ Union, which
fears losing jobs. But despite concerns on all sides, there are
no plans to bring inmates home; according to the doc, there’s
just no space in Connecticut. The state recently renewed its
contract with Virginia for another year, as government officials
claimed their hands were tied. Earlier this year, public opposition
quashed plans to convert New Haven’s Goffe Street Armory into
a new jail. At the same time, the public clamored to have the
prisoners returned from Virginia. But, said officials, you can’t
have it both ways: If you don’t want a prison in your backyard,
then you have to accept prisoners being sent out of state.
For the most part, state legislators’ opinions about the transfer
of prisoners to Virginia correspond to their feelings about the
prison industry in general. Those who advocate a get-tough-on-crime
stance argue that prisoners should have considered consequences
before they broke the law, while those who challenge the prison
system oppose the transfer. State Representative William Dyson,
however, understands the issue differently. He supports sending
prisoners to Virginia out of necessity, but he finds fault with
the entire prison system. To him, the transfer is the lesser
of two evils. "First and foremost to me is that we don’t
build more prisons," he says. "Building prisons doesn’t
work. No matter how many beds we create, we fill them up."
Dyson also points out that Connecticut has spent twice as much
on corrections as on higher education since 1991. "What’s
in better shape, our schools or our prisons?" he asks me
rhetorically. "And we deem ourselves a civilized society.
We sacrifice our young to demonstrate that we’re tough on crime."
According to Dyson, sending prisoners to Virginia allows state
funds to be given to education that would otherwise be swallowed
up by prison construction.
But as Dyson acknowledges, framing the debate as only two-sided
glosses over an important question: Why has Connecticut’s prison
population surged to a dangerous level of overcrowding? Between
1960 and 1980, the state’s prison population was relatively stable,
hovering around 4,000. Today, it is approximately 18,000, and
projections for the year 2005 are as high as 22,000. Curiously,
violent crime in Connecticut decreased by roughly 20 percent
in the past decade, but the inmate population keeps growing.

The paradox is easily explained. Prisons are flooded largely
due to the War on Drugs. Today, over two-thirds of Connecticut’s
inmates are serving time for non-violent, mostly drug-related,
offenses; more than 1,000 are incarcerated solely for drug possession.
Also contributing to the soaring prison population are the mentally
ill, who found themselves forced out of closing mental hospitals
in the 1980s and 1990s only to be re-institutionalized-this time
in jail. Estimates of the number of mentally ill inmates range
from five to 14 percent of the prison population. Connecticut’s
Prison and Jail Overcrowding Commission also attributes the growth
to the "admission of 14 and 15 year olds due to [a] shift
in the Juvenile Justice System."
As more and more drug offenders are thrown in prison, Connecticut’s
drug rehabilitation facilities become increasingly insufficient.
Today, there are only 262 beds available in residential treatment
centers and over 12,000 inmates eligible for those beds. So instead
of being rehabilitated, drug offenders are sent to prison and
discharged without treatment. This makes communities less safe,
argues Sally Joughin, who co-founded People Against Injustice
in 1996 to respond to rampant abuses of the criminal justice
system. The group, which Dalzenia Henry joined after her son
was moved, has organized around a variety of issues including,
most recently, the transfer of prisoners to Virginia. Joughin
believes that instead of transferring prisoners out of state,
Connecticut should focus on finding better solutions at home.
Much of her emphasis is on Alternative to Incarceration Programs
(AIPS). If non-violent drug offenders and the mentally ill were
sent to rehabilitation centers rather than prisons, she told
me, there would be no need to send prisoners out of state, and
everyone would be better off. "Prison should be a system
of correction, not only punishment," she said. "Or
they should at least stop calling it the Department of Correction."
It comes as a surprise to many that aips, like drug rehabilitation
centers and mental hospitals, are cheaper than prisons. Substance
abuse programs, for example, run about $5,000 per person per
year, while it costs over $25,000 to keep a person in prison.
According to recent polls, the people of Connecticut support
treatment programs, at least in theory. Why, then, isn’t the
state filled with AIPS rather than prisons? The answer is money
and politics. Legislators don’t want to be labeled "soft
on crime" for supporting treatment rather than incarceration,
especially in an election year. Furthermore, just as no one wants
to live next door to a prison, no one wants to live next to a
treatment center, and there are more factors stacked against
aips. Connecticut pays towns to host prisons, which do not pay
property taxes. For prisons, this PILOT (Payment In Lieu Of Taxes)
is 100 percent of the assessed property value, but the state
pays less for facilities like treatment centers. Towns can also
negotiate for certain benefits when they agree to build a prison.
For example, Cheshire, which is home to five of Connecticut’s
prisons, has its sewer system managed and paid for by the state.
"The town can make out like a bandit," Dyson told me.
Four more Connecticut towns are now poised to rake in profits.
In September, East Lyme, Montville, Somers, and Suffield submitted
applications to the state for yet another planned prison expansion.
One East Lyme selectman said that enlarging the town’s prison
would be like bringing in ten new businesses.
The inmate population is expected to swell by 4,000 over the
next five years, and Connecticut has no plans to check this growth
by funding rehabilitative programs. Twenty-five million dollars
of this year’s budget are already earmarked for incarceration.
As long as prison building remains both politically expedient
and a source of profit for localities, few of those in power
will have a reason to take the long view-and we will all pay
the price.

 

Jessica Bulman, a junior in Berkeley College,
is a managing editor for
TNJ.

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