To better understand what incarcerated people face, a handful of people with relevant experiences were interviewed to shed a light on the experience of incarcerated people (aka prisoners) in the United States.
The first interview was with Natalie Spencer, a woman who describes herself as “a proud prison wife.” When asked to give an overview of the conditions her husband faced while in prison, she had a lot to say. All of it was illuminating, yet tragic.
Natalie described her journey to understand the system and become an advocate for her husband.
“It took me close to four years to fully comprehend by living through my own personal life experience. What I learned is astounding. Utter cruelty, genocide, abuse of power/authority, martial law, surveillance abuses, torture, inhumanity, crimes against humanity.”
She also discussed how it was through the help of criminal justice reform activists on social media, especially Twitter, she learned how to navigate the system for her husband’s welfare.
“When I first began…I was a totally ignorant idiot. I had a lot of help to learn to comprehend the whole issue, see the whole picture. All of the CRJ activists on Twitter were my teachers.”
The conditions her husband faced were brutal, cruel, and inhumane. Natalie discussed how the food was moldy and rotten and how there would be rat feces in the food. There would be black mold in the food and kitchens, and rats roamed freely in food areas.
Beyond the food conditions, Natalie’s husband was exposed to constant torture.
“He was tortured from the very first hour for the next two and a half years. Strip searched, cavity searched, forced nudity in front of hundreds of witnesses, forced to stand nude to pee into a cup standing in line in a gymnasium full of others also being forced.
A wooden sign hung around his neck every day on a rough rope, forced to crawl on his knees-never allowed to walk upright, forced to stay completely silent, forced to use a toothbrush to clean brick walls, floors, bathrooms, prison cells-then forced to start all over when another incarcerated person would intentionally, or accidentally dirty the completely cleaned area.
Forced to sit silently, staring straight ahead in a chair with both hands clasped in his lap in a room with several others also being forced…for days, not allowed to go to the bathroom, get up to walk, or speak…
No heat in winter (open barred windows), no a/c in summer in buildings over 88 degrees per day…illegal torture. – A death trap.”
Between these two, he developed several health issues by the time of his release, including long-haul COVID-19. Natalie and her husband spent thousands of dollars to run the gamut of medical tests to find any and every problem he had developed.
“We immediately had him thoroughly medically evaluated by several different specialists, running up thousands of dollars of medical debt we may never be able to pay off. Every medical test that could be done, was done. We had to learn exactly what his body had been going through for years. It is now almost fifteen months since he was diagnosed and he has Long Covid. We tried to get him in to the Cleveland Clinic’s new Long Hauler Program…we were turned away at the door because we are poor, our health insurance through the ACA (Affordable Care Act) was denied entirely.
We were advised to find more money to buy higher cost insurance four times what we can afford monthly…there is just no way we can afford better insurance. So we use several different primary care doctors running every test, doing thorough physicals regularly, blood testing monthly, to stay informed/aware for whatever medical complications that arise. The prison conditions my husband experienced…horrific, cruel, inhumane. “
Natalie was also able to paint a picture of how the food and medical conditions were tied together.
“Unsanitary kitchens with black mold, rats in the food with rat poop in the food. Food left uncovered, unrefrigerated overnight, bugs in food, contaminated water, forced prison labor, medical staff lacking any verifiable medical credentials or had been legally found guilty of medical crimes and fired from their regular employment… Prison vendors employing sub-contractors who lack proper credentials/experience.”
The experiences from the outside were not much rosier. It was explained by Natalie how visitations are highly restrictive and punitive, and how a single visit was incredibly expensive. On average, Natalie would have to spend $200 (or more) on a single visit with her husband and how most of that went to the prison’s coffers. There were incredibly strict restrictions on the clothes she could wear, and she was forced to buy a meal card for every visit and load it with largely non-refundable fees in order to have vending machine snacks or drinks for her husband during their visit.
When asked where all these fees went, Natalie said:
“Yes, the fees pay for guards, upgrades to the prison, whatever the Warden and Sheriff’s decide to spend it on.”
In other words, “…the families pay for everything.”
Technically, the money spent on meal cards, for example, is refundable. However, the way the system works makes getting that refund costly in both time and money. Therefore, all the fees are functionally non-refundable because the system is designed to be overtly punitive in every way imaginable.
Leaving the monetary power of where to spend all these fee monies with the wardens and sheriffs certainly opens the door to corruption and self-indulgence by these officials. In fact, Natalie was able to talk about a sheriff in California who abused the power and money from visitation fees.
“Yeah, in California the Sheriff is being investigated/indicted for abusing these fees that are specifically meant to help educate and vocational or technical train every prisoner during incarceration so they are prepared to enter society again upon release. The Sheriff spent the funds on a vacation to Lake Tahoe, new prison gates and walls, new surveillance equipment.”
There’s also systemic misogyny evident in the visitation process. Full-body scanners will pick up whether a visitor is using period products, like tampons or pads, and a visitor will be denied entry if they are using such products. There are also long lines for visitation bathrooms exacerbated by the fact that a guard must clean each stall before and after use. This means people may end up being forced to waste precious visitation minutes waiting for a bathroom.
“It is best to plan to stop to use the bathroom before arrival and to reduce fluid intake for several hours ahead of the visit. But people with diabetes or mental health issues…they do not have the ability to wait for a bathroom.”
Now that Natalie is familiar with the system, she spends her time advocating for other incarcerated people and improving prison conditions. She is even part of a law firm employing felons to advocate for felons at both the state and federal levels. The firm is called “Jail Time Consulting” and they have been featured on several major news sites.
The United States is so repressive that it has roughly 21% of the world’s prisoner population despite making up only 4.3% of the global population. In raw numbers, that is 2.0-2.2 million people (about the population of New Mexico) in prison in the U.S. vs. 10.35 million in prison globally (using 2015 numbers). The global population is 7.8 billion, and the U.S. has 331 million or so people (using 2021 numbers).
Some data from a study using 2015 figures:
“The information is the latest available at the end of October 2015″ (p. 1). There are more than 10.35 million people (about half the population of New York) incarcerated throughout the world with the most being in the United States–more than 2.2 million. Seychelles has the highest prison population rate in the world with 799 per 100,000 of its total population. It is followed by the United States (698) [per 100,000]”
For more data on the breakdown of incarcerated people, please see the following document, based on the same study:
The only country coming close to the same number of total incarcerated people is China, with 1.7 million incarcerated people as of 2015. However, China had 1.371 billion people in 2015. That is 1,371 million people. Just over a tenth of a percent of China’s population was in prison in 2015. Based on this data, as of 2015, the United States is measurably 175 times as repressive as China, using the number of incarcerated people as compared to residents seen in the metric.
Even worse is the fact that 74% of the incarcerated people in local jails within the U.S. have yet to be convicted of a crime. “Innocent until proven guilty” rings hollow in the face of this data.
Further, in the years following the passage of Joe Biden’s 1994 crime bill, the total number of people in prison, including un-convicted individuals drastically increased across all measurements, apart from an outlier of individuals “held for state prisons” being less in 1998 than in 1993.
People in prison often lose their access to the “right” to vote. Rights are supposed to be inalienable. Can the United States truly call voting a right if individuals can lose it, be disenfranchised from it?
Here is another graphic from the Prison Policy Initiative, tailor-made to the 2012 Presidential election:
The second interview was with the abolitionist, rapper, activist, and journalist known as AWKWORD. In the discussion, one of the first things AWKWORD did was reframe the context of abolition from just prisons themselves to one of reimagining society. A “world without cops and cages” was what AWKWORD called it. This re-imagined world was the context of the conversation.
When asked to give a high-level overview of prison abolition and what it would look like, AWKWORD had the following to say:
“I wouldn’t distinguish it as ‘prison abolition’ specifically. You could call it ‘P.I.C abolition,’ P-I-C, which is abolition of the Prison Industrial Complex, or you can just call it abolition in general. It entails a world without cops and cages, where we are allowing through a variety of alternative mechanisms communities to take care of their own. That’s the connection with mutual aid – that the more resources and involvement there is in mutual aid, the better communities are able to protect themselves. That is, in a society like ours today, where we can’t rely on the government or those enforcing the government’s laws to do it for us. In an abolitionist society, while there is nothing inherently wrong with the political, philosophical framework of anarchism, abolition is not about the stereotypical idea of anarchy. It’s not about lawlessness.
There would still be a form of, in most cases, – this is not where I stand as an individual, I don’t, as an individual I don’t believe in the necessity of nation states and arbitrary borders and things like that – abolition as a framework in general outside of my personal opinion would involve different structures with state financing, with federal financing, instead of putting millions and billions of dollars into police departments and using cages to remove people that we’ve deemed ‘criminal.’
Which, of course unrelated to how many people have committed crimes or commit crimes. We address the underlying issues that cause crime in the first place, like poverty, like education, like access to living wage employment, like drug addiction, like mental illness – all of these things, if we address them, will drastically reduce crime because they are the cause of crime. Crimes are not typically committed by people who are doing it to have fun.
And we’re of course not addressing that there’s a ton of white-collar crime and institutional crime that is not addressed at all currently. Because we don’t consider those people criminals, they get bailouts from the government or pay nominal amounts when they’re caught and found guilty and fined. You don’t find a lot of these people rotting away in prison for decades. You’d find people who had a little bit of marijuana who are still in prison while white people are making a ton of money off of the marijuana industry today.”
The biggest revelation from the conversation with AWKWORD is how prison and police reforms often serve to entrench the system, and tend towards being symbolic rather than meaningful.
“Reformism and reformists basically are just upholding the system. And with each change, they are strengthening it by never questioning its validity. It’s basically- We call it a ‘gentler form of genocide. Whereas reforms that chip away at the system are those that are not adding any kind of legitimacy or power or funding of any kind to the problematic structures but actually, you know, chipping away at them in the direction of getting rid of them completely.”
He illustrated how the reforms requiring body cameras have only expanded and ingrained the surveillance state.
“The things that they push for and the way they push for them and the people they choose to work with and the compromises they’re willing to make all have to be considered within an abolitionist framework. It’s really important that you do the work that you do without compromising the end goal.
Pushing for more accountability by adding body cameras was a major mistake. That’s an example of possibly good intentions with a very bad result. The George Floyd act is very similar. For one thing it doesn’t even make what happened to George Floyd illegal. For another, it gives 750 million dollars more to the police. The movement for black lives created an alternative that’s called the BREATHE act.”
He also discussed how one of the biggest forces in favor of bodycam reforms was the police unions and associations. At the end of the day, implementing body cameras gave the police not only more legitimacy with the public due to perceived accountability, but additional surveillance capabilities. Now that body cameras are generally standard, the police have eyes throughout the municipality they patrol and harass. Regardless of where each individual officer is, the presence of an officer is an additional digital eye on the community.
AWKWORD also discussed how abolition is not simply about prisons, it is about chipping away at the power of the carceral state and redirecting public funds and resources to things that solve and prevent crimes at their source: living conditions.
“A huge part of abolition is preventative. And the other part is transformative justice. It’s a new form of justice. Instead of labeling certain people ‘criminals’ and certain people ‘victims,’ we understand that most criminals are simply criminalized based on their race or their class. They have living conditions that perpetuate crime, they make it a necessity. Which is something I talked about in my new Medicare for all song, is a father who’s like – “My daughter’s sick, I can’t afford to get her medical bills paid, so I can’t take her to the doctor, so I’m gonna rob a bank” – that’s the kind of thing people are forced to do in our unequal and inequitable society.
We [abolitionists] understand the true causes of crime – and we treat them all as humans, the victims, and the perpetrators. So that when a crime is committed instead of; based on who they are and based on giving immunity and discretion to prosecutors whose job it is to get the worst possible sentences they can – we [abolitionists] look at the actual situation, we look at the people involved, and through mediation, through community service, through education, and through rehabilitation, through this transformative process both the victims and the perpetrators are transformed.
Another part that is a common misunderstanding is that abolition is not an overnight process. It is not an end goal, either. It is a mindset, and it is a way of living. As an abolitionist, every day you can take steps toward this society that you are looking for. We would not just, tomorrow, get rid of every single police officer and leave society the way it is. We would not open every prison and jail and let everyone out and leave society as it is. However, it’s worth noting that 75% of the people in jails have never even been convicted of a crime – they’re legally innocent. It’s worth noting that in 2020 cops killed twice as many people as they did the year before – and that is just those that are reported as killings by cops. That was 5.6 a day, the standard has long been 3 a day. “
AWKWORD made a passionate case that most crimes come from desperation. He also highlighted how police do not contribute to crime prevention and municipalities that have piloted funding alternative programs, like social workers responding to mental health-related 911 calls, have already reduced crimes and deaths while improving outcomes.
“There was just a pilot in New York City, a program where when people called 911 for a mental health crisis, instead of the cops going, social workers came. And people who laugh at abolitionists laugh at this concept – except it works. Fewer people went to the hospital, fewer people died, and more people accepted assistance. Because it wasn’t some lunatic with a gun and a badge screaming at them and threatening to arrest them, or shoot them. “
AWKWORD further elaborated how providing social workers was sending people trained to deal with the situation properly and with humanity. He also brought up, as an allegory, the fact that there are at least 30 vacant housing units per unhoused person in the U.S, and the solution there is to provide people with housing. AWKWORD described a system where, unlike our current system that sweeps people off the streets and into cages (prison), we would provide people with safe housing. That could be a house, or for those who don’t want a full house, other housing units.
In the conversation, AWKWORD was careful to be clear that abolition is a process and takes time. It is about creating new systems of transformative justice, in part through reforms that chip away at the power of the carceral state.
“Abolition is this creative, imaginative way of re-envisioning society in a more humanist way, and putting money in places that would actually improve our living conditions and do a much better job of actually keeping us safe and preventing the predominance of crime. It doesn’t intend to – there’s no belief that we can ever have a society where crimes or reduced to zero and problems are reduced to zero. But we look at what is being used today and know that what we’re proposing would be far more effective and equitable than what is currently being used.
What is currently being used is working beautifully because it is doing exactly what it was intended. The lie they tell us, the copaganda is that they ‘protect and serve,’ that they are here to keep us all safe, but none of that is actually true. They are protecting private property and the power of the wealth of the one percent.”
As an aside, prisoners in Denmark often live in apartment-like cells rivaling even “luxury” apartments here in the United States. Another way to say this is prisoners in Denmark live in better shelter than large swaths of non-criminalized people in the United States.
It is also important to note that Denmark is not an abolitionist society. They simply treat incarcerated people with dignity and work towards rehabilitation, whereas the U.S. “provides” punitive measures, slave labor, and recidivism for incarcerated people.
The standard operating protocols leading to these abhorrent prison conditions are human rights violations. Similarly, the weapons police deploy in the streets prior to caging people are often war crimes. Tear gas, for example, is commonly deployed by police officers in the United States to quell dissent and repress protest. Deploying tear gas is against the Geneva convention. Every time a police officer fires a canister, that police officer and their department, as well as their governmental leadership (such as municipal mayors) are, at the least, complicit in a war crime.
Much of the common conversation on prisons and prison reform seems to center on “private prisons.” However, AWKWORD indicated this is a distraction, as an exceedingly small percentage of prisons are privately owned. Further, even if those private prisons were closed, the incarcerated people in those prisons, disproportionately there for non-violent offenses, would be transferred to a state or federally owned prison, rather than being released.
According to publicly available data, 38.2% of federally incarcerated people committed a category of offense that could reasonably have been a “violent crime.” Those categories are:
- Homicide, Aggravated Assault, and Kidnapping
- Sex Offenses
- Weapons, Arson, and Explosives
Of course, using the broad categories of the offense likely leads to lumping in non-violent offenses that simply fall under those categories.
Not only are incarcerated people often in prison for non-violent offenses, the data shows that, in federal prisons alone, Black Americans are disproportionately incarcerated.
Black people make up 38.2% of the total federal prison population, but only 13.4% of the total United States of America’s population as recorded by the U.S. Census Bureau.
A study by the Vera Insititute of Justice provides a more complete look at prison populations in the United States.
Upon analysis of the following graph, it can be demonstrated that, after the population peak in 2008, the prison populations slightly trended downward during the Obama years and that trend somewhat increased during the Trump years, though COVID-19 clearly played some role.
Private prisons are a very small portion of the total number of prisons in the United States. Even if Biden follows through on his promise to close private prisons completely, it will not change the amount of incarcerated people in this country. Additionally, believing that the author of the 1994 Crime Bill and the legislation that became the Patriot Act would meaningfully act to undo the carceral system he modernized and expanded throughout his career is ahistorical. Even further, according to the list at Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP) website, there are 132 active FBOP facilities. Only 7, or 5.3%, are “private correctional institutions”, aka private prisons. Using figures from both state and federal prisons, private prisons only contain 8.1% of the incarcerated people in the United States as of 2019.
AWKWORD additionally discussed how reforms that “are reformist in nature” serve to “pacify people” and trick liberals into “thinking they’re doing something positive” and lead to increased numbers of incarcerated people that wouldn’t have been criminalized otherwise. Through the advent of electronic monitoring and tracking devices, the carceral state has been unprecedently expanded. The parole system confines people in a pattern of recidivism, as one mistake, one misstep forces them back to prison. People who are released from prison go from an entirely scheduled, restricted, life with no free decisions and extremely limited interaction with other people to an entirely unscheduled, decide everything with no support, deal with tons of people even while doing basic tasks experience. There is no formal support for this psychological shock, and the formerly incarcerated person’s existing support structures from before being in prison will be lessened, if not completely gone. Family may have moved, they will not have the same job or even the same housing arrangements (most likely), and with a record following them, finding new work proves unnecessarily difficult.
“Joe Biden very early on in his tenure said I’m gonna get rid of federal private prisons. But by doing that what he also said was that prison is still the right solution, it’s just not private prisons that are the right solution. And he didn’t tell anyone that all of the people in these private prisons that he may never close in the first place aren’t going to get released, they are just going to go to federal prisons.
This is the same guy who wants to put all of the people who were let out of prison and on at-home incarceration during covid. They’ve proven they can safely be out-he wants to put them all back in prison.”
There was also discussion of the inherent opportunity for abuse and harm due to the power imbalance between the deputized, brutal, agents of the state known as “police officers” and the general public.
“In 35 states across the country it is legal for a cop to have sex with someone in their custody. That is legal rape. They are planting evidence; through qualified immunity they are constantly getting away with everything.”
AWKWORD made an impassioned, evidence-based case that abolition is a moral and civil imperative.
It is important to note: all this brutality and savagery exists under capitalism. The USA has always been capitalist and, short of a worker’s revolution, will always be capitalist. The fearmongering about socialist projects like the U.S.S.R., or China, or Cuba, is just that – fearmongering propaganda. All nations and their people have the right to self-determinate. As such, United States citizens and residents should focus inwards on rebuilding their own society, rather than waging economic, proxy, and/or ground warfare on resource-rich nations that choose to defy the global U.S. military hegemony. The economic engine of capitalism drives this barbarism with human blood and suffering as its fuel.
“While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”Eugene V. Debs