Author, Expert & Speaker

Two Known Channels for ChangeInmates’ voices are muted by the cloak of incarceration. The prison system has no complaint departments. When you complain about having only four minutes to eat a meal, the sickly cynical response of guards is “if you don’t like prison, don’t come here.” Play that around in your brain a few times and see what it feels like. Incarceration can be crazy making. You scratch your head a lot in amazement.

People confined in jails and prisons are stripped of regular exchanges of thoughts and ideas. Prison culture smacks of paramilitarism. However, an organized military trains volunteers toward common goals within the rules of warfare, whereas inmates (nonvolunteers) seek survival by operating within unwritten rules that are not always clear, rules that are based in racism.

If you have a problem in the prison system, you can plead grievances through an administrative system by submitting forms. I successfully helped present a grievance about the accumulation of dust and dirt in the ventilation system that was causing illness in inmates with breathing disorders. It took seven weeks, but the air ducts were cleaned out—for the first time in seven years.

Systemic prison grievances can cause a broad swath of change within prisons in two ways. The first is through the legal process. Inmates communicate to law firms that specialize in the rights of inmates. Specialized law firms carefully screen cases before filing a lawsuit on behalf of an inmate or class of inmates.

One such firm is the Prison Law Office, a nonprofit public interest law firm based in Berkeley, California. Its website provides very informative prison resource materials. The law firm publishes and sells its periodically updated The California State Prisoners Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide to Prison and Parole Law from its website. The guide is an excellent authority on current California law pertaining to incarcerated people.

An example of a lawsuit filed by the , with Cooley LLP and the Law Office of Kendal Dawson, is a case alleging that “the County [of Santa Clara, California,] is using solitary confinement to isolate hundreds of men and women in tiny, concrete jail cells as small as six by seen feet for months or years at a time. The lawsuit further alleges that the County permits people locked in these cramped cells very little human contact, sunlight, fresh air, exercise, or environmental stimulation, which violates the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The lawsuit also alleges a pattern of guard brutality and inadequate health care.”

This lawsuit could take years to litigate, appeal, and ultimately reach a legal conclusion. For example, The US Supreme Court case, Brown v. Plata, 131 S.Ct. 1910 (2011), holding that a court-mandated population limit was necessary to remedy a violation of California prisoners’ Eighth Amendment constitutional rights (against cruel and unusual punishment), was originally filed in 2001 and decided in 2011, a full decade after filing, without alleviating any Eighth Amendment violations until months after the decision was published. Time is of the essence when people are in a forced environment and exposed to cruel and unusual punishment.

The second way grievances ignite change comes through actions by inmates that capture the attention of the media. The 1971 Attica prison riot is an example. records the story:

Prisoners riot[ed] and seize[d] control of the maximum-security Attica Correctional Facility near Buffalo, New York. Later that day, state police retook most of the prison, but 1,281 convicts occupied an exercise field called D Yard, where they held 39 prison guards and employees hostage for four days. After negotiations stalled, state police and prison officers launched a disastrous raid on September 13, in which 10 hostages and 29 inmates were killed in an indiscriminate hail of gunfire. Eighty-nine others were seriously injured.

By the summer of 1971, the state prison in Attica, New York, was ready to explode. Inmates were frustrated with chronic overcrowding, censorship of letters, and living conditions that limited them to one shower per week and one roll of toilet paper each month. Some Attica prisoners, adopting the radical spirit of the times, began to perceive themselves as political prisoners rather than convicted criminals.

On the morning of September 9, the eruption came when inmates on the way to breakfast overpowered their guards and stormed down a prison gallery in a spontaneous riot. They broke through a faulty gate and into a central area known as Times Square, which gave them access to all the cellblocks. Many of the prison’s 2,200 inmates then joined in the rioting, and prisoners rampaged through the facility beating guards, acquiring makeshift weapons, and burning down the prison chapel. One guard, William Quinn, was severely beaten and thrown out a second-story window. Two days later, he died in a hospital from his injuries.

In the aftermath, not much is known about how conditions changed at Attica. Lawsuits were filed by families of both inmates and prison guards. The State of New York dragged out the lawsuits over decades. According to the , “Only in 2000 did the courts finally declare that inmates were ‘treated like garbage’ and award $8 million to families of surviving inmates and hostages.”

More recently, on July 8, 2013, more than 30,000 California prisoners initiated an indefinite hunger strike in response to the state’s prison system’s failure to meet their five core demands. These demands, as recorded by the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity website, became known as the Pelican Bay core demands:

  1. End Group Punishment & Administrative Abuse—This includes the administration’s abusive, pretextual use of “safety and concern” to justify what are unnecessary punitive acts.
  2. Abolish the Debriefing Policy, and Modify Active/Inactive Gang Status Criteria—Perceived gang membership is one of the leading reasons for placement in solitary confinement.
  3. Comply with the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons 2006 Recommendations Regarding an End to Long-Term Solitary Confinement.
  4. Provide Adequate and Nutritious Food—Cease the practice of denying adequate food, and provide wholesome nutritional meals including special diet meals, and allow inmates to purchase additional vitamin supplements.
  5. Expand and Provide Constructive Programming and Privileges for Indefinite SHU [Security Housing Unit] Status Inmates. [SHU is solitary confinement.]

Inmates have two main vehicles for being heard: through the courts and through media attention via civil or criminal insurrection. These methods tap into the compassion of lawyers who care and journalists who shed light on the conditions of more than two million people held in confinement in this country.

Inmates’ voices are well worth hearing. The incessant need to repress and exploit mankind is prevalent inside as well as outside prison walls. Only prison reform will keep prisons sane, safe, and not punitive.

What do you think? Post your opinion in the comments.


Photo: Lance V. Erickson/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Sign up below to receive Mark E. Roseman's blog each week!

Blog Categories

There was an error obtaining the Benchmark signup form. (401) Invalid/Missing AuthToken in request