By Christopher Zoukis

While walking on my prison’s recreation yard yesterday, a man approached me.  He was a casual acquaintance and had questions about how to seek a publisher for a graphic novel that he’s been working on.  Since I do a lot of writing for prison-related outlets (e.g., https://www.prisonerresource.com/ and http://prisonlawblog.com), and used to teach a class on writing here at FCI Petersburg, I have lots of such discussions, even with complete strangers.  While I didn’t know much about publishing graphic novels, I agreed to look into the matter for the man and try to help guide him along in his path as an incarcerated writer.  It reminded me of when I first started writing from my prison cell.

As Americans, we are very used to having information at our fingertips.  Have a question?  Simply power on your laptop and Google it.  It really is that simple.  Don’t have a computer handy?  You could always pick up your cell phone and call someone to point you in the right direction or use your car’s GPS to direct you to your nearest public library.  But what if the library had few books (and almost all of which were trashy fiction)?  What if you didn’t have a car, or a cell phone, or even a computer?  What would you do to find the answer to a fairly simple question like how to publish a novel?

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By Christopher Zoukis

As I write this, I sit at a TRULINCS computer in a federal prison’s housing unit.  A set of in-ear JVC earbuds pump out Bush’s “Reasons” hit.  This is accomplished through the SanDisk MP3 player that the headphones are connected to.  This was not the case when I arrived in the Federal Bureau of Prisons in 2008, and it has greatly improved my quality of life.

Over the past 6 years, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has made leaps and bounds in terms of the technology made available to the inmate population.  Back in 2006 — and in the early 1990s, for that matter — federal inmates were allowed to purchase Sony AM/FM Walkman radios.  These days this radio costs $39.95 from any federal prison’s commissary.  For as long as many prisoners can remember, these radios have been their primary contact with the outside world.  Today they are required to hear the televisions in inmate housing units, which have their speakers removed and are mounted high upon the walls in the housing units.

The technological revolution has also expanded to the Inmate Telephone System, where inmates can now place both collect and debit calls to their friends, family members, and others outside of prison.  Of course, most federal prison telephones now require the inmate to type in a nine-digit security code and state their name.  The name-recognition feature is to ensure that the prisoner attempting to call a particular authorized phone number is actually that prisoner.

While the Federal Bureau of Prisons has most certainly been analyzing these new technologies for quite some time, they have only recently become commonplace in federal prisons across the nation.  In 2012, FCI Petersburg — the medium-security federal prison in Petersburg, Virginia where I am incarcerated — installed Trust Fund Limited Inmate Communication Systems (TRULINCS) computers in every housing unit.  This coincided with the removal of all in-unit washers and dryers.  The trade was a good one.

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By David Reutter

A series of investigative news reports by Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter Joy Lukachick, published from February to December 2013, revealed numerous problems in Georgia’s prison system – particularly at Hays State Prison (HSP), located around 40 miles south of Chattanooga, Tennessee – and resulted in lawsuits, security improvements and the replacement of HSP’s warden.

While violence has increased in Georgia prisons over the last several years, it was not until four HSP prisoners were murdered within a two-month period that the media began to take notice. Prison officials blamed gangs and contraband cell phones for the spike in violence, but guards faulted their bosses, saying they were more focused on their careers than security.

Since 2010, at least 26 Georgia state prisoners have been slain by other prisoners; four HSP prisoners were killed from December 19, 2012 to February 5, 2013 alone.

Non-fatal assaults on staff and prisoners have been increasing, too. The Georgia State Prison has the highest number of incidents, with 251 prisoner-on-staff assaults in 2012 – an average of 21 per month. Guards have reciprocated the violence, reporting 265 uses of force on prisoners over the same time period. The Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison (GDCP) – the state’s highest security facility – reported 86 prisoner-on-staff assaults in 2012, the second-highest in the state.

There were signs of trouble in Georgia’s prison system before the spate of murders at HSP. At Telfair State Prison, two prisoners were killed between August and October 2012, while six prisoners were murdered over two years of escalating violence at Smith State Prison. Further, two guards were stabbed by HSP prisoner Brian Dukes in February 2012, and guard Larry Stell, 46, was murdered in a dormitory area at Telfair on October 11, 2012.

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By Christopher Zoukis / BlogCritics.org

In the world outside of prison, everyone wants to know what others do, where they work, how much they make, where and in what type of house they live, what they drive, and the answers to many other personal identity questions which help us to quantify and categorize others.  These are social signals to those around all of us.  They help us to understand how to treat others, how they compare to us, and a plethora of other interpersonal protocols.  Not very surprisingly, prison is no different.

The Prison Pecking Order

In prison, unlike life “on the street,” social status is not based upon what a fellow prisoner makes or what they do for a living, but what their crime of conviction is, if the fellow prisoner is an informant or not, the group (or “car”) they associate with, and how they carry themselves.  Also unlike the world outside of prison walls, this social status can mean the difference between a life of torment and assault, and a relatively peaceful life, where due respect is proffered by perceived social equals and lesser-thans.  As such, it is vital for new arrivals — and others who want to understand the prison experience — to understand how stratification works in a correctional context.  Doing so will ensure that they maximize their chances of surviving relatively unscathed.

Crime of Conviction: Social Stigmatization at its Best

The convict stratification equation starts, much like many other components of prison life, in a seemingly backward fashion.  When judging a fellow prisoner’s social status, one doesn’t start by thinking of who they are today, but what they did to be locked up in the first place.  This is a common starting point for any evaluation because it helps to quickly — and relatively accurately — quantify complete strangers.  After all, if a fellow prisoner is, for example, doing time for bank robbery, then it can be assumed that he is a traditional convict, schooled in the criminal lifestyle.  On the other hand, if someone is in for wire fraud or embezzlement, then they are probably not considered “good people” — according to the social construction of prison society — and will be categorized as a “citizen,” not a true convict.

The same form of judging occurs with other, less savory crimes, too.  Having an unpopular crime of conviction is a quick path to the lower realms of the prison stratification system.  Those with a criminal history of sexual assault, possession, distribution, or production of child pornography, rape, molestation, and such are deemed in prison to be the lowest of the low.  Those with these types of crimes are almost automatically shunned from Day One, though they can often find a place amongst fellow unsavory types (those many regular prisoners disparagingly call “weirdos”).

The Rat Factor

After this initial evaluation has been figured, the next question — regardless of crime of conviction — concerns if the prisoner in question has testified against anyone else.  This could be in terms of testifying in court (they would be deemed an “informant” in this case) or snitching on their fellow prisoners (they would be deemed a “rat” in this context).  Regardless of crime of conviction, if a prisoner is known to assist law enforcement or the prison authorities, they are deemed to be the lowest of the low.  Add a conviction for an unsavory crime, and any “good con” wouldn’t be seen dead speaking with them, or worse, many might make a point to openly assault such individuals based upon principle.  Whereas in regular American society, those who are a bit odd or disagreeable are avoided, those in prison face a much harder fate: ostracism, shunning, and possible assault (depending on the prison security level in question).

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By Matt Stroud

A few months back, when I first started with In These Times, I had a talk with Logan Sachon at The Billfold about what I intended to do with The Prison Complex and why I find prisons so infuriating and fascinating. It was an enjoyable discussion. But when she asked me, “What do TV and movies get right … and what do they get wrong” about prisons, I admitted I didn’t really know; I’ve never served time in a prison, and anything I possess approaching a journalistic expertise about incarceration comes from what I’ve read, conversations I’ve had, and policy discussions I’ve followed.

So I decided to get in touch with some prisoners to see how they’d answer Logan’s question.

In a partnership with Between the Bars — a fascinating site that allows prisoners to blog about whatever they want — this is the first in a hopefully recurring series of posts by prisoners about their daily lives behind bars. Since we’re just getting started here, the prompt is simple: “What do TV and movies get right and what do they get wrong about prisons?” Our first response comes from Jennifer Gann, a prisoner at Kern Valley State Prison in the desert of Southern California about 45 minutes by car northwest of Bakersfield. Kern Valley is a maximum security facility for men with just about 4,100 prisoners.

Jennifer’s letter has been scanned and posted here. The text of her letter follows:

I’m a 44 year old transgender woman activist and prisoner in California. I have been incarcerated for the past 24 years, and I’ve witnessed every imaginable aspect of the prison system from the inside.

Initially, I was sentenced to “seven years” in state prison after being convicted of a robbery charge. I’ll admit that I’m no angel, but I served the time which fit the crime. I’m a drug addict and ex-gang member who has made a lot of mistakes which I now regret.

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By Christopher Zoukis

Few things in this world anger me more than grown men who attack or torture small animals and think it’s acceptable.  Sadly, I’m often reminded of how much I hate this occurrence due to the apparently large population of animal abusers who reside at FCI Petersburg, the medium security prison in Petersburg, Virginia where I am incarcerated.  Tonight was no exception.

This evening I spent a good two hours playing Ultimate Frisbee on the recreation yard.  At 8 pm, when we finished playing for the night, I was on my way to the gate and had to pass the basketball courts.  I witnessed a grown man, who had just finished playing basketball with his friends, throwing rocks at the sleeping pigeons up in the rafters of the overhanging roof.  Yes, you heard that right, a grown man, with his friends cheering him on, attacking small animals with rocks.  I was furious.

I was so angry I walked right out onto the basketball court and confronted the man.  Obviously not a very good idea, but I couldn’t allow such reprehensible behavior to continue and I didn’t see any of my friends present to back me up.  So, I, the one white guy confronted a group of perhaps eight basketball players.  All of them looked at me as if I was the crazy one since I thought torturing small animals was outside of the range of acceptable conduct.  Perhaps they thought me as crazy for confronting them alone.  Words were spoken and we went our separate ways, but when I left my blood was boiling.

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I’m angry, I can admit it. Today I received a copy of my list of approved visitors in the FCI Petersburg institutional mail. This is commonplace for when new additions are made to a federal prisoner’s visitation list.*1 After all, several weeks ago my aunt and uncle submitted visitation applications so that they could visit…

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By Dr. Elaine J. Leeder

Book review by John E. Dannenberg

Dr. Elaine Leeder, Dean of the of the School of Social Sciences at Sonoma State University, offers a concise, compassionate view of the life and psyche of California prisoners serving term-life sentences. After a long career that has included volunteering to teach prisoners in New York State, and, later, for a decade in San Quentin State Prison, Dr. Leeder has blended her deeply personal humane support of the underdog with her expertise as a sociologist to show that people “thrown away” by society upon being convicted of murder are still people, capable of rehabilitation and eager for the chance to gain the tools for reintegration into society through intensive education while incarcerated.

My Life with Lifers chronicles Dr. Leeder’s interaction with life-sentenced prisoners at San Quentin in a round table discussion group she leads at the facility, called “New Leaf on Life.” Each month, Dr. Leeder brings a guest speaker – a professor or student – to lead the group in discussion on a topic far removed from prison life. The speaker engages the lifers’ minds in thought processes that take them to new levels – daring them to learn, interact in dialogue and yearn to learn more. Many of the prisoners also participated in college-level classes offered by volunteers from a local private university.

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