Michael Santos and the Power of the Internet

Michael Santos spent 25 years in jail. When he got out in 2012, he experienced the wonder of the Internet. Writing in Salon:

As a prisoner, I could not access the Web directly. Staff members oversaw policies that placed enormous barriers between the people inside boundaries and society. In the prisons where I served my sentence, prisoners were even prohibited from accessing electronic typewriters. They had their reasons, I suppose, but blocking people inside from using technology did not go far in preparing them for success upon release.  By the late 1990s, I became so hungry to experience this new tool for myself, I created indirect ways to access the Internet. Connecting with society and making efforts to prepare for a law-abiding life upon release was a priority for me, and I had to figure out ways that I could overcome the obstacles imposed by prison rules that blocked prisoners from computers.

After reading numerous magazine articles about how people were launching websites, I wrote out a web design. It wasn’t much. I simply wanted a place to publish essays, articles, and profiles I wrote about other prisoners. I was still a citizen of our democracy, and as such, I felt that I had a duty to share my observations with taxpayers. I sent my web design to people from my support network and they coordinated the development of my first website. It was simple, but it served the purpose of allowing me to use it as a tool to document my journey through prison and to write about the experiences of others. Throughout the final decade of my imprisonment, I published thousands of articles on my website to help others understand prisons, the people they hold, and strategies for growing through confinement.

Perhaps the most remarkable part of his story is that he was publishing important, material work while in prison (linked above) and once he got out of jail, the Internet propagated his discovery.

The San Francisco Chronicle profile of Santos, published last year, is excellent.

William Blake on Solitary Confinement: “A Fate Worse than Death”

William Blake has been held in solitary confinement for almost 26 years. Currently he is in administrative segregation at Elmira Correctional Facility, a maximum security facility located in south central New York State. In 1987, Blake, then 23 and in county court on a drug charge, murdered one deputy and wounded another in a failed escape attempt. Sentenced to 77 years to life, Blake has no chance of ever leaving prison alive, and almost no chance of ever leaving solitary—-a fate he considers  “a sentence worse than death.” In this gripping essay, he describes his experience of solitary isolation and spending time in the Special Housing Unit (SHU):

I’ve experienced times so difficult and felt broken and loneliness to such a degree that it seemed to be a physical thing inside so thick it felt like it was choking me, trying to squeeze the sanity from my mind, the spirit from my soul, and the life from my body. I’ve seen and felt hope becoming like a foggy ephemeral thing, hard to get ahold of, even harder to keep ahold of as the years and then decades disappeared while I stayed trapped in the emptiness of the SHU world. I’ve seen minds slipping down the slope of sanity, descending into insanity, and I’ve been terrified that I would end up like the guys around me that have cracked and become nuts. It’s a sad thing to watch a human being go insane before your eyes because he can’t handle the pressure that the box exerts on the mind, but it is sadder still to see the spirit shaken from a soul. And it is more disastrous. Sometimes the prison guards find them hanging and blue; sometimes their necks get broken when they jump from their bed, the sheet tied around the neck that’s also wrapped around the grate covering the light in the ceiling snapping taut with a pop. I’ve seen the spirit leaving men in SHU and have witnessed the results.

The box is a place like no other place on planet Earth. It’s a place where men full of rage can stand at their cell gates fulminating on their neighbor or neighbors, yelling and screaming and speaking some of the filthiest words that could ever come from a human mouth, do it for hours on end, and despite it all never suffer the loss of a single tooth, never get his head knocked clean off his shoulders. You will never hear words more despicable or see mouth wars more insane than what occurs all the time in SHU, not anywhere else in the world, because there would be serious violence before any person could peak so much foulness for so long. In the box the heavy steel bars allow mouths to run with impunity when they could not otherwise do so, while the ambient is one that is sorely conducive to an exceedingly hot sort of anger that seems to press the lips on to ridiculous extremes. Day and night I have been awakened to the sound of the rage being loosed loudly on SHU gates, and I’d be a liar if I said I haven’t at times been one of the madmen doing the yelling.

Powerful narrative about solitary confinement being worse than death.

An Investigative Look into Solitary Confinement

The mission of the Dart Society is to connect and support journalists worldwide who advance the compassionate and ethical coverage of trauma, conflict and social injustice. In the latest issue, Susan Greene goes in depth reporting on solitary confinement in this country. The investigative piece paints a grim view of solitary confinement. It is difficult for the prisoners, but the reporting was a challenge as well:

Covering solitary is an exercise in inaccessibility.

Reporters’ visits and phone calls are out of the question.

State and county prisoners usually can be glimpsed only by their mug shots. The federal system makes no photos available of the people it locks up or the spaces they inhabit.

Family members can pass along information – if a prisoner chooses not to shield them from what isolation is really like.

“My philosophy is, I don’t care if you have a knife stuck in your back, you tell your mom that you’re okay,” Sorrentino writes. “Seeing how they looked at me on visits, handcuffed, shackled, chained to the floor and behind glass, killed me inside.”

Prison officials don’t help much with transparency or public accountability. They cite pending lawsuits and security risks for refusing to be interviewed. They have scoffed when I’ve asked if they’d consider passing a disposable camera or hand-held recorder to a man who hasn’t been seen or heard from in years. (“What do you think we are — bellhops at the Hyatt Regency?”) Officers are dispatched to berate journalists, even off grounds, for aiming lenses toward their prisons.

And a brief history of solitary confinement:

Solitary confinement was largely unused for about a century until October 1983 when, in separate incidents, inmates killed two guards in one day at the U.S. Penitentiary in Marion, Ill., which had replaced Alcatraz as home to the most dangerous federal convicts. The prison went into lockdown for the next 23 years, setting the model for dozens of state and federal supermaxes – prisons designed specifically for mass isolation — that since have been built in the name of officer safety. “Never again,” promised Reagan-era shock doctrinarians who set out at great cost to crack down on prison violence.

Administered by corrections officials, not judges, solitary confinement is a punishment beyond incarceration, removing prisoners not only from the rest of society, but also from each other and staff. It’s now practiced routinely in federal penitentiaries, state prisons and local jails under a number of bureaucratic labels: “lockdown,” “protective custody,” “strip cells,” “control units,” “security housing units,” “special management units” and “administrative segregation.” Federal justice officials say the different classifications prevent them from keeping track of how many people are being isolated. What is acknowledged even in official records is that the vast majority are men and that rates of pre-existing mental illness exceed the higher-than-average levels in general prison populations.

I loved this excerpt of how one prisoner, Jack Powers, spent his time writing to pass the time:

“I miss being around people. I miss being able to run on the track or walk on grass or feel the sun on my face…One time I kept a single green leaf alive for a few weeks. And one time I had grasshopper for a pet. And one time I made a dwarf tree out of yarn from a green winter hat, paper and dried tea bags. I made a guitar out of milk cartons, and it played quite well. I invented a perfect family – mom, dad and sister – so that we could interact and love one another. One time I wanted to take a bath, so I got into a garbage bag and put water in it and sat there. For a while I made vases out of toilet paper and soap and ink from a pen. I have done a thousand and one things to replicate ordinary life, but these too are now gone.”

Overall, a must-read piece.

The Caging of America

Adam Gupnik, writing in The New Yorker, considers why America locks up so many people in prisons. It’s a lengthy piece that offers some good thoughts on the relationship between incarceration and crime rate. My only regret is that the editing of the piece is a bit shoddy at places (where the reader may get confused with Gupnik’s opinion to that of another writer’s).

First, some startling statistics about the scale of incarceration in the United States:

Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today—perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system—in prison, on probation, or on parole—than were in slavery then. Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height. 

Furthermore,

The accelerating rate of incarceration over the past few decades is just as startling as the number of people jailed: in 1980, there were about two hundred and twenty people incarcerated for every hundred thousand Americans; by 2010, the number had more than tripled, to seven hundred and thirty-one. No other country even approaches that. In the past two decades, the money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education. 

What Charles Dickens wrote about the American prison system upon visiting in 1842:

I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers. . . . I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body: and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay. 

This dichotomy between business and the social good is quite disconcerting:

[A] growing number of American prisons are now contracted out as for-profit businesses to for-profit companies. The companies are paid by the state, and their profit depends on spending as little as possible on the prisoners and the prisons. It’s hard to imagine any greater disconnect between public good and private profit: the interest of private prisons lies not in the obvious social good of having the minimum necessary number of inmates but in having as many as possible, housed as cheaply as possible.

An interesting note about the relationship between increased incarceration and decreased crime rates (there is no conclusive evidence, essentially):

Trends and fashions and fads and pure contingencies happen in other parts of our social existence; it may be that there are fashions and cycles in criminal behavior, too, for reasons that are just as arbitrary.

Finally, there is Franklin E. Zimring’s (author of The City That Became Safe) argument of how crime can be minimized. Curbing crime does not depend on reversing social pathologies or alleviating social grievances; it depends on erecting small, annoying barriers to entry. There is this circular path:  the decreased prevalence of crime fuels a decrease in the prevalence of crime.

The piece is excellent, except for this point made by the author, who thinks that non-violent crime should carry lenient punishment:

No social good is served by having the embezzler or the Ponzi schemer locked in a cage for the rest of his life, rather than having him bankrupt and doing community service in the South Bronx for the next decade or two. Would we actually have more fraud and looting of shareholder value if the perpetrators knew that they would lose their bank accounts and their reputation, and have to do community service seven days a week for five years?

The answer to that question is: absolutely. We need stricter punishments for insider trading because lenient punishments have not been working. How would the thousands of people who were ripped off by Bernie Madoff feel if Madoff’s punishment was doing “community service for five years”?