By Jess Goulart
Photo courtesy of Chris Miller.
“When someone new showed up to the housing area, seven or eight guys would go to the door and yell ‘yo you bangin?’ Which is code for ‘are you down with a gang?’”
If he answers “yeah” but then names a rival gang, he gets beat up right at the door.
Freddie Medina describes a recurring violent incident he witnessed while incarcerated at Clinton Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in upstate New York, and at Riker’s Island in the city. Medina is charismatic, soft-spoken, and funny–not exactly the type you’d think capable of fashioning a knife from a razor. But in prison, he says, it was necessary.
“Everyone has a knife. If you don’t you’re a target,” he adds. “I couldn’t even smile ever, because smiling is a sign of weakness.”
Medina says he experienced some form of violence every day, a claim that aligns with recent reports of increasing bloodshed behind bars.
One such report was released by The Southern Center for Human Rights in July. It shows a steady rise in homicides occurring in Georgia prisons over the past four years, and details the abysmal negligence on the part of the state institutions towards prevention measures.
Within it there are 33 descriptions of inmate-on-inmate homicides since 2010, plus countless instances of horrific in-prison crimes. For example, in January 2014, a man was airlifted out of Coffee Correctional Facility because he suffered not only from being bound with tape and beaten with a bar, but having bleach poured into his eyes and boiling water onto his face and genitals. In February of 2014, a man had three fingers severed by a 19-inch knife. Similar instances are reported countrywide.
When told about the scalding water, Medina nods his head and says, “yeah that’s normal at Rikers because everyone gets a hot pot with 190 degree water, so if there’s ever a riot that’s the second thing people go for. The first thing they go for is their shank.”
The Georgia report puts forth several remedial actions that can be taken immediately to quell the brutality, like outside evaluations of prison conditions rather than in-house inspections. It also outlines some safety goals that will require resources and time, including the fixing of hundreds of broken cell door locks that allow prisoners unsupervised access to one another, and the strict regulation of cell phones.
Sarah Geraghty, senior attorney at the Center, tells BTR another serious problem is how non-violent offenders learn to react with violence when placed into the prison environment.
“I’ve had people tell me they assaulted others in order to gain protection,” she says. “But what’s even more serious is prisoners will sometimes ask for protective custody, like locks on their doors, and they won’t get it. So they act in the only way they know how.”
Medina agrees, explaining that prison violence is rarely because inmates ever actually want to hurt each other. Rather, if they’re not on the offense, it’s read as sign of weakness and vulnerability, and it puts their lives at risk.
It’s a vicious cycle. Although the Center is confident that their suggestions will have some effect, therapy sessions that help council inmates on how to curb their aggression and learn self-awareness are omitted from their remediations.
“In theory I think those things are important,” says Geraghty, “but in practice I have significant doubts about the quality of those services in prisons. I think the department would have to put a lot of resources into ensuring that those were worthwhile counseling sessions.”
It’s unfortunate that financing is a restricting factor, since a recent comprehensive study by Mark Lipsey of Vanderbilt University found that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) had the greatest success of myriad remedial measures in reducing young convicts’ tendencies towards further criminal behavior. CBT deals with the two aspects of its namesake. First, how patients think about the world, and second, how those thought processes make them react to it.
CBT focuses on a person learning to recognize the environmental triggers that make them react inappropriately and adjust their behavior. It corrects egocentric distortions in thinking, like the inability to consider the effects of one’s own behavior. The therapy also works against subjects’ tendency to view violence as the only means to go about obtaining their wants.
In 2012, the Justice Action published a report as part of their Justice Reform Initiative that detailed several experiments examining the use of CBT in prisons systems. All results found CBT significantly reduced recidivism over an average of 26 months post-release. Reports from offenders who continued with CBT showed significant improvement in problem solving and interpersonal relationships.
The drawbacks of CBT outlined in the studies are, as Geraghty suggested, primarily resource related, but Medina points out another challenge.
“It would only work if people are into it… [and] for those that really want it. But the prison system itself, mind you, is the worst of the worst,” he says. “There might be a small percentage of non-violent offenders that made a small mistake, but the majority is just ruthless.”
Nevertheless, without some form of therapy offered to inmates, perhaps we’re merely treating the symptoms, and not the cause, of violence in prisons.