While reading the Sacramento Bee prison abuse series (9-10 May 2010), I was forced to recall the stretch I served in solitary confinement while incarcerated in the Michigan Department of Corrections. The series reveals some horrible abuses of inmates in California’s prisons, many of which mirror the units we have here in Michigan.
One of the more troubling findings is the lack of redress for prisoners who have been mistreated. When a prisoner’s grievance process is meaningless, or when the grievance is simply never processed, there is no good resolution. Either the prisoner must accept the abuse or find an alternative method of registering his complaint. Often, the alternative method does not work out well.
Beginning my ten-year run in solitary, I was placed next to an inmate called “Brown Dog” who endured the “gas and a cell rush” about three times a week, mostly out of boredom. (By “gas and a cell rush,” I mean a correction officer shooting massive quantities of pepper spray into the cell, opening the door, then a rush of five or six officers – all geared up in helmets, chest protectors, shin shields, and arm padding – who would tackle, twist, and restrain the inmate.) Brown Dog had numerous sheets of paper hanging outside of his cell which I found out later listed restrictions of many sorts. He was not allowed paper in his cell. The water for his toilet/sink fixture was shut off. He was not allowed the three weekly showers everyone else was allowed. He was not allowed to go outside at all, and he was on food loaf, where everything from the meal – say, for instance, ham, yams, two slices of bread, butter, an orange, and red Kool-aid – are blended together into a puree, then baked into a “loaf”. I wondered why he would continue to cause more trouble. “I’m on detention for five more years, and I’ve got nothing better to do,” he’d tell me. Certainly, he had nothing at all to do. He was not allowed anything.
In the many years that followed, I learned how people came to dig such deep holes. Many times I saw simple problems mushroom. If a dinner tray lacked an item, the inmate would request a replacement. If the officer replaced the item, everyone was happy. Sometimes, however, the officer would not. The inmate would ask to speak to the sergeant. The officer would not tell the sergeant. So when the officer came around to pick up the trays, the inmate would refuse to return his tray in an attempt to get the sergeant up onto the cellblock. By this time, of course, the sergeant would come, but he would bring with him the rush squad and a can of pepper spray. Instead of the replacement food item, the inmate received food-loaf for seven, 14, even 30 days.
I don’t know what started Brown Dog down that long road that he traveled, but I have always wondered how many cases such as his could have been stopped if one person had attempted to solve the problem rather than simply resort to force. I don’t pretend that guards are mostly bad and inmates are mostly good. Real life is rarely as simple as that. But many of the problems that crop up in prison could be resolved if the parties involved would muster the effort to try to understand each other. Oft-times, however, those with authority simply choose force.
If we demanded better dispute resolution skills of the officials, we not only might see less need for isolation units but also better outcomes for inmates when they leave. I believe the only way we can achieve that, however, is to improve oversight of those officials we vest with so much power over inmates. The Bee investigation supports this conclusion. And if inmates found that they could achieve a reasonable solution through a grievance procedure instead of having their grievances discarded or ignored, they may choose that route instead of the gas and cell rush method.
By Peter Martel
Criminal Justice Program Associate
American Friends Service Committee
1414 Hill Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48104
Office: 734-761-8283, ext 2