A Day In The Life Of An American Dungeon – Part 1

Read Part 2

By Eric Le Roy

Content 21+ I am not going to make a habit of writing a rebuttal to every one of Mr. Anderson’s essays, but I am going to do it this time – using language as restrained as I can, as a counter to Mr. Anderson’s sophomoric hyperbole that he named “A Profitable Plague”. If you haven’t read the article, it is a scathing rant about the American way of dispensing injustice and incarcerating the ‘innocent’. His descriptions range from the garish to the ghoulish.

To demonstrate what I mean, let’s revisit the first paragraph: 

“In the underbelly of civilization, a festering sore festers, nurtured not by justice, but by the insatiable hunger for profit. The prison industrial complex, a vile concoction of corporate greed and state-endorsed brutality, thrives on the torment of human souls. Beneath the façade of law and order lies a thriving industry built upon the suffering of the downtrodden, the marginalized, and the discarded.”

Any serious writer will immediately recognise the tabloid-level hysteria of this Purple Prose: underbelly, festering sore festers (Hey, if it is a ‘festering’ sore, what else would it do but fester?) insatiable hunger for profit, vile concoction, state-endorsed brutality, torment of human souls….

And that is just the first paragraph.

The ‘thesis’ (I guess) of this diatribe is that the United States government imprisons its own citizens for the sole purpose of making money for the Big (White) Boys at the Top. This ‘cesspool of corruption”, this ‘epidemic of mass incarceration’, ‘this infernal enterprise’, etc., etc.,  amounts to nothing more than a callous coalition of  cramped and cold-blooded concentration camps (how’s that, Mr. Anderson?) whose speciality is (what else?) the further enslavement of ‘Black and Brown bodies’ in these ‘dungeons.’

There is only so much of this palpitating bullshit I can stand. Let’s set the record straight.

First, the jails and prisons. Every county in every state in the Union has a jailhouse where people arrested for anything from trespassing to murder are initially kept. Minor offenders can bail out if they can make bond. Most can, but a lot of the dopers and real low lifes can’t – not because of their color but because they have no friends and their ‘families’, want nothing to do with them. So they sit for a spell until their court date, usually about a month, no more, unless they ask the public defender for a delay. During their ‘stay’ they receive the traditional ‘three hots and a cot” (three meals and a small bed). They can shower any time they want.

No electrodes. No waterboarding. No choke holds.

When they come for their date in court, we next enter the phase of the “Great American Plea Bargain.”

Every person accused of a crime in the United States is “innocent until proven guilty” according to the law of the land. OF COURSE, this has not prevented terrible injustices from occurring, because – as with every government and system in the world – the process invariably favors the rich over the poor. It is hardly endemic to America alone. Nor will I ever say that Black people (or Brown ones, Mr. Anderson) have traditionally been given a fair shake. Jim Crow racism that was pervasive in the US and especially in the Deep South continued right on up to — and a bit beyond – the Civil Rights legislation of 1964.

Unlike in places like Russia, where acquittals are almost unheard of, in America the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ concept means, not that the accused must prove his innocence, but rather that the state must prove his guilt ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ (which is not as ambiguous as it seems. It involves, in the absence of eye witnesses, the presence of DNA and other clues, motive and opportunity, etc all of which fall under the heading of ‘circumstantial evidence’.)

Does it always play out fair and square? Of course not but it usually does, and that’s the idea.

A defendant can only remain in a country jail for 364 days. If he is sentenced to a prison term, he then is transferred to one of the state facilities. If he is a murderer, he goes to a maximum security prison; if he is an embezzler or something considered ‘non-violent’ he may be sent to a minimum security prison. There are also Federal Prisons, not for political prisoners and journalists, as in Mr. Putin’s Russia, but rather for criminals such as drug traffickers who cross state lines in commission of their crimes or true blue terrorists who have blown up buildings and all the people inside – not peaceful protestors. In regular penal institutions, the inmate, while he/she is there, is afforded plenty of chances for education and rehabilitation.  There are opportunities for early release (for good behavior) or parole, depending on both the severity of the crime and also the record of recidivism of the inmate. If he is a multiple time offender, he may not get out very soon.

So let’s fast forward to the morning of his court appearance. His lawyer (usually a public defender if the accused is poor – but a qualified jurist nonetheless) will approach the State Attorney and the two of them will play “Let’s make a deal”.  Now let’s imagine that Willie Washington (Black) or Hoss Parker (White) is accused of Grand Theft Auto, possession of marijuana and a small amount of cocaine, drug paraphernalia (likely a crack pipe), running a traffic light, resisting arrest,and fleeing the scene of a crime. 

It sure sounds bad for Willie or Hoss, doesn’t it? But, you see, the jails and prisons are already overcrowded, and maybe Willie and Hoss, while not exactly angels, have never done anything ‘really serious’. So a deal is made. IF Willie will plead guilty to stealing the car, the state is willing to drop the other charges. Willie, especially if by chance he is a first time offender, will be credited with time already served while awaiting his date before the judge, and offered an additional six months in the slammer followed by a two year probation period and a fine. 

But Willie (or Hoss) must accept the deal. If he proclaims his innocence and demands a trial by jury, he has a constitutional right to have one, BUT if convicted he will go down on all the counts – all six or seven – currently against him. That’s the plea bargain – “Take it or leave it, Hoss.”  So if he is found guilty, he will face 10-12 years in the state dog pound. After reflecting for about 5 seconds: six months or 12 years? – the bad boy cops a plea.  The state wants a conviction and Hoss wants to ‘walk’ in a few months, so he accepts the deal. 

THIS is commonplace justice in America, NOT beatings, dungeons, freezing cold showers, time in the  ‘Hole’ (solitary).  Millions of Americans are currently on Probation or suspended sentences. Prison is for serious offenders, and most of them belong there. 

And there is no question that prison can be a terrifying experience for a lot of inmates. “Watch your cheeks” doesn’t mean apply skin cream for facial acne; it means don’t  let another guy put his dick in your ass – in other words, don’t let yourself get raped. There are gangs in prison, apparently there are also plenty of drugs. In Stony Lonesome you find guys who are deadly, who would kill you at the drop of a hat. But you also find guys who just want to do their time and get out. There is a saying in prison: ”Either YOU do the Time, or the TIME does You.”  It means adapt, figure out how not only to survive but live to your advantage in adverse circumstances. Otherwise, sit there and sob. The months and years will pass at their own speed no matter how you feel.

Of course prisons are terrible places. Isn’t that the idea? A blend of punishment and the chance for rehabilitation? Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Moreover, life outside is hard for an ex-con. It is difficult to find a job when you have a rap sheet, and that’s why a lot of guys go back to the only thing they know, which is crime.

Some American states (a majority) have capital punishment (Death by mandate of the State), but it takes forever to carry out the sentence due to the Appellate courts. Men (and women) can sit on Death Row for years and years. A guy who commits murder at age 19 may be  executed when he is 32. Yeah – that sucks on all counts. And true enough, Anderson, the lawyers get rich, and maybe that 19 year old hoodlum is now a stand up guy. Too late. But never too late for the family of the person or people he killed back in the days when he was a gangbanger asshole. Too late for society but not too late for the Lord, they tell him.  A lot of guys get religion in prison and some of them actually mean it. Some are back on the street for a week and they tell God to take a Hike. Some guys are incorrigible.

They used to hang people and then along came the gas chamber and the electric chair. The Chair (“You’ll get the Chair for that, Muldoon!”) – otherwise known as Old Sparky – was a real bitch. If the authorities messed up the procedure, the guy being fried could have smoke coming out his ears. They would blindfold him, not so he couldn’t see what was going on, but to cover the mess if his eyes exploded and popped out of his head. Those were the Good Old Days. Now they use ‘lethal injection’ (“You’ll get the Needle for that, Muldoon!”) and before they sink the decisive dose into the ‘Dead Man Walking’ of an hour ago, they give him a tranquilizer to calm him down. A real sweetheart deal, if you ask me.