After reading “Under the Guise of Safety and Security” a friend of mine wondered if I took an unnecessary risk to make my point. I said, “Everything I wrote references events reported in local newspapers. The only thing I did was connect the dots.” Which is true, in addition to my perspective and experiences at Central Prison for context. Is being direct about corruption and abuse risky? Is framing the obvious failings of a dysfunctional and outdated penal system, calling out corrections officials for their complicity in prison violence, and describing things as they really are a gamble? Yes. Any time you live as a member of an oppressed group there is risk in speaking out.
I will not compare myself to any free world journalist because their profession is a bit more removed from the circumstances of a given story. Their “vested interest” in telling the story is new for the sake of news. Mine is not. I wrote about the pattern of prison violence and the NCDPS administration’s response because there is no one representing NC prisoners’ experiences. Not that I presume to be THE representative, merely a man in prison who has the ability to directly express what mainstream media outlets like the Charlotte Observer and Raleigh News & Observer refuse to report. I have a vested interest in the truth of prison conditions being known by the public because this is where I live.
History tells us this is not a new trend. National bipartisan conversations inform us that criminal justice reform is a current hot topic. In 2013, nearly 30,000 people in various California prisons went on a hunger strike to protest the state’s use of solitary confinement (“California Prisoners Launch Biggest Hunger Strike in State’s History,” Guardian, July 9, 2013). In 2016, the largest nationwide prison strike took place – covering 24 states and including up to 24,000 participants – during which incarcerated people staged work stoppages or hunger strikes to object to the unfair use of prison labor, poor wages, abusive guards, overcrowding, and poor health care among other grievances (“This is Slavery: US Inmates Strike in What Activists Call One of the Biggest Prison Protests in Modern History,” Los Angeles Times, Oct 28, 2016).
More recently, in April 2018, a South Carolina prison riot over inhumane conditions left seven dead and 17 injured – all of whom were prisoners – because guards had abandoned the facility. In response to this incident, and consistently degrading prison conditions around the country, in August 2018, prisoners in 17 states began a 21 day labor strike (How a South Carolina Prison Riot Really Went Down,” New York Times, April 28, 2018; “US Inmates Stage Nationwide Prison Labor Strike Over ‘Modern Slavery’” Guardian, Aug 21, 2018).
Local media outlets caught wind of a handful of North Carolina prisoners joining the national prison strike in August. When pressed about it, the NCDPS responded that no strikes had occurred in NC prisons. News and Observer journalists discovered six incarcerated people were sent to the hole for their protests. Three of these people actually created a sign protesting prison conditions and labor practices. However, because the NCDPS claimed no strike occurred, the media went with it and didn’t bother to connect NC’s dysfunctional prison system to the national strike.
Objectivity in reporting is something of a myth. Journalists shape things, or are misinformed, and quite often fail to do adequate research. In my writing I strive for objectivity, but realize many readers will only view it, and me, as a product of incarceration. So be it. I will continue to exercise my First Amendment right and hope it is not as hollow as the Thirteenth Amendment’s prohibition against slavery.