The images are seared into our collective memory: prisoners scooting on their bellies, cowering from blackjack-wielding prison guards and trying, sometimes unsuccessfully to avoid the ripping jaws of frenzied German Shepherds straining at leashes to tear human flesh.
If you saw this dark, disturbing spectacle, broadcast on several television networks, you saw the naked face of the ballooning American imprisonment industry: corporations in the business of containment.
In a nation where the prevailing ideology is the attainment and dominance of capital, the entry of the unbridled forces of the corporation into the prison is deeply disturbing. For what can be the future of incarceration, when the underlying motive is profit? Under a regime where more bodies equal more profits, prisons take one big step closer to their historical ancestor, the slave pen.
This is not a mere rhetorical exercise. It happened in September of 1996, when the Sheriff of Brazoria Country, Texas contracted with a private prison company to run a 512- bed wing of his jail. The company, Capital Correctional Resources, Inc. (CCRI), brought in former Texas Department of Corrections personnel to both administer and man the unit.
Some of the CCRI staff had known prior felony convictions for assaulting prisoners. Many of them had no prior correctional experiences whatsoever. At Brazoria Country Sheriff Joe King's request a former Texas prison warden, Ray Crawford, was hired and assigned to head the CCRI unit. When a group of Missouri prisoners arrived, they behaved in what was described as a "boisterous" and "unruly" manner. Warden Crawford asked Sheriff for help, and King threatened to unleash his "Ninja Squad" if folks didn't calm down.
Several days later CCRI guards claimed to have smelled marijuana smoke in one of the pods of the unit. They used this as a justification to storm the unit with and Emergency Response Team squad armed with stun guns, pepper gas canisters, black jacks and a police dog. When they hit the unit, they shut off the ventilation system to facilitate the dispersal of the searing gas. Prisoners were thrown to the floor, ordered to crawl on their bellies, single file, out of the block. Even though they immediately complied, they were cursed, kicked and suffered other physical abuse. Men were stripped and searched, and their clothes were thrown in a pile. The waited, naked, for hours while the search went on. Their efforts netted a marijuana roach, which has since disappeared.
The Emergency Response Team struck another pod with the same tactics of prisoners who were shown on videotape doing nothing more than playing cards when the raid came. Tear gas was shot into the pod and prisoners where shocked with stun guns, kicked and beaten and bitten by dogs.
When prisoners filed suit, the videotapes went a long way towards supporting their claims. When the civil defendants moved for summary judgement in the case, the court denied their motion. In an extraordinary opinion spoke harshly of the private prison industry:
[I]n the past eight years this Court cannot remember a single claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress that its has allowed to go to the jury. However this case presents a factual scenario this Court has not confronted before. If the facts are as the Plaintiffs (prisoners) allege them to be, then this Court cannot recall a series of events as utterly barbaric as those now before it.
As to the issue of private prisons in general the court seemed on surer ground, evoking an opinion that was unusually critical for an inherently conservative jurist:
Ensuring the safety of inmates and personnel while respecting the essential rights of the inmates is difficult for experienced, skilled and conscientious officers and administrators. Unfortunately, many factors may combine to drain those qualities out of the available pool from which private prison companies draw their personnel. Although such corporations potentially could help alleviate the very real problem of overcrowding in the federal and state prison systems, they are still in the business of making a profit. Experience, training and temperament may become expendable virtues when their associated costs threaten the bottom line (emphasis added)...
Plaintiffs have produced evidence that they were kicked, bitten and shocked. They have produced evidence that they were forced to strip naked in groups and subjected to full cavity searches, many of them conducted in full view by prison staff with absolutely not training or experience in executing such searches. They have produced evidence that at least a dozen inmates suffered vicious and unprovoked beatings at the hands of CCRI personnel and that grievances filed in every single instance with Brazoria County officials produced no response.
Evidence such as this produces a grim picture of the actions of the Defendants. If Brazoria County and its officials choose to farm out a portion of the jail to some quack private prison corporation in return for substantial profits for housing another state's inmates, that is a matter between them and their citizens. If, however, there is evidence that those Defendants have utterly abandoned their duty to safeguard the essential human rights of these inmate commodities, that is a matter between them and this United States District Court.
Such a judicial opinion, given its stark honesty and critique of the central capitalist concern, profit, is a rare event in U.S. jurisprudence. Yet it is a beginning. Activists must utilize this example and artifacts that remain available from this brutal and "barbaric" example to educate, agitate and eradicate this growing menace from the public-corporate environment. Those involved in a critical and oppositional stance to this emerging shotgun marriage of capital and corrections would do well to exploit this case to illuminate the evils that lurk at the very heart of the human encagement industry, and infects the entire enterprise.
As the videotape was entered into evidence of this case, it is now a public document and is available (at cost) upon request from: Clerk's Office, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Texas, Houston, TX 77208.
The full text of the summary judgement ruling is recording in the following case citation: Kesler v. King, 29 F. Supp. 2d 356 (S.D. Texas, 1998.)
The writer is indebted to Prison Legal News for reporting on this case.
Further reading on Mumia Abu-Jamal: